As he and Kim Jong-Un sat down to lunch at the Singapore summit, Donald Trump turned to the photographers and asked, “Getting a good picture, everybody? So we look nice and handsome and thin?” It is enough, for one brief moment, to make you credit the man with self-awareness. Is it possible that Trump knows there is no way anyone could make him look any of those things? He must, you think, to ask as much. But still, you wish one photographer, just one, could have shouted back, “Only with the lens-cap on.”
It is an odd irony that the so-called TV president, perhaps the world’s most-photographed man, should have a face so resolutely antipathetic to the camera eye. Consider the official presidential portrait shot by Shealah Craighead, whose lens has managed in the past to confer a semblance of humanity upon such unlikely objects as Sarah Palin and Marco Rubio. For something that is, in however gentle a fashion, meant to be propaganda, her portrait of Trump is remarkably unsuccessful. It is not that the 45th president of America is inertly ugly exactly – though it would be an abuse of the bond between language and reality to call him handsome. It is more that he is what you might call “exotically stolid”. He has the physiognomy of one of Bruegel’s Flemish peasants: Drumpf the village braggart, smiling with intense sly pride about some tiny act of cunning, oblivious to the possibility of a damning gaze equipped with full knowledge of his schemes.
This is not just a question of political distaste being in the eye of the beholder, either. Look at the official headshot of vice-president Mike Pence, and I defy even the most dyed-in-the-wool disparager of the GOP not to think, for the briefest moment, “He looks like a good guy.” He does. Trump, not so much. The closest thing to his headshot, in historical terms, is Goya’s 1815 portrait of Fernando VII: from the strange look of crafty stupidity right down to the undersized, pudgily clumsy hands, the two men have plenty in common. And both portraits, commissioned to project power, end up projecting a kind of hollow desperation instead. You pity Craighead, whose sole job is to follow Trump around and document his actions as the world’s most powerful man in a way that will make him look a. powerful and b. something like a man.
To the rest of us Trump’s unphotogenic-ness is a once in-a-generation boon. It is not just the multitudinous wags of Twitter who are gleeful; governments are in on the game as well. Though it seems a special kind of historical poor taste to link the present German government with the term propaganda, it does not come much better than the image of the G7 summit put up on Angela Merkel’s official Instagram account three days ago.
Prior to its appearance, Merkel’s could not have been considered one of the great Instagram accounts. Where other Instanans gain their likes in the time-honoured way, with pictures of knitted scarves and the grandkids, Merkel’s feed is all wry smiles, world leaders and handshakes. After a while of scrolling through it, just to relieve the tedium, you begin to read into her favoured hand position: fingertips pressed together and arched like a roof in front of her solar plexus, lending her the poise of a Bond villain. If she had not cheated by becoming the Chancellor of Germany, you absolutely can bet she would not be an influencer at all.
With the G7 Trump photo, though, she nailed it, to the point where even a Vintage Polaroid Filter would be gilding the lily. According to the Bundeskanzlerin’s own caption, it is just a snap of a “spontaneous meeting between two working sessions”. Spontaneous it might have been, but if it had been staged she could not have done it better. It is the perfect tableau of a powerful woman berating a deeply defensive man, while some of the most important people in the world stand and watch. Though Trump vehemently denies any self-consciousness about the size of his hands, he is hiding them behind crossed arms, trying to hang tough.
To be fair to the Donald, the pose almost works. The complacent smirk – complete with sardonically raised eyebrow – is as solid as they come. He really does look composed. Aside from the reptilian sag around his collar, even David Icke would admit that this Lizard Person had a great tailor for his human-skin-suit. The only real problem is that the president’s body language can’t hide the fact that Merkel is in charge. There is a reason just about everyone in the photo is looking her way: this is who the world is looking to for leadership right now, it seems to say. The photo is a perfect piece of Instaganda.
Which is why you have to admire the sheer old-school pageantry of the Trump-Kim summit. This is propaganda with its (sure, undersized) gloves off. There was no need for Trump to ask the photographers to get a good casual shot of him and Kim looking slim, because this was all about the crafted symmetries of the American and North Korean flags hanging side by side, the handshakes and the quite, quite mad “summit trailer” produced by the National Security Council. It is not subtle, in fact it is laughable – the whole business conforms to the kind of Leni-Riefenstahl-meets-Michael-Bay-at-Walmart aesthetic that only a dedicated watcher of Fox News could love. But it is effective. Merkel’s picture, which had Twitter reaching for similes to Renaissance paintings, was propaganda for aesthetes, wonks and intellectuals. The summit was propaganda for everyone else. Laugh away, but if you doubt it just ask which will have more people reaching for their wallets: the next “blockbuster” Old Master show or “Transformers 6: Triumph of the Will”?