Donald Trump’s physical appearance has been the predictable focus of much of the satirical commentary upon the US presidential election. Cartoonists, comedians and journalists have derided him for his eccentric style, implying an equivalence between his questionable sartorial judgement and his political shrewdness. It is a convention of satirical cartoons running back to the 18th century that the moral corruption of a politician or public figure can be expressed through a grotesquely distorted caricature, their psyche betrayed by their exterior form, and in this respect, Trump is rich material. In a period in which politics has been dominated by photogenic, well-rehearsed professionals, he cuts a rather haphazard figure.
However, while he might amuse or repel – or, crucially, do both at once – he remains a compelling spectacle. Trump is a semiotic salad, an assemblage of incongruous, clashing elements that would normally have been smoothed out and homogenized, but instead slide over and jostle with one another, never quite cohering into a single figure. In part it is this undecidability that has made him impervious to satirical attacks, but a principal shortcoming of the satirical handling is that disapproval of Trump is aesthetic, a disgust at his style rather than at his policy statements.
Perhaps his most fascinating feature is his hair. Dyed blonde, gelled and blow-dried into a sweeping quiff, it appears to be an attempt to conceal thinning hair. However, while it might suggest an anxious preoccupation with retaining a youthful appearance, it is so mesmerisingly artificial that it is completely unconvincing. Moreover, in its narcissistic brazenness, it has become an immediately identifiable visual signature, as recognizable as Chaplin’s toothbrush moustache and bowler.
When Trump allowed the US comedian Jimmy Fallon to run his hands through Trump’s hair at the end of an interview on The Tonight Show (Sept. 15th), its distracting function became clear; but as well as drawing the attention of the interviewer and the audience away from his political programme, his hair exemplifies the paradoxical persona that has made him so resistant to abuse – its patent artificiality makes the 70-year old billionaire more authentic than, say, the multi-millionaire celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Johnny Depp and Robert De Niro, who have lined up to ridicule him. Its obvious artlessness implies that nothing is being concealed.
In a memorable formulation, film theorists David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson propose that the Hollywood cinema aesthetic is ‘excessively obvious’; all of the formal and stylistic elements of a Hollywood film, such as editing patterns, lighting, cinematography and production design, work to make the meaning of the film as comprehensible and unambiguous as possible. Trump, too, is ‘excessively obvious’, and this is what makes him so disarming. While the critical commentary on his campaign has been preoccupied with the question of subtext, perplexed by the conundrum of how to reconcile his contradictory statements or how to determine whether his provocative claims are calculated lies or the product of ignorance and misunderstanding, it is increasingly clear that the absurdities and hyperbole, the insults and inconsistency are all crucial to his appeal.
His perma-tanned face appears to be the product of some combination of make-up and UV tanning bed, and the pale circles around his eyes left by protective goggles highlight the vivid orange of the rest of his face, making its artificiality clear. It is a similarly excessive assertion of distinctive inauthenticity (and, therefore, a sign of authenticity). However, along with his carefully sculpted hair it highlights a more surprising feature of Trump’s persona: a curious mix of masculine and feminine codes, a bricolage of macho bravado, vanity, and emotional sensitivity.
Over the past few months the British comedian Peter Serafinowicz posted a series of videos on YouTube, grouped under the title ‘Sassy Trump’, in which he revoiced Trump’s interviews and campaign speeches with a camp impersonation. This defamiliarising technique draws attention to the vocal tics and rhetorical tropes used by Trump, but while Serafinowicz’s impersonation sounds little like Trump, it does reveal a certain ambiguity of gender that is normally submerged beneath his leering misogyny. As Serafinowicz has realized, Trump makes continual reference to his own feelings, complaining at how hurt he is by criticism, and his campaign speeches are delivered with melodramatic theatricality. His repertoire includes pouts, frowns, facial contortions expressing anguish and astonishment, and fastidiously dainty hand gestures.
Trump reportedly favours very expensive, off-the-peg Italian suits, but the shiny, navy blue two-piece business suits he has worn throughout the campaign were consistently ill-fitting and shapeless. With trousers that are slightly too long and boxy jackets slightly too large, they hide the contours of the body beneath suggesting a soft, shapeless, indulged body, rather than a disciplined, gym-sculpted hard body. It is by now a well-established convention that politicians and political candidates must demonstrate their capacity to cope with the rigours of political office through public displays of physical fitness and dexterity – cycling, jogging, riding horses, playing football. However, while the comparative health of Clinton and Trump was a significant issue during the campaign, Trump’s authentically fleshy body constitutes a refusal of the dominant corporeal aesthetic.
The out-sized suit is complemented by a brightly coloured tie – Republican red in the later stages of the campaign - that is also too long. The combination connotes masculine, phallic power, but, comically, the symbolic over-emphasis of excessively large clothing creates the converse impression that the 6’2” man inside the suit is smaller than he is. Indeed, one of the insults that seems to have particularly bothered Trump (and Trump appears to be extremely thin-skinned and vindictive), is the observation that he has tiny hands. Graydon Carter described him as a ‘short-fingered vulgarian’ in the satirical Spy magazine in 1988, and Marco Rubio, his rival for the Republication nomination, reprised the insult in a campaign speech earlier this year, prompting Trump to insist in a television debate that neither his hands, nor indeed his genitals were small: ‘I guarantee you, there’s no problem’, he assured viewers bizarrely. ‘I guarantee it’.
The final component of the uniform is a red, white or camouflaged ‘trucker hat’, emblazoned with his campaign logo, ‘MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN’. Worn without a tie, brim pulled low over his eyes, this again involves the montage of disparate codes, a $5000 executive suit paired awkwardly with the demotic $25 headgear in a patronizing gesture of common-ness. But it is the obvious awkwardness of the symbolism that makes it effective, a performative acknowledgement of the theatre of politicking.
Of course, Carter’s real insult was that Trump was a ‘vulgarian’, a crass arriviste whose displays of wealth revealed a dearth of cultural capital. This exemplifies the aesthetic disgust that has been a consistent feature of the satirical commentary on Trump and, as has been the case throughout, this snobbish slight misses the point. To regard Trump’s stylistic shortcomings and mis-steps as a sign of his incompetence is to think too literally, and to misunderstand the institutional system that Trump embodies.
In the early 1970s, Michel Foucault described a system of neoliberal government he termed the ‘administrative grotesque’, wherein the people in positions of power ‘were ridiculed or made abject or shown in an unfavourable light’. However, far from undermining them, to attack and deride these figures has the converse effect of legitimizing their position, making their hold on power more secure. The fact that individual representatives of the system may be ridiculous or spectacularly incompetent simply justifies the efficacy of the system they represent, suggesting that it is such a well-designed administrative system that an arrogant bigot can manage it just as effectively as a visionary professional politician – and perhaps even more effectively. The administrative grotesque, Foucault writes, is:
a striking form of expression to the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of its rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited.
Indeed, in the wake of his election it is all too clear that the caricature of Trump as a monstrous, laughable figure has been utterly counterproductive, deriding him as an eccentric outsider and failing to understand his intrinsic relationship to the dominant political system. It is not the case that satirical attacks on Trump have been ineffective; on the contrary, every cartoon, comic impression and sardonic newspaper column has moved him steadily closer to the powerful position in which he now finds himself.
Bruce Bennett is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Lancaster University.