Viewing it in isolation, you might assume it was a “first baby born in the new millennium”-type photograph. There’s Donald Trump with his thumbs-up, like he is personally responsible for producing this child-of-the-future; and Melania, her hair perfectly coiffured, cradling him like a Stepford Madonna.
It is only when you understand the context that it becomes grotesque. This was not a moment of celebration, but of mourning. The baby, Paul, is an orphan; his parents, Jordan and Andre Anchondo, died while trying to protect him from a racist gunman who claimed 22 lives in El Paso.
At two months old, Paul’s future has just been shot down in a hail of bullets. How will he feel when he looks at this photograph in years to come? How will he feel to discover that, at the defining moment in his life, he was co-opted as a piece of presidential propaganda; commodified to prop up the reputation of the man whose hateful rhetoric may have inspired the massacre? How will such a toxic legacy shape the man he becomes? Will he grow up to stand against hate? Or will the way he has been treated ensure it is passed on like a contagion?
Trump won’t be worrying about any of this. He is not a man prone to self-reflection. He lacks the capacity for empathy and the dignity of office. On the visit to the University Medical Center, where eight of the injured were still being treated, he centred himself like the narcissist he is, turning the most solemn of occasions into a jamboree.
The short promotional video – which features hospital workers smiling and holding their mobile phones up and is set to a triumphalist soundtrack – lacks only a “Make America Great Again – Vote Trump” strip running along the bottom to be the consummate campaign ad. The separate footage of Trump boasting of rally numbers and trash-talking Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke to a group of first responders was an affront not only to the role of Potus, but to the role of human being.
What normally functioning man could fail to understand that in this situation, more than any other, it wasn’t about him? Nor was the image Trump projected a reflection of reality. The hospital was not unequivocally overjoyed to see him. All of the victims still in the hospital declined his visit. The baby had been discharged so someone agreed to bring him back. And he wasn’t old enough to give or refuse consent.
Nan Whaley – Mayor of Dayton, Ohio, the other US town to have suffered a massacre last weekend – did not criticise him over his visit there, as he later alleged. There’s actual footage of her not criticising him, although few would have judged her if she had. “He was well-received by victims and first responders,” she said – a statement which, if true, speaks more to their forbearance than his bedside manner.
It feels like a long time since a US president understood how to deport himself as a statesman. Just to remind us, it was not always thus. CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper played clips of three different US presidents – Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Ronald Reagan – responding to national tragedies. Three very different politicians, all striking the right tone. And then Trump blowing smoke up his own arse.
How long too since the existence of actual footage was accepted as a marker of truth? The US is now a country in the grip of institutional cognitive dissonance; a country where the lines between reality and fiction are so blurred as to render the political landscape unnavigable for many.
Where else would so many people be so easily suckered into believing more guns will lead to fewer gun deaths (even though its existing guns-to-gun-deaths ratio suggests otherwise)? Where else would people sacrifice the constitutional right of children to go on living in favour of the constitutional right of men to bear the arms that kill them?
And riddle me this. Where else would a president, who laughed complicitly at the suggestion border patrol agents should shoot undocumented migrants, get away with a faux condemnation of racism and a plea for unity across the very population he polarised?
As the most divisive figure on the planet called for harmony, his policies were continuing to rip families apart in other states. Just hours before he met the El Paso victims, raids by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on seven food processing plants in Mississippi produced another disturbing image of a child. Fresh from her first day back at school, Magdalena Gomez Gregorio was filmed sobbing for her father who had been detained: “Governments please put your hearts,” she wept. “I need my dad. He is not a criminal.” While many wept with Magdalena, others remained unmoved. “Tears don’t trump the law,” said one. “Get over it, people – illegal is illegal,” said another; and you could sense the whole racist machine click into gear again.
Gregorio is Hispanic – part of the so-called “invasion” that the El Paso shooter referenced in his manifesto. The sight of her father and hundreds of others being led away, their wrists strapped together with elastic bands, dehumanises such migrants and fosters the perception of all Hispanic people as pariahs.
No doubt this anti-immigrant seam has always been there, buried in the border states and the Deep South. But no other president has ever worked so hard to mine, process and export it.
As we have already seen, there is a ready market for such a resource in the UK. Hard-line Brexiteers have been all-too-eager to exploit indigenous racism, and demagoguery has been linked to the murder of one MP. We may lack the gun culture but not the undercurrent of intolerance. “I am not a racist, but I am a realist. I don’t want my country flooded with migrants no matter where they come from,” a Brexit Party supporter tweeted on Thursday.
With Trump’s mini-me, Boris Johnson, in No 10, and the Tories looking to kill off the Brexit Party, it is quite conceivable that more white supremacist terrorism will cross the Atlantic as part of a US trade deal. We are already lending America the services of one of our most virulent bigots, Katie Hopkins. After last week’s shootings, Trump RT-ed her attack on the New York Times which, she claims, changed its “Unity Vs Racism” headline to “Assailing Hate But Not Guns” as a sop to “lefties”. On her own account, she was attempting to discredit those fleeing on an overcrowded boat from Libya. “The place these men escaped from was so terrifying, they left their wives and children there,” she wrote.
Despite his speech, Trump has learned precisely nothing – about racism, guns or the responsibility of a leader not to incite violence – from the El Paso tragedy. And because he has learned nothing, he will change nothing. Even as he was using the Anchondos’ tiny son to exculpate himself from their slaughter, he and ICE were busy other-ing migrants and so creating the conditions for it to happen again. And again. And again.