From one day to the next, the Trump presidency unfolds more or less like a normal Republican presidency—that is, by committing one determined act of rote negligence or flamboyant cruelty at a time, building into a blustering drumbeat of rollbacks and stymies and 37-year-old federal judge appointees. But we’re also witnessing a dramatic departure from the conservative mean in one notable respect: the riot of disconnected images that has defined Trump’s aesthetic as president—all that goony shit-posting and ceremonial bloat and gaudy luxury, clustered together like sconces on a Mar-a-Lago wall.
It is hard to know what to do with it all, and not just because there is always so much of it. There are the terrible juddering animated memes, in which Donald Trump’s smirking melon-ball of a head is pasted atop the body of Heath Ledger’s Joker or Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker or one of the space cats from Avatar, not quite as a joke but not really seriously, either. There are photos of the president grinning out from the middle of some ruddy array of wheezing burghers or gouty lawmen, always shot from far enough away that everyone’s shoes are visible. There are snatches of video showing him wandering into a wedding being held at one of his golf resorts in a baseball hat and saying something like, “Who wants to thank me?” And there are the photos that periodically emerge from one of the dining rooms of Trump’s clubs showing the impossibly accursed foods on offer there—blurry-looking burgers that appear to have been dropped from a great height, ashen pucks of meat festooned with two bereft asparagus spears adrift in a speckled pool of broken butter, two olives drowned in a murky ice-strewn martini poured into a red wine glass. One by one, they are just what they appear to be, which is the defective luxury detritus that Trump has always trailed behind him. Take all these indelible images together, though, either as a stream of social media content or a meandering trail of fragrant sludge, and the Trump aesthetic begins to assume a sort of shape.
As with most things about Trump, there’s not a lot to unpack here. Unrelenting artlessness has been Trump’s signature for as long as he has been a public figure, and that is something that cannot and will not change. The man himself cultivates and inhabits a world of luxury that’s frozen in the 1980s, and he’s spent most of his life doing the same things over and over again. They’re things that, as a friend once put it to me, are what a child thinks a rich person would do, like take a limo to McDonald’s or wear a suit to a baseball game. Trump chases the first high of his initial wealth and fame relentlessly, and if the material results of that pursuit—all those haunted steaks and corny furnishings and the general Infected Sharper Image Store vibe of everything he touches—are jarring and uncanny these decades later, it’s mostly because of how well-preserved that original vision is. Trump’s version of Citizen Kane’s Rosebud would not be a child’s sled—it would be a tufted settee that somehow has shoulder pads, or a photo of himself with two Cincinnati Bengals cheerleaders taken at Joe Piscopo’s 40th birthday party—but the doomed and atavistic pursuit of it is the same. It goes without saying that there is not a lot of room for other people in this impacted fantasy, at least in anything but the most servile of supporting roles. He has a wife, and she has a name, and while she is mostly there to balance out the frame, she can still shed some light on the broader enterprise. Earlier this month, in a brief video celebrating her distinctive and distinctly Trumpian Christmas decorations at the White House, she did just that.
To observe that Melania’s Christmas videos—here is last year’s—are unlike any previous video of this kind is an understatement; to say that they are unlike any previous video of any kind is probably closer to the truth. In their combination of chockablock Yuletide clutter and frosty and unsettling feel, the Trump White House Christmas videos are deeply uncanny: Imagine a Hallmark movie directed by Stanley Kubrick and you’re getting there. The polarizing corridor lined by a dozen blood-red Christmas trees last year is just as busy but perhaps inevitably a bit less forbidding this time around, although the broader look and feel of the design and video are the same. Melania strides through the White House’s halls in an overcoat and high heels, unaccompanied but observed at a respectful distance by various staffers. Meanwhile, the sort of music that usually plays in television commercials under the words Toyota’s Year End Sales Event twinkles determinedly on the soundtrack. At the end of this year’s, she personally seasons some ornaments with fake snow.
Melania Trump has long been a reliable source of chaotic and fascinating moments in Trumpian aesthetics. The speech she gave at the 2016 Republican National Convention, which featured long passages lifted word for word from the speech that Michelle Obama had made in support of her husband eight years earlier, remains one of the more striking bits of pure Trumpianism on the record—the decision-making process that produced “a poker-faced karaoke version of another woman’s speech about her very different husband” as the outcome is incomprehensible, although it is all very obviously the result of a towering and brazen laziness. Measured as a performance of undiluted who-gives-a-shit public carelessness, it’s something that even her husband has yet to top.
Even though Melania is also a cipher whose relationship to her powerful husband has for years seemed tragicomically ceremonial, her Christmas video delivers an insight into a crucial mystery of the Trump aesthetic: Why is all this always so shitty? How is it possible for something so fancified to feel so repellent and cheap? Again, in one sense, there’s just nothing there to find. Trump himself doesn’t really know why he does anything, and every decision that he makes—personally, politically, aesthetically, whatever—ultimately resolves to him servicing whatever rude personal want is currently making itself felt. This doesn’t really explain how every space that the man inhabits became so desperately gilded and singularly inhospitable, although it does suggest he doesn’t much care about how other people experience it. But Melania’s latest foray into haunted festive design comes closer to providing a skeleton key for the warped mimetic rules of Trumpism than Trump himself ever has.
Take, for instance, the humble Christmas tree. There are only so many ways to decorate a Christmas tree, and virtually none of them are bad. Some are a bit much, and others reflect various limitations in terms of production value or personal interest. But all such decorative flourishes can very easily be redeemed by the feeling behind the occasion. Ornaments are enriched over time by being a part of the ritual; the broader experience benefits from being broad and from being an experience shared among other people. Even I, who grew up going to the movies on Christmas Day alongside my family and the rest of the nongentiles in my corner of New Jersey, have felt this while decorating the tree alongside my gentile in-laws. It’s wholesome not just in suggesting basic principles of health but in the fullness and comprehensiveness of it. For however narrowly its purpose can be defined—the Fox-damaged and proudly un-churched Trump has mostly leaned on Christmas as a culture-war totem gleefully invoked as a lib-triggering synonym for “holidays”—the decorative ritual is mostly a way to celebrate a season of giving and sharing with other people.
It is, to state the obvious, not surprising that such a thing would not come naturally to people as insular and proudly selfish as the Trumps. But, as with everything else having to do with Trumpian aesthetics, it’s easier to assess the undergirding thought process here through its failures than its successes. The White House is, by design, not a home—no resident owns it, it is old and impractical and overrun by tourists, and the people living there receive company only under the most formal circumstances. But the chilly excesses of Melania’s Christmas decorations and the ghostly abstraction of these videos reveal just how much further outside all such nonproprietary conventions the Trumps are than previous inhabitants of the White House have been.
The blank and baffling overstatement of it—the First Lady personally sifting plastic dandruff onto a spruce, as one does, the simultaneous clutter and emptiness, the combination of voluminousness and absence—might be poignant under other circumstances. There’s no fun in it, of course, because Trump and his family are not people who are into fun. What’s spooky about it goes beyond Melania’s personal uncanniness or Trump’s world-historic tastelessness or the built-in stiltedness of White House ritual. The pure anhedonic cheerlessness of it all points back to a deeper psychic deficit: an inability to understand what any of this might even be for, if not to spite or defeat someone else. Of course there’s too much of it. They don’t know when to stop—they never have known when to stop, they do not know how to stop—because they have never really understood why they got started in the first place. After all, look where it’s gotten them.