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Trump, Kim, and the War of Images

This week provided vivid examples of how visual imagery can make a president look statesmanlike, foolish, or both.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with President Donald Trump on the second day of the G7 summit on June 9th, 2018, in Charlevoix, Canada.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with President Donald Trump on the second day of the G7 summit on June 9th, 2018, in Charlevoix, Canada.

Donald Trump may not be eloquent with words, but as a former television star, he is acutely aware of the power of imagery.

Most Americans have only a fuzzy notion of what transpired at the two summits Trump attended this week—one with the leaders of the world's major democracies in Toronto, the other with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Media coverage of both summits has been largely negative, focusing on the discord in Canada and the vagueness of the agreement with North Korea. Our self-proclaimed deal-maker president appears to have alienated the United States' allies and made concessions to a leading enemy without getting anything in return.

But that's the substance (or lack thereof). What do this week's images convey? Pacific Standard asked William Howell, chair of the political science department at the University of Chicago. In a working paper posted online at the end of December, Howell argued, "When presidents perform public rituals, pictures matter far more than what is actually said."


Let's start with the big picture. What tells you that Trump understands the pictures-matter-most truism?

Every time Trump signs an executive order, and then holds it up with his bold signature for the cameras to see, he conveys that he is acting. He's leaning forward and getting things done. That's the kind of leadership we expect from presidents. We're looking for people to lead, to take bold action.

I have wondered why he does that.

So much of what goes on with this presidency leaves political observers befuddled. We're left wondering whether his actions reflect the fact he's a political neophyte—someone who has no clue what he's doing—or whether there's some kind of strategy. When it comes to his use of visual symbols, I'm inclined to believe there is real strategy here. It's so deliberate, and so consistent with his past professional life.

According to your research, how effective is this image-conscious approach?

In our study, we looked at whether the visual imagery that accompanies the president when he gives his State of the Union address, or his inaugural address, makes the president appear more "presidential." By that, we mean somebody who embodies the traditions and values of the country, and appears to be fulfilling the obligations of the office.

William Howell.

William Howell.

We randomly assigned people to see either a flattering image of him from the inaugural parade, with lots of flags in the background and a huge crowd, or a less-flattering image of him from the same parade where there is nobody in the background, and few flags.

We found there was a big bump-up in their views of the president if they were assigned the positive image. And that was true whether that image was accompanied by a positive or negative text. The imagery was more powerful in influencing people's views than the text.

If they are so effective, why doesn't Trump use these visual cues more often? He seldom addresses the nation from the Oval Office.

The trappings of the presidency are a double-edged sword for this guy. There are gains to be had by seeming presidential. On the other hand, he presented himself as an outsider—somebody who was going to drain the swamp.

So he wants to convey the message that he's his old outsider self, while looking presidential. That sounds tricky.

I think that's exactly right. He continues to hold these rallies, and the spectacle that accompanies those is very much about imagery—a strong leader standing before his crowd.

But even iconic imagery can come back to haunt a president. Think of George W. Bush in his flight jacket on that aircraft carrier, with the banner in the background reading "Mission Accomplished." Or Bush looking out the window surveying the damage from Hurricane Katrina. It conveyed the image of someone who was separate and aloof and removed from the suffering of the people.

The most-seen image that came out of the G7 summit showed a very different Trump. He is seated with his arms crossed as German Chancellor Angela Merkel looms over him. She appears to be lecturing him, and he is clearly unhappy. That image of him was one he could not control—Merkel's office tweeted it out—and I'm guessing he found it humiliating.

I agree. He's sitting; she's standing at a desk, leaning forward. She's the one conveying strength in that image. People are huddled around her; he appears isolated. She's commanding the attention of the people in the room. All the work presidents do on staging and theatrics is meant to avoid precisely this kind of image. They don't want to take the chance that they'll come out looking weak.

Let's turn to the Singapore summit. The first time we saw Trump and Kim together, they appeared almost as black silhouettes, walking toward one another and then shaking hands. Perhaps because of their girth, and/or the summit's scary subtext, I thought of the opening of the old television drama Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

I don't think they were aiming toward channeling their inner Hitchcocks. But they were trying to convey themselves as larger than life. That's something all presidents pay attention to. We expect our presidents to rise above their corporal beings.

The iconic imagery from the summit will be the shaking of hands with the interspersed American and North Korean flags in the background. That imagery, followed by the big, broad claim that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat, is hard to combat politically. You've got to say, "In fact, it's much more complicated." As soon as you say that, a significant portion of the public just tunes out.

But what you take out of it depends on where you sit. If you oppose Trump, you think, "This is someone selling out American foreign policy for his own ego." If you are a Trump supporter, you're inclined to see a statesman who is correcting the failed efforts of his predecessor to contain the nuclear threat of North Korea.

Ultimately, how important is skillful use of visual imagery to a president's popularity?

In the short term, these sort of spectacles will rivet a nation. But there's a tremendous amount of evidence that shows public support for the president is rooted in fundamentals, such as whether we're at war, and the state of the economy. You can dance around difficult facts only so long. Reassuringly, there are countervailing forces in our politics that will keep a huckster from succeeding just with smoke and mirrors.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.