Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
As we process our reactions to the now-widespread image of Donald and Melania Trump sitting down next to the Obamas and Clintons at the funeral of George H.W. Bush today, consider also that this is a portrait of political expectations related to race and gender in America.
The Obamas shake Trump’s hand as it is offered.
Secretary Clinton refuses even to look his way.
It should be argued that in his two years of presidency and in several years prior Trump has actively done more harm to the Obamas than he ever has to the Clintons, by gleefully stoking the nativist coals that fueled birtherism and by working to undermine or mutate nearly any policy upon which President Obama had ever signed his name. Regardless, on national television the Obamas know — as they always have — what is required of them by the majority paradigm of the nation they once led. In a moment such as a presidential funeral, the Obamas are being watched closely to make sure they behave with presidential statesmanship, because one of their burdens as the first black POTUS and FLOTUS is to consistently prove that they belonged there as much as any of the 43 white men and women who preceded them.
Even after they’ve left office. Even though they had earned it much moreso than many of their predecessors and way the hell more than their immediate successors.
Secretary Clinton, on the other hand, is at least conditionally allowed to be furious. She has the right to refuse; the right to not pretend that the chaotic mediocrity who defeated her through misogynistic tactics, electoral technicalities, and quite probably treacherous foreign intervention deserves any of her good graces. For her this can be a show of strength and integrity, and also of defiance against the role expected of a former First Lady that will be pushed upon her during this event despite the fact that she has also been a United States senator, a Secretary of State, and the woman who has thus far achieved the most success at the top of a presidential ticket.
I’ll stress that “allowance” and “expectation” are oversimplified concepts here. There will be people who feel betrayed to watch the Obamas be politic at all with the Trumps or Bushes, and there will be people who view Clinton’s cold shoulder as a sign that they were always right about her temperament and unfitness for any office, much less the presidency. There’s a subset of people within these Venn diagrams who will act as though they cared how these public figures behaved at this funeral, but in truth there is nothing that would have been satisfactory, because in their perfect world neither Obama nor Clinton would be a reality they had to accept.
What I’m trying to articulate is a sort of internal conditioned calculus for both the Obamas and Secretary Clinton. It provides them with an estimate of how much societal blowback they can expect to receive from pursuing either option and what they’re willing to endure because of it. And it’s important to note that what we see happening comes from a lifetime of prior experiences, to the point that they might make the decision unconsciously. The Obamas are polite and dignified because polite dignity is who they are as people, who they had to be to rise as high as they did, AND because they comprehend how showing Trump the same level of contempt he tends to show them would have opened them to a greater degree of attack. Secretary Clinton is discourteous because she feels justifiable resentment BUT ALSO since she knows any action in this case could be turned into ammunition against her, so she might as well express herself honestly regardless of what the camera immortalizes.
There are hierarchies of privilege in all of this, including through the lenses of economic class and power, but there’s a key constant here as well: One demographic of individual in this image doesn’t have to think quite so hard about it. Bill Clinton won’t be examined as thoroughly as his wife for also refusing to extend a hand. Jimmy Carter won’t be expected to show camaraderie with Trump just because they’ve both held the same executive position. Dick Cheney never has to ask himself why he’s allowed to move freely about the surface of the Earth instead of facing another day of his trial for war crimes.
And Donald Trump has lived most of his life unconcerned with how much or how little of himself he should express in any situation, because time and again it’s been proven to him that after indulging the stupidest, ugliest pieces of himself he will either be rewarded or the consequences can be mitigated to a point that he doesn’t have to worry about them.
You can see all of that in this image. Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words.