Put aside policy and ideology for a second (difficult, we know) and consider only aesthetics: the overall look and vibe of Trump himself, his presidency, his reelection campaign and his fans’ support.
Americans have been familiar with his personal aesthetic for decades: the gold, the braggadocio, the huckster superlatives, the reality-TV staging, the all-encompassing obsession with his surname. But for nearly four years, the Trump Aesthetic has clashed (or fused?) with the U.S. presidency, each marking the other with a stamp that won’t soon fade.
Trump with his gold block lettering. Trump with his hatchet signature in thick black marker. Trump hugging and kissing an American flag. Trump presenting piles of lukewarm Big Macs on silver trays in the State Dining Room. Trump tossing paper towels to hurricane-stricken Puerto Ricans like a hype man chucking souvenir T-shirts at a minor-league ballpark. Trump punctuating the announcement of a news conference by saying, “Enjoy!” as if he’s a maitre d’ instead of commander in chief. Trump wearing a drooping white vest, three inches too long, to meet Queen Elizabeth II. Trump’s campaign offering a gold-colored “LIMITED-EDITION Trump 1000 Dollar Bill” as an enticement to donors (“JOIN & CLAIM NOW”). Trump ranting to rallygoers about how toilets just don’t flush like they used to.
And, of course, the tweets. The childish grammar, frenzied punctuation, needless capital letters, the amplification of trollish memes and conspiracy-minded superfans whose Twitter profiles look like “Patton” meets “Dungeons and Dragons.”
At the start of the administration, technologist and activist Russel Neiss created a Twitter bot that put Trump’s tweets onto virtual White House letterhead. (An example from two years ago: Trump, in a “Statement by the President,” calling his alleged porn-star paramour a “Horseface.”)
“Some folks incorrectly have referred to the bot as an ‘anti-Trump’ account,” Neiss says by email, “but the truth is the dissonance comes from the words chosen by the President simply being juxtaposed in their traditional form. It’s apparent to anyone that this is not normal.”
The Trump Doctrine might be “America First,” but what exactly is the Trump Aesthetic? “Precision Last”? “Not Normal”? Is it “Alice in Wonderland,” as his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, implied to the journalist Bob Woodward — a bizarre, whipsawing picaresque?
The topic is certainly a rabbit hole. Let’s jump down it.
The Obama Aesthetic was an icy-hot blend of ardent hope and restrained cool. The Reagan Aesthetic was denim fortitude in the morning light. Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush exuded Texan howdiness, often as a strategy. The Kennedy Aesthetic (ivy-twined and patrician) became the Kennedy Mystique (memories of Camelot). The Nixon Aesthetic was Quaker paranoia, a combination of austerity and arrogance that corrupted the presidency, but he still had respect for the trappings of the office.
And Trump’s? How do we define it, nearing the end of his first term?
“Unrelentingly crass,” says Debbie Millman, chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “I was trying to think of how I would describe it, in design terminology. And I’ve come up with ‘dictator chic.’ ”
“It’s vulgar and hideous and stupid,” says Michael Bierut, who designed the arrowed “H” logo for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and is a senior critic in graphic design at the Yale School of Art. “It’s filled with grammatical errors and inappropriate capitalizations and hideous typefaces. Gross color combinations, horrible uses of scale. Everything is awful, awful, awful.”
“And there’s someone out there who would be delighted to hear that it was offending someone who says, on his résumé, that he’s a senior critic at the Yale School of Art.”
Is the Trump Aesthetic simply “offend all other aesthetics”? This is a tricky subject. One man’s dumpy casino is another’s ritzy mecca.
This is where we get into uncomfortable questions about education, class, upbringing and values. While Trump’s matrilineal ancestors were farming in rural Scotland in the 18th century, a minister and professor named Hugh Blair was in Edinburgh writing about taste. Few things separate humans more, Blair thought, than their individual senses of taste.
“In some men only the feeble glimmerings of Taste appear; the beauties which they relish are of the coarsest kind; and of these they have but a weak and confused impression,” Blair wrote in 1787, “while in others, Taste rises to an acute discernment, and a lively enjoyment of the most refined beauties.”
