Outside of his unique manner of speaking, personal appearance may be the easiest part of President Trump to make fun of. Far before he became America’s 45th president, Trump was a prominent conversation piece in late night talk shows and other media. Making fun of a reality tv star’s appearance is hardly beneath the likes of Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon, and the Donald Trump of Apprentice fame was exactly the species of “celebrity” late night shows are built upon.
But suddenly, he was president.
It felt strange, in the aftermath. There were, of course, more important questions in the line of “what happens next” than how late night television entertainment would react, but it was certainly a question. Was it right to keep making shallow, below the belt punchlines out of a sitting president? At the same time, could it really be ignored? More than once, I’ve heard my mother moan at the television, asking “where are his handlers? Who is doing his makeup?” as Trump’s clearly unnatural signature look stands in stark contrast to a stately Oval Office or American flag background.
I think we’d all assumed that, as President, something would change. The clearly unnatural fake tan and comb-over hair would go, swapping in Hollywood fame for formal attire and addresses. The exaggerated fit fine, after all, in the world of celebrity. But politicians are meant to age, to be concerned with reality instead of reality tv.
It’s taken me the full length of his presidency to realize that not only would the look not go; it could not go.
Trump speaks as though he is better than other people. Whether or not you believe that he is, whether or not he truly believes it, the simply fact is that he speaks as though it were true. He’s neither the first celebrity or politician to do so, nor do I think he will be the last. Personally, I’m neither impressed nor convinced. But it’s obvious that a lot of people are. Not the majority of Americans, according to the last election. But only by a small, electoral college relevant margin.
I don’t think it would work without the look.
It sounds ridiculous. If Trump is so great (or believes he is so great), why cover himself from hairline to neck in pigments and paint? Why try to go darker, when white supremacists are some of your biggest fans? Why torture your hair into a comb-over, when it everyone knows the hair it covers over is lost?
I thought for years that it was about self-image. That this is how Trump sees himself. Not as someone who can age, or look sickly. Someone invincible and ever present.
However, as the election draws near, and I’m constantly reminded through signs and social media posts that Trump is, in fact, popular, I’m working on a new theory. I think the hair and the spray tan is for us. I think it, like so much of what Trump says or does, is about image. Like forcing the secret service to sit in an enclosed car with you while you’re simultaneously waving at fans and being treated for COVID, the image is everything.
Honestly, even those who hate Trump treat him like he’s special. It’s part of his mythos, the belief that he is different from the rest of us. That he lives in a separate reality, one with power and money and fame. That he isn’t a human man, not like the rest of us.
It simply isn’t true. The fame is infamy. The money is composed of more wishes than riches — in fact he’s in more debt than the rest of us (according to the New York Times). Of power there certainly is some. But not as he wants it to be, as he resorts to lies over seemingly small issues like the size of the crowd at his inauguration, actually prompting an equally petty response.
We treat Trump like he’s a character, larger than life, living differently than the rest of us.
It’s not just his supporters. I’ll admit “the cult of Trump” is hard evidence that something is wrong. But the detractors treat him differently too, see him as an embodiment of some idea, some belief, rather than just a man. For some, he is the face of white supremacy. For others, the excesses of Hollywood, or the embodiment of toxic masculinity in American culture. He is the overly zealous patriot, the destroyer of government, and the chosen one of God. All at once.
While he certainly is those things, at times, I think we forget that he is also something else. He is a man. Elderly, fallible, and limited, as we all are. He get power from your belief in that. The belief that he can do what he wants, that he is more than us. We ask him questions about whether he’ll leave office if he loses the election. Why do we do that? No one asked that to Obama, or Bush, or Washington or Lincoln. When did this become his choice?
There is a reason Trump paints his face. The orange man, typing in all caps on Twitter at three in the morning gets to do these things. It’s not just his physical appearance, but that plays a big part. He’s memorable, this character, with the fluorescent skin and specific pattern of speech. He’s easily replicable on SNL or the Simpsons, and seems to live more in their world than ours, doing things only their writes could expect.
This is a worrying trait in a servant of this reality’s public.
One only has to look at the number of articles, retweets, and shares on the post of this photo to see that it’s working. I myself had to look at the “real” side of the picture multiple times to truly feel as though I understood what I was seeing. For me, it is only in the contrast that I see how taken in I am with the Trump persona. How differently I think of him, compared to any other human.
Without the spray tan, without the fake hairdo, he looks exactly like many, many elderly white men I know. Men who are racist, and called out as such. Men who are isolated, and lonely, because no one wants to associate with hateful. Men who see the grandkids at Christmas time, but not more. Men who are greedy, and power hungry, and seen throughout history. Regular Trump reminds me of Newt Gingrich, of Putin.
This is why Trump doesn’t care if you make fun of him. Trump doesn’t care what people say about this appearance, or the impossible to ignore fact that it is fake. This is why Trump puts in time and effort to look exactly like this. Because with Trump, image is power. Every sign points to this, that he has gotten through life using his name to leverage money, business, and loans. Without the ideal of Trump, without the name and image he’s manufactured, he would have as much access to multi-million dollar loans as you and I. Without this image, he would not be president. It is not a gaffe, a delusion, or a mistake.
Trump has done this on purpose, and it is working.
Make sure to vote.