President Trump, “a” Bible, and the Church of the Presidents – this choreographed presidential photo “opportunity” hit the news and social media over the last few hours. There have been plenty of commentaries on the photo op and speculations what drove Trump’s decision to appear in front of St John’s. I can’t help it to offer a visual reading from a religious studies perspective.
An analysis of the choreography, the images that were meant to circulate (and those that weren’t), the body language, the mise en scene might reveal something about the self-understanding of Trump as president and his understanding of the presidency itself.
The images, the body language, the setting, the scene as a whole is visually striking and disturbing (if not frightening) and a closer look might reveal something about the self-understanding of Trump as President and his understanding of the Presidency itself.
On several occasions, Trump has laid claims to ultimate, absolute, and total power and authority. His imagination of a right to do whatever he wants as president is, in effect, an imagination of unlimited power. And I think it is this imagination of ultimate, absolute, total, and unlimited power that was one of the driving forces behind the choreography. In a way, imagination erupted into the visual, material, and bodily world. It forced itself onto the bodies of the protesters: driving bodies away to make way for the one body that sees itself as power incarnate: as judge, jury, and executioner at the same time.
But let’s rewind and take one step at a time:
In his 1 June 2020 speech in the White House Rose Garden, Trump declared his intention to “ending the riots and lawlessness that has spread throughout our country. We will end it now.“ And “now” was not just a figure of speech, a statement of intent, a promise, but reality forced onto the protesters:
“As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property.”Donald Trump, 1 June 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-by-the-president-39/
Let’s ignore the accuracy of the number of “thousands of thousands” for the time being. But while he was delivering the speech, heavily armed forces including Secret Service agents in riot gear were, in fact, clearing the area around the White House to clear the path to St. John’s Episcopal Church, the Church of the Presidents. Why? So Trump can, he claimed in his speech, “pay my respects to a very, very special place.”
What is striking about the visual image of armed forces driving away protesters are the tear gas and flash grenades and the smokey air they left behind. Given the context of Trump’s declarations of ultimate power, I can’t help but compare the smoke to incense used in royal or religious processions.
Now I’m well aware that tear gas and incense seem to have entirely different purposes: tear gas as a chemical weapon and incense as “food for the gods” or as sweet smell, as something that “delights the heart” (Proverbs 27:9), as the smell of holiness (read Brent Plate’s excellent discussion on incense). But incense can also be used to mask odors, drive away unpleasant smells or evil spirits. And it is this very idea of incense that makes the comparison between tear gas and incense insightful. Trump often talked about how “others” bring diseases into the United States or advised black congresswomen to “go back” (to where exactly?!). The bodies of the protesters are unwelcome bodies to be driven away and tear gas is Trump’s incense to mark people as others, as unwelcome, and drive them out. And the armed forces act as thurifers for the one that claims he can do whatever he wants, the one that claims utlimate power and ultimate authority. Power incarnate whose way is cleared – can only be cleared – by armed thurifers swinging the censers of tear gas and flash grenades. Tear gas as food for the altar of Trump’s power, a spectacle for those who kneel in front of it. A powerful and frightening, a powerful frightening image.
“I am that I am”: I am Law and Order
In his Rose Garden speech, Trump went further than merely calling for law and order. He also went further than just presenting himself as guarantor of law and order. Rather, he presents himself as law and order incarnate: “I am your President of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters.” Again, let’s ignore what he said in the preceding sentence (“I will fight to protect you.”), and let’s ignore that the way he said it sounded more threatening than reassuring. Instead, let us focus on law and order, or the question: whose law and what order? Short answer: Trump’s law and Trump’s order because we need to remember: he claims ultimate power and authority. But how exactly did Trump’s law and order become visible in this choreography? I think the Bible, or better “a” Bible, played a crucial role here.
“It’s ‘a’ Bible”
Having made his way to St. John’s Church, Trump posted himself in front of the barricaded church (which suffered some damages). He (clumsily) holds the Bible in various different positions while photos are being taken.
