Sunday, May 28, 2017
"I’m beginning to wonder if the wire photographers—from places like the A.P., Reuters, and other unshowy mainstays of the press pool—aren’t the true comedians of Donald Trump’s young and stressful Presidency. Alec Baldwin notwithstanding, the best way to make fun of a cretin of such operatic magnitude seems to be to present him with a steady naturalism, just as he is. This proved doubly true this past week, as the President embarked on a nine-day foreign tour, through the Middle East and Europe, that he and his advisers hoped would serve as a “reset” after so much Comey-induced stateside drama. But, alas, not so. The trip, now mercifully ended, instead provided a rolling photo essay of international embarrassment. Trump, in comfortable league with an absolute monarch and a dictator—the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud and the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi—laid hands on an inexplicable, vaguely mystical orb; he made Pope Francis look sad again and again; he lost to the new French President, Emmanuel Macron, in a duel of alpha-male handshakes. Speaking of hands, he twice had trouble convincing Melania to take hold of his own.
I was struck, though, by one of the quieter captures of the President overseas. It is a photo, credited to Getty Images, showing Donald and Melania standing in the Sistine Chapel not long after their meeting with His Holiness. They are holding hands (a miracle worthy of the Vatican) and touching shoulders; the First Lady, after the custom of a woman granted audience with the Pope, is dressed in all black and shrouded under an intricate veil. potus and flotus crane their necks upward, the better to regard Michelangelo’s devotional masterpiece, “The Last Judgment.” From what we know about his taste in art and design, we can imagine Trump’s quibbles: Where’s the gold? This place could use a pillar or two. We know that the President—he of “Two Corinthians” fame—is likely ill-equipped to grasp the theological content of the fresco, which depicts Christ’s Second Coming, and dramatizes the final judgment of all mankind. His briefly controversial theory of heroism might help us understand his attitude toward the figure at the center of the work—he likes people who weren’t captured, much less crucified.
Still, probably because of the artful angle of the photo—which shows the first couple from behind and a bit below; the pair look like monuments, and “The Last Judgment” like a terrifying sky—I perceive, ever so slightly, a sense of awe. Some art demands it, no matter how dull or corrupt the critical apparatus of the viewer. I wonder, metaphysics aside, whether Trump, who never made a mess he felt ashamed to slink away from, saw the twisted, writhing bodies of the damned, near the bottom of Michelangelo’s arrangement, and was given, by some unnamed grace, a glimpse of their moral meaning—that someday, somehow, each of us pays for what he does. A revelation, you might call it, but I’m not holding my breath—the ever-mounting revelations of the Russia probe might prove a better teacher."
Vinson Cunningham joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2016.
Donald and Melania Trump’s Last Judgment - The New Yorker