Two centuries later, to the horror of preservationists, a 34-year-old Donald J. Trump pulverized the art-deco remains of a Bonwit Teller storefront (“junk,” he called it) to make way for Trump Tower, his ultimate landmark, on Fifth Avenue.
“Mr. Trump may assume that esthetic vandalism soon vanishes from civic memory,” the New York Times wrote in June 1980, but “big buildings do not make big human beings. Nor do big deals make art experts.”
The gold lettering on the front of the building was a slab-serif font titled Stymie Extra Bold. Architect Der Scutt wanted to temper its boldness by keeping its height to 17 inches, to complement the elegance of Tiffany and Co. nearby. Trump went behind his back and doubled the height, according to a 2009 interview with Scutt in Design Observer.
After the Tower opened in 1983, the Times’s architecture critic articulated a quality in the building that presaged the presidency of its namesake: Trump Tower was more concerned with its own flair than visual harmony with its surroundings.
Is that, in the end, the Trump Aesthetic? Stand out, no matter what?
"Donald has no aesthetics. You have to realize that."
We have architect Alan Lapidus on the phone, from his home in Maine. His father, Morris, designed buildings for Fred Trump in New York, and Lapidus designed buildings for Donald. Fred built his outer-borough apartment buildings with Hudson River brick: sturdy, plain, inexpensive and middle-class. Donald wanted to do the opposite of his father, Lapidus says. This meant steel, glass, glitz, height, filigree, Manhattan. He wanted to convey excess and wealth, but on the cheap.
This is not an aesthetic, Lapidus emphasizes. It is a gimmick.
“He wants to go for the glittery, for the gold, for the surface rather than the substance, and that’s what he’s doing in the presidency,” Lapidus says. “He’ll make some ridiculous statement because on the surface it sounds good, and two days later it turns out to be nonsense.”
If anything, the Trump Aesthetic is a celebration of hyperbole. In his own words, and among his followers, Trump is a superhero who vanquishes and protects. His aesthetic is often a collaboration between the president and his fans, a validation loop that can produce a video of Trump’s head animated onto the body of the alien-fighting president from “Independence Day” just as naturally as a lithograph depicting Trump as George Washington — his foot on the bow of a rowboat, bravely “crossing the swamp.”
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My new painting – “Crossing the Swamp” “Never give up. Never lower your light. Never stop till the swamp is dry.” • • •#conservativeandproud •#proudrepublican •#americafirst🇺🇸 •#proudamerican •#trumpsupporters •#trump🇺🇸 •#republicanpride •#conservativemovement •#americanartist •#americathegreat
The font for Trump’s campaign logo, according to Hunter Schwarz at Yello, is Akzidenz Grotesk Bold Extended, which is a fitting assemblage of adjectives. The White House’s official videos are like slick trailers for action movies: dramatized by slow-motion and Steadicam, narrated by an on-script Trump, and scored by epic strings, brass and percussion.
The unifying vibe?
Now we have two Trump campaign officials on the phone, talking about the Trump Aesthetic as it relates to his reelection effort. (They would speak only on the condition of anonymity, which — fine. Whatever. This isn’t life or death.)
“Overall, it’s strength and looking forward,” the first official continues. “I don’t mean strength like we’re gonna come beat you up. I — ”
“I think it’s achievement,” the second official interjects.
“Maybe confident is the right word.”
“Achievement, optimism and confidence.”
“Actually, I don’t like strength, because it connotes military.”
“It could mostly be boiled down to America First.”
Artist Scott LoBaido sees that strength. That’s why he has painted Trump with muscles, acrylic on canvas — not because Trump has muscles, but because he evokes muscles.
