Surrogate Angels of Death

Rhonda Garelick, writing at The Cut, tries to wrap her mind around the photo of Melania Trump holding a newly orphaned baby while her husband grins like a ghoul and gives the camera a thumbs up.

Imagine this: A shooter has entered a public place, where you are walking with your family. You have but a minute to realize you can save your 2-month-old by using your own body to shield him from the bullets raining down around you. Mere days later, your baby, the youngest survivor of the El Paso massacre, will appear on television with the very man who inspired the terrorist who killed both you and your husband. A photograph is taken, for posterity.

In the photo, your baby wears a bowtie and tiny jacket; someone has dressed him up for this occasion. He gazes off to the side (toward his aunt, who stands beside First Lady Melania Trump), his body stiff, his face solemn. He is not at ease in this strange lady’s arms. How could he be? Your child has just gotten out of the hospital, where he was treated for broken bones incurred when you desperately threw yourself over his little body and took the bullets that seconds later orphaned him and his two siblings.

Neither the president nor Melania so much as glances at Baby Paul. Oblivious (as ever) to the solemnity of their occasion, they smile broadly, matching veneers on full beam. Your husband came from a family of Trump supporters. Perhaps, in a different world, you might even have wanted to meet Donald Trump, or take a photo with him as he gave one of his signature thumbs-up gestures — everything is A-OK here.

It is decidedly not A-OK here and the lack of empathy and understanding is sad yet unsurprising.

Dahlia Lithwick, writing in Slate, calls Trump small and incapable of living in any sort of reality.

Trump is really only good at one thing: being on television. Any event that can be engineered to look like a scene from The Apprentice can be fudged to his advantage. Stadium rallies, press availability from inside the Oval Office, even canned speeches read from a teleprompter can be salvaged; so long as he is essentially only producing a simulacrum of presidenting, he can shift along. But reality confounds him. Take him out from behind the oceans of fawning MAGA hats and put him next to a real survivor of sexual violence, and all the grinning and preening tricks fail him. Put him next to actual heads of state discussing actual international policy, and he sulks and mopes. Oh, he can pull off the photo-op; this is a man made of photo-ops. But time and time again, when he is called on to deal with real people—not glassy superfans but genuine human beings whom he allegedly serves as president—he fails to meet the occasion. The consummate reality-TV president is unerringly confounded by reality.

It’s not simply that an injured baby had to be returned to a hospital so that a grinning president could throw a Fonzie-style thumbs-up for the Twitter fans—that’s gross, yes, but it misses the point. The point is that this president, who understands only ratings and adulation and crowd size and getting credit,” is seemingly incapable of subordinating all that to the moment. This was a moment in which grieving Americans wanted nothing more than for him to show up and be with them. The catastrophe,” with all due respect to the unparalleled wisdom of Scaramucci, is not that he failed to show the requisite compassion” or empathy” for the cameras. Neither Donald Trump, nor his wife, nor his handlers and enablers, will ever understand that the real catastrophe isn’t how he appeared on television or Twitter. The real catastrophe is that Americans are dead and dying and their president is mass-producing a television show about his presidency, with their personal tragedy as a set choice.

Trump cannot function in reality. He lives in a hall of mirrors with his made-for-TV family, as the national security apparatus, the national intelligence apparatus, the foreign service, and foreign policy detonate all around him. And on the rare occasion on which he is called to step out from behind the glass panopticon that he has built, he fails, spectacularly, because that which really matters can’t be tweeted or reduced to a campaign video.

Americans will soon have to choose whether or not they want to live forever in Donald Trump’s reality—the one in which words don’t matter, and everything is a ratings game, and proximity to the famous and the beautiful is the epitome of a life well lived. If that is the only value left, Donald Trump’s is indeed the presidency perfected. For those of us who still live in reality, the photo-op with the orphaned baby is proof positive that Trump’s is not a big life, or a real life. It’s just smallness, refracted a million times over, which is nevertheless impossibly small.

I don’t have much to add here. He’s obviously a narcissistic buffoon without an ounce of empathy. History will not be kind to this man or his followers.

August 13, 2019


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