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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

In Defense of (Good) Photo Ops

Source: National Archives
George W. Bush speaks at Islamic Center, 9/17/01

A great deal has already been written about President Trump's decision to have Lafayette Park violently cleared by law enforcement so he could engage in a photo op in front of St. John's Church. (Be sure to read what fellow Mischiefs Matt Green and Julia Azari have written recently on this.) Rather than get into the politics of that moment or the decisions that led to it, I wanted to focus on the symbol nature of this particular photo op.

Dismissing a political appearance as a "photo op" is a pretty standard cynical take in American politics. It's usually intended to mean that the politician doesn't really mean what he or she is doing, and is just trying to score some cheap political points.

I'd like to defend the photo op in principle. Part of what politicians do is engage in symbolic actions -- not just for crass reasons, but because those actions have meaning to political interests. This is especially true for presidents, who take on the dual role of head of government and head of state in American politics. The head of state role is entirely about symbolism, and presidents are expected to perform various symbolic rites in the conduct of their job, from comforting victims to leading holiday traditions to rallying patriotism. At their best, photo ops use the power and spectacle associated with the presidency to connect to groups who are being victimized or otherwise excluded from power.*

Let's take, for example, John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech from the summer of 1963. Peggy Noonan wrote thoughtfully about this speech in her book What I Saw at the Revolution. As Noonan wrote, it was one thing for Kennedy to declare his support for the besieged residents of Berlin, which he could have simply done in a published statement of administration policy. But to do so in person, in front of the Berlin Wall, identifying himself as one of them, in German, had enormous symbolic value. It meant something to both the immediate audience and to Americans watching from home, as well, no doubt, to Soviet leaders trying to gauge what sort of value American leaders placed on Berlin. So, sure, you could dismiss this as a photo op -- presidents travel and give speeches all the time -- but there was a lot going on behind those symbols.

To draw a more direct comparison between Trump's Monday evening photo op with those of other modern national leaders, we see presidents and vice presidents making symbolic nods to religious groups all the time. But, importantly, the symbols themselves have some meaning. For example, Mike Pence, just a month into his job as vice president, visited a vandalized Jewish cemetery in Missouri and helped repair it. Yes, this was a photo op, and no, no one expected Pence to spend a whole day uprighting gravestones and polishing them. But the gesture was powerful and well-received (contrasting from a week in which Trump had looked very weak on anti-semitism), and showed Pence actually physically doing something to improve the situation. It was a decent move and also smart politics, helping to de-escalate a fight the White House didn't need to be having.

We might also think of Barack Obama's 2015 eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinkney, who, along with others, had been murdered by a white supremacist during Bible study. Obama not only attended the service, not only spoke movingly at it, but also sang "Amazing Grace" from the pulpit. It was personal and affecting, and consistent with the traditions of the black church.

Or even think of George W. Bush speaking at a DC-area Islamic Center a week after the 9/11 attacks. Bush's intent was to soften anger toward Muslims and also to build international support for an American response that included Muslim majority countries. He could have simply issued a public statement saying that he supports Muslim Americans, but he went beyond that, showing up in person and quoting from the Koran. It demonstrated respect and humility and had symbolic value for the audiences in the room and those watching at home.

Trump's photo op was unconnected to any known faith or political tradition.

Okay, so let's get back to what Trump did on Monday. After having the area around the St. John's Church cleared with the aid of gas and rubber bullets, Trump walked across the street, stood in front of the boarded-up building, and pumped a Bible in the air. He did not pray, or kneel, or attend a service. He did not speak. He did not try to fix the church's windows or scrub off graffiti. He didn't really do, well, anything.

Look, I'm no Christian, much less a theologian, but his symbolism struck me as unconnected to any known faith or political tradition. There was no martyrdom, no confession, no grace, no service to others, no repairing of the community, no personal risk. Maybe he was expecting someone to take a shot at the Bible like in "Blazing Saddles," but of course that didn't happen. The entirety of his action was walking across the street, awkwardly holding up a book, then going home, as though no one had been able to hold up a book in public until he was brave enough to do that.

It was a weird, thoughtless, and ultimately empty gesture, and the fact that so many faith leaders have expressed their outrage in recent days suggests it didn't quite land the way he'd hoped. What's more, some Republican members of Congress have gone out of their way to avoid comment on the event, and even members of Trump's own cabinet are distancing themselves from it.

Photo ops are not meaningless acts by their nature. On the contrary, they're all about meaning. They usually involve significant planning and hold important symbolic value to those involved. But an unplanned and empty one like this week's will not only fail to help the politics of the situation, but can actually hurt.

*This all ties into a much larger literature about the ceremonial role of the presidency and the power of political symbols. It's a bit outside my wheelhouse, but if you want to know more, please check out Cara Finnegan's book on the power of political photography, Karen Hoffman's work on George W. Bush and cowboy imagery, Jonathan Bernstein's pieces on ceremony and the president, and much more.

My thanks to Julia Azari and Nancy Wadsworth for their input on this piece.

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