Sea, the first thing I thought of when I saw the photo of President Donald Trump holding a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church was a question:
Where’d they find the Bible? The White House prop room? Maybe it was lurking on a shelf in the presidential bunker underneath the White House, and someone noticed it during Trump’s, ahem, inspection tour of the bunker the weekend before the photo op.
As it turned out, according to published reports, the Bible had been stashed in the purse of Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and one of his advisers, and she fished it out after the stroll from the Rose Garden to the church, which had suffered minor fire damage during the protests in D.C.
There, posing in front of the church’s sign (“All Are Welcome,” the sign said in part, an invitation that presumably included the people who had been pushed out of Lafayette Park by tear gas and flash bangs, but never mind), Trump held up the Bible in a curiously awkward pose. Was he trying to evoke an old-time preacher? Was he channeling David Byrne’s performance in the Talking Heads’ video for “Once in a Lifetime?”
“Is that your Bible?” a reporter asked.
“It’s a Bible,” Trump answered.
The president declined to read from the Bible – sorry, a Bible – or to cite his favorite Bible verse, or for that matter, a Bible verse.
Because that wasn’t the point. The goal here was to get that photo. The point was to solidify support among the president’s base, which includes a good many white Evangelicals – and to continue what may turn out to be an ill-advised strategy to emphasize law and order issues. In fact, his recent Tweets include ones in which he just writes “LAW & ORDER,” which I guess also could mean he’s settled down in the bunker to watch a “Law & Order” marathon on TV.
It’s not my intention here to ponder the reasons why Trump enjoys such levels of support among some white Evangelicals; more perceptive writers already have weighed in on the topic. Suffice it to say that many of those souls are willing to overlook the president’s flaws because they believe he’s on their side on issues they care deeply about.
But it’s worth remembering, as Sea notes, that this clumsy photo op isn’t the first time that political figures have cloaked themselves in the trappings of religion to make a point or boost their standings in the polls. It won’t be the last time; this is a story as old as organized religion.
The incident also should remind us about the power of the image. In TV reporter Lesley Stahl’s 1999 book “Reporting Live,” she relays this story, and it’s worth remembering, even if some writers have suggested that it may not be completely accurate: Stahl had just finished a lengthy (five minutes and 45 seconds!) piece about the impact of President Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts. To illustrate the piece, she used generally upbeat images of a buoyant Reagan in various settings. Nevertheless, Stahl feared that her story’s critical tone would alienate her sources in the administration
It didn’t play out that way. An administration official told Stahl that it was a terrific piece. Stahl was incredulous: “Didn’t you hear what I said (in the broadcast)?” she asked.
The official replied: “No one heard what you said. … When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you.”
The intended audience for Trump’s photo op – the president’s political base – likely saw everything they needed to see in the photo itself. They didn’t need to tune into anything else.
For the rest of us, this is another reminder that we need to be careful about where our own confirmation biases blind us to the fuller picture. We’ll see more of this – probably much more, but in far more sophisticated ways – in the days to come.
To return to that classic Talking Heads song: This photo op was not a “Once in a Lifetime” event. Another line from that same song is a better fit: “Same as it ever was.”