“I get heat all the time: ‘He doesn’t look like that. He’s a fat guy,’ ” says LoBaido, who lives and works on Staten Island. “I say, ‘Listen, it’s not what he looks like. America voted for strength.’ ”
Milwaukee artist Matt Kuhlman sees white-male strength. Kuhlman once conned a pro-Trump art collective into accepting an absurd collage jammed with guns, breasts, explosions and multiple guitar-playing Trumps — a work of satire that also could be interpreted as a fan’s sincere celebration.
“Aesthetic judgments are a set of hierarchical thinking where you say, ‘This is desirable, and this is not desirable,’ ” Kuhlman says. The president’s flag-draped macho-ness, the “get these punks outta here” attitude, the attempt to smear or invalidate any accomplishment of President Barack Obama’s — “it’s all centered around White maleness,” he says.
But in July, when Kuhlman saw a photo of Trump bestowing an array of Goya products with a double thumbs-up from behind the Resolute Desk, he assumed it was satire.
“I thought somebody had done a troll Photoshop job, inserted the beans to make him look stupid,” Kuhlman says. “That’s where we are.”
Last week, after news broke that Trump had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, his reelection campaign disseminated an image of the president with a large gold cartoon trophy pasted shoddily between his hands. It was both amateurish and deceptive. The image solicited supporters to "nominate President Trump now" — by donating to his campaign. The Peace Prize is actually a small medal, nominators are a select group and being nominated carries no special distinction, least of all a Wimbledon-size trophy. No matter. (Some iterations even misspelled Nobel as "Noble.")
“Trump’s aesthetic is an anti-aesthetic,” says Millman, of the School of Visual Arts. “That anti-aesthetic is based on things that are phony, things that are tacky, things that are ultimately lies. So that is reflecting the condition of our culture.”
Matthew Ipcar’s problem with Trump’s is not that the aesthetic is chaotic, hamfisted or low-rent. It’s that it disguises a more-defined ideology.
“If I’m honest with myself, when I look back to my favorite bits of Obama fan art, they’re always the rogue pieces: like Obama riding a unicorn shooting rainbow lasers from his palms,” Ipcar, a designer who worked on the presidential campaigns of Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, said via email. “So it’s not completely about class or aesthetics or visual precision for me. There’s a lot of really ugly stuff on our side that I absolutely love. It’s the message below the surface of the Trump stuff that leaves me aghast.”
And the aesthetic that conveys the message is fascist in nature, says Jennifer R. Mercieca, author of “Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.” She singles out an image posted to the president’s official Facebook account the night he was impeached. It’s a photo of a confident and glowering Trump, pointing at the viewer, framed by crude block lettering that says:
THEY’RE NOT AFTER ME
THEY’RE AFTER YOU
I’M JUST IN THE WAY
“Everything is black and white, it’s us-versus-them, ‘I’m the only thing that stands between you and them, they’re out to get you, you owe me,’ ” says Mercieca, a professor of rhetoric at Texas A&M University. “That note of sacrifice is usually part of fascist rhetoric. And there it is in an image.”
When presented with the main points of this story, the White House offered this: “President Trump can best be described as patriotic, fearless, and unapologetically himself. He’s a fighter who will stop at no cost to deliver results for the American people and his long list of achievements prove his methods work.”
At the climax of the RNC, that message emerged loud and clear from the aesthetic blur: Trump is ultimately himself, damn the democratic norms and standards of good taste. His political convention was held at the White House, in an ominous fusion of executive power and politicking. His own address was a medley of lies gilded with hyperbole and foreboding. And directly behind the presidential seal, which was affixed to the Blue Room balcony, was his entertainment: a wedding-reception muddle of pop hymn, patriotic anthem and hoi-polloi opera.
The songs were performed in the 8 o’clock hour, and then Trump requested an impromptu encore after his speech, according to tenor Christopher Macchio. The singer’s voice was shot, but he summoned inspiration from the night’s aesthetic of “triumphalism,” encapsulated in the final lyric of “Nessun Dorma”: “Vincerò!” or “I will win!”
Afterward, the president sent Macchio a typewritten thank-you note, on White House stationery, that referred to his performance as “breathtaking.” The grandiose adjective, by itself, was not enough. Trump had underlined it in Sharpie.