Politics might have famously been described as ‘show business for ugly people’ but it has also always been ripe ground for photographers (think of Winogrand’s brilliance at the 1960 democrat convention or more recently Chris Anderson’s images from the 2008 presidential campaign). It remains so even in an era of ever more astute media control by politicians and their campaign teams, and despite nominee front runner Donald Trump’s worryingly firm grasp on the press the photographs coming out of the recent Republican National Convention have been really pretty remarkable. Reading The Pictures have done some great close reading of images of the wider conference, but besides some fantastically strange images of delegates and candidates, the centrepiece images are those of Trump’s speech accepting the Republican nomination for president. There are so many images of this slightly over an hour long performance and so many of them are begging to be taken apart. The image I’ve picked out above by Paul David Morris is there not because it is the most striking, but because it combines quite a few significant elements where others tend to focus on just one. Getty have a great wider selection of other images from the speech here.
The speech’s staging could not be more bizarre, and certainly it has the pomposity of fascist propaganda films like Leni Riefenstahl’s genre defining Triumph of the Will, from the enormous ‘TRUMP’ banner on the video screen overhead, the ranks of flags behind him, down to the ring of black clad heavies who ring the stage like an honour guard for hire. At the same time the staging also feels like a homage to fictional parodies of fascism and authoritarianism, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to George Orwell’s 1984. In terms of that latter example Trump’s hour recalls the book’s Two Minutes Hate, mass meetings where citizens sit in front of giant screens and are bombarded with images of the enemy before the soothing face of Big Brother appears to calm them, a spectacle so overwhelming that even the book’s deeply cynical narrator finds himself caught up in it. The bombast of Trump’s acceptance speech is hard to overstate and it’s fully worth a watch to get a sense of why so many people are so insistently comparing him to demagogues like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. While I can imagine that Trump’s rehearals might look something like Heinrich Hoffman’s photographs of Hitler preparing his speeches, I’ve got to admit that it’s a comparison I find hard to swallow. Emulating the rhetoric of fascism doesn’t in itself make you a fascist (if it did Trump would only be the latest in a rather long line of democratic politicians to stand guilty of this) although I have always felt that political pomp and overblown charisma should almost always be regarded as a warning sign, a mask or veil over something else. As the premiership of Tony Blair very effectively demonstrated to the United Kingdom, a politician with some charisma, or even just the illusion of it, can be a very dangerous thing. In Blair’s case it masked a zealot, in Trump’s case it barely hides an ambitious opportunist, who unlike many of the authoritarians to whom he is being compared probably really believes in very little at all.
Beyond the rhetorical flourishes and ridiculous staging, there is something undeniably dark here, that is the profoundly bleak image that Trump paints of a United States on the verge of implosion, and the equally bleak promises he makes about how he will solve this. Following the UK’s recent vote to leave the European Union it was astutely remarked that England, the country which had once colonised half the world, had now fallen prey to the fantasy that it was now itself being colonised by those it had previously subjugated. Something similar might be said of the United States today, a country seemingly fascinated by the vision of its destruction, which lacking a genuine existential threat from without its borders now appears to be doing everything possible to realise that fantasy from within. Trump’s speech felt like the Two Minutes Hate in protracted form, a reeling out of a succession of enemies, from Mexican immigrants preying on all American girls to the Islamic State plotting to destroy the United States from the other side of the planet, all climaxing in Trump’s soothingly ambiguous promises of safety.
Perhaps partly because of these fictional as well as factual references it might be difficult for anyone who recognises these cultural markers to take Trump and the party that now supports him at all seriously. The whole convention feels as if it’s been organised for as an exercise in cultural reference spotting, right down to photographs of delegates who uncannily resemble grown up versions of Diane Arbus’s 1967 photograph of a young pro-Vietnam war demonstrator with his straw boater and ‘bomb Hanoi’ pin badge. Is this a fiction, or just another example of history repeating itself in a country which so often seems to pride itself on it’s supposed lack of history? Quite a few left leaning Americans seem to already be writing Trump off as not having what it takes to reach the White House. Thats exactly what we told ourselves in the United Kingdom about those who wanted to leave the European Union, that those leading the campaign were liars, inconsistent, and unsubstantial and that their supporters were uneducated, bigots and idiots. Some of that what we believed was true, but we let our own bigotry obscure the fact that in many cases these were also people who over the past several decades had profoundly lost out while others gained. The fact that Trump’s support base forms a rough analogue to the support base of the UK’s leave campaign is well worth dwelling on and you might consider this post a warning to the American left not to underestimate the will behind Trump.
Whatever happens in the autumn, Trump’s campaign marks a political watershed as much as the referendum did for the United Kingdom. A moment of empowerment not just for the traditional right, but the far darker ideologies at its fringes. Between 1936 and 1944 the German writer Friedrich Reck kept a remarkable diary of life under Nazism, describing with the astute observation and invective that only a truly savage cultural critic could muster how the country was ground into the dirt by Nazism. Reck describes encountering Hitler at several points during his rise to power and marvels at the fact that this entirely sordid figure, indeed to repurpose Graydon Carter’s description of Trump, this ‘short fingered vulgarian’, could hold the German people so completely under his spell. The book makes for instructive reading today, not least because Reck recognised in his diary that the politics of Nazism and the experience of living under it meant there was simply no way to return to the Germany that had existed before Hitler, an observation which in a drastically watered down form might well stand for post-referendum Britain, or a the United States after Trump. Shortly before Reck was arrested and sent to the concentration camp where he would die he wrote a poignant address to the liberators he foresaw arriving from outside Germany.
‘…we cannot go back to the life we shared with you yesterday, a life which you will spread before us so temptingly when you return. We have suffered too much to believe any more that the way to what we see as the Absolute can go in any other direction than on through the deep valley of sorrow.’