I think that key to understanding that scene is a question a reporter asks and Trump’s response. A reporter shouts “Is that your Bible?”. And Trump responds: “It’s a bible.” He didn’t say it is “the” Bible, or “no”, but he responded with “It’s a Bible.” Does that terminology matter? Very much so. At least for me as non-native speaker (and I’m happy for native speakers to correct me here), the “a” expresses some randomness. It is not “his” Bible, it is not “the” Bible, it is “a” Bible because it really doesn’t matter.
I don’t mean to say that Trump holding a Bible is irrelevant. On the contrary. Religious leaders have expressed their outrage not only about Trumps choice of location but also using the Bible as a prop in this choreography. I would, however, argue that the Bible here was more than a mere prop.
To better understand the role of the Bible here we need to focus our attention briefly to the church building in the background: it is barricaded, inaccessible. And it is this very inaccessibility of the church, the Church of the Presidents, that focuses all the attention on Trump. Yes, Trump couldn’t access the church, so why bother coming to the church at all, just to hold a Bible? No, Trump is making it visible that the power is his. The church is inaccessible, and with inaccessibility comes the question of relevance. By posing in front of a locked up church, he makes it visible that he does not only claim ultimate power and authority, but that this ultimate power and authority is ultimate in its truest sense: ultimate and not from this world. The church might be inaccessible, but Trump declared just minutes earlier in the Rose Garden, that “I am your President of law and order.” Law and order are to be found in Trump, and nowhere else.
Let us go back to the Bible, a Bible. Books hold power. Books express power. Books express wisdom and human imagination. Books can be dangerous. Books can be oppressive and destructive. Books symbolize power. So why a Bible and not another book, a bound copy of the U.S. Constitution, for example? I think it is the religious veneer that made “a” Bible Trump’s book of choice. The Bible speaks of justice (it also speaks of the messiness of human live, of love, forgiveness but that’s not something Trump is probably overly concerned with), Trump speaks of himself as law and order. He often claims that the fake media wrong him, that he has nothing but the best interest of the nation in mind and in his heart. The Bible, then, can be seen as an insignia that expresses that that he wants this claim to ultimate power and authority to be understood as a just claim, that it is just for him to hold ultimate power and authority. He perceives this to be a right that goes beyond institutions, and he wants this to be known and seen. He does not want to be held accountable, and he presents himself as someone that shouldn’t be held accountable. Not only because he imagines to hold ultimate power, but also because he imagines himself to be law and order, to be just.
White Male Justice
When we talk about Trump claiming ultimate power with the fairly explicit claim that he thinks it is just for him to have ultimate power, and that having ultimate power, he is just, we need, of course, also talk about the appearance of this ultimate and just power. This power incarnate is incarnate in a 73 year old privileged and entitled white male body who imposes himself on anyone he comes across. We probably all still remember the controversy about how Trump talks about women. And then there is the controversy about whether or not Trump is racist.
Of course, Trump has always denied any allegations and stated in his Rose Garden speech:
“All Americans were rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd. My administration is fully committed that, for George and his family, justice will be served. He will not have died in vain.”Donald Trump, 1 June 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-by-the-president-39/
But when Trump tries to hide behind words, all we need to do is look at the history of his words and his actions. Trumps creates “others” to wage war on these others. And plenty has been published on the relationship between Trump, white supremacy, racist attitudes, and voter behavior. And Trump’s rhetorical strategies seem to resonate well among voters with anti-African American attitudes and biases.
Looking at Trump’s actions, he certainly has not attempted to restore order and peace. Rather, he has taken decisive action to further civil unrest and undermine the protests that emerged as response to a long history of racist policing practices. If the actions Trump has taken are not racist, then I do not know what is.
Of course, the problem is that Trump probably does not see it this way. How could he, if he sees himself as a divine figure who is judge, jury, and executioner at the same time? How could he if he imagines himself as a divine figure who claims ultimate authority and power, and who imagines that he can’t be held accountable because he imagines that his claims to power are just.
Please note that the above is very quickly drafted, and I do not claim the usual academic rigor. The wording and analysis needs polishing, but this was my way of dealing with the very frightening reality, the disturbing scenes, and the visual material of what is and we sadly all too often proudly call “the 21st century”.