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It is a triumphant image: President Trump, smiling and giving a thumbs-up to the camera, flanked backstage at a MAGA rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., by a team of confidants: oldest son Donald Jr., former campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, and Fox News host Pete Hegseth, once considered for a Cabinet post.
The president’s surrogates promptly posted the photo on Twitter last week — an emblem of nostalgia for Trump’s 2016 election and a projection of confidence ahead of 2020.
Yet the image also symbolized a subtext of the Trump presidency: In picture after picture, emanating from the most exclusive corridors of American political power, Trump is seen with a team of aides and advisers that is almost exclusively white — a vivid, if unspoken, statement of the distance between the president and wide swaths of a nation that is growing increasingly and rapidly more diverse.
To a degree, the photos are simply a reflection of what is already well known: Trump lacks racial diversity among his senior staff and Cabinet. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has been the only African American in the top ranks of the administration since the departure in December 2017 of White House senior adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former reality television star.
But for a president whose agenda has centered largely on undoing the legacy of his White House predecessor, Barack Obama, the procession of daily images has served to reinforce the notion that the era of the nation’s first black president is over.
“The backdrop to this visual representation of Trumpism is ‘Make America Great Again,’ a nostalgic longing for a period in which whiteness and white people didn’t feel threatened,” said Eddie Glaude Jr., chairman of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. “For eight years, we had young Americans from all walks of life looking to the seat of American power and seeing a black family and seeing diversity in all its fullness occupy the White House. In some ways, just as Trump’s policies have sought to erase Obama’s policy legacy, the images coming out of the White House aim to erase eight years of the visual black presidency.”
The images range from official events and bilateral meetings to informal social gatherings among the president’s staff. They are taken by news photographers, White House staff photographers and Trump aides, who post the shots on social media.
They add up to a panorama of a president who has shown almost no compunction to appoint a diverse team. Fifteen white men and four white women are among the 22 Cabinet-level positions, along with Carson, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is Asian American, and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who is Latino.
In the West Wing, Trump’s two dozen highest-paid senior staff members are all white, except White House director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp, who is Cuban American.
(Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and White House legislative director Shahira Knight are of Middle Eastern descent, which the U.S. Census Bureau defines as white.)
In the photos, there is Trump, flanked by eight white, male aides, negotiating a trade deal with senior Chinese officials in the Oval Office in late January. There he is at a bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Diplomatic Room in March, with 10 white aides seated next to him. There he is at a lectern in the Rose Garden last fall announcing a trade deal with Mexico and Canada, with more than two dozen aides behind him, almost all of them white.
And there he is seated at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, with Schlapp and seven white aides — including his daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner — after a prime-time address in January during which he warned of the dangers of immigrants from Central America and called on Congress to support a border wall.
“We are all on the right side of history! #FACT,” Dan Scavino Jr., the White House social media director, wrote as a caption to that photo on Instagram.
Cleveland-based pastor Darrell Scott, one of Trump’s most prominent African American supporters, said the photos are deceptive because the president “has a lot of unofficial advisers. I don’t work for the White House, but I work with the White House. If I had desired a position, the president would have given me one.”
Trump has often touted the nation’s low unemployment rate as evidence that he is delivering results on behalf of minorities and women. On Monday, the president joined several African American ex-offenders, who embraced him in the East Room during a celebration of the passage last fall of criminal justice legislation.
Ja’Ron Smith, a special assistant to Trump on domestic policy, the highest-ranking black official in the Executive Office of the President, was in attendance, as were other prominent African Americans, including CNN commentator Van Jones, who worked with the White House on the issue.
Scott, who has met with Trump several times to discuss criminal justice policy and urban revitalization, said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders asked him last year how to get more black people to work for the administration.
Scott added that some have been intimidated by the black community who “bought into and believed the narrative of racism. Anyone who supports Trump is vilified, called an ‘Uncle Tom’ or a sellout or a race traitor.”
Sanders and other White House officials declined to comment.
But to Rachel E. Dubrofsky, an associate professor of communications at the University of South Florida, the images are potent not simply because of the lack of minority faces. All administrations, even Obama’s, struggled to diversify their ranks, she noted. Obama faced criticism early in his second term over an absence of women in senior national security positions.
Rather, she said, what the photos illustrate about the Trump White House is “how unselfconscious the choices for members of the administration have been when it comes to issues of race and gender.”
The Trump administration “does not try to assuage concerns about diversity and representation,” said Dubrofsky, whose work has examined popular culture, race and gender. “In fact, it frames any attempt to address these types of issues, levied by critics of the administration, as dangerous calls to political correctness that undermine equal rights. The shift we are seeing is with an unapologetic, aggressive and proud whiteness.”
Images posted by Trump’s aides on social media of more informal, behind-the-scenes moments also present a visual statement on race.
In the pictures, the aides are reveling in the trappings of power, projecting an entitlement bestowed by their proximity to Trump. They are casually dressed on the darkened streets of Paris; turned out in tuxedos and, for Sanders, a blue gown for a gala dinner in London; and huddled for a group shot at a farewell party for Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director.
“Air Force One just landed back in Washington, D.C. with my great team!” Trump wrote in a caption of an Instagram photo of 11 white aides on the presidential jet after a summit in February with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi.
“He is governing only for certain people. Only certain people are America to Trump,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor who has studied authoritarian regimes and is critical of the president. “He is the most visual president we’ve ever had, and he’s very purposefully shaping the image of American government to fit the white nationalist polity he believes in.”
A photo last year of Trump surrounded by dozens of White House interns, nearly all of them white, inspired so much condemnation in the media that the White House has since attempted to suppress the release of such photos. Last month, the president’s photo op with the class of spring interns was private.
But Vice President Pence later posted his own photo with the interns on Twitter. Of the 78 young people, two appear to be African American.
Eric Yellin, an associate professor of history at the University of Richmond, said that after the Civil War, African Americans recognized that being in proximity to federal government officials often bestowed on them a political enfranchisement. Eventually, photos of people of color in the government would help signal a “patronage network that everyone is operating under,” Yellin said. “Having that network be interracial is really important.”
But after Obama’s presidency, Trump, who promoted the false birther conspiracy that the 44th president was foreign-born, has aimed to project to his base a “return to normalcy,” Yellin said, and the photos of his administration have underscored that message.
“If there was something illegitimate or deviant about Obama, what is the Ur-position?” Yellin said. “What is normal for government?”