The official White House Flickr page publishes new photos of President Donald Trump and his devious band of halfwits almost every day. And if you scroll through the photos, all taken by the official White House photographer, it starts to feel like an alternate universe. Why? When you strip away the context of what’s being said or the actions being taken, Trump almost looks like a normal president. And if these “normal” photos make it into history textbooks of the future, a lot of school kids will have no idea just how bonkers this time really was.
Last week, we examined a famous 1968 photo of President Lyndon B. Johnson holding his head in his hand—an image that had recently gone viral. Countless documentaries about the Vietnam War have used that photo to show Johnson expressing sadness at the roughly 40,000 U.S. soldiers who had died to that point in the conflict, but in reality, Johnson was merely trying to hear an audiotape recording. Photos don’t tell the whole story, and that’s also very clear when it comes to President Trump.
Just take a look at the recent photos from April 23, when Trump engaged in the bizarre speculation that ingesting or injecting disinfectant might be a good cure for covid-19. The makers of Lysol had to issue a statement saying that people should not drink their products. And while the videos of the press conference were played around the world, with newscasters laughing at how stupid the U.S. president is, the photos from Flickr tell a different story.
In the still photos, President Trump looks like an engaged and thoughtful leader, talking with a science advisor.
If you compare that with Trump’s comments from that day, you’ll get a very different impression of how things are going in the White House.
“I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute,” Trump said at the April 23 coronavirus press briefing. “And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? As you see, it gets in the lungs, it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.”
Ultimately, Trump was so embarrassed by the ridicule he received that he stopped doing his daily coronavirus press conferences. Trump didn’t take questions at Friday’s covid-19 press conference, didn’t even bother to hold them on Saturday and Sunday, and today, there was a briefing on the schedule for 5:00 p.m. ET until it was canceled for good this morning.
[Update, 1:40 p.m. ET: The White House Press Secretary just tweeted that the press briefing is back on for today. But who knows...]
Trump is a lot of things: He’s a racist, a narcissist, and a wannabe authoritarian. But fundamentally, Trump’s defining characteristic is that he’s just plain weird. And none of that weirdness comes out in the official photos taken by White House photographers. Again, these are photos that could come to dominate historical memory if we’re not careful.
Take the day that the Washington Nationals baseball team visited the White House on November 4, 2019 after winning the World Series.
Yes, that’s President Trump appearing to grope Nationals baseball player Kurt Suzuki from behind while he wore a “Make America Great Again” hat. The late night talk shows all showed this bizarre wire photo of President Trump feeling up a baseball player—something that it’s difficult to imagine previous presidents doing.
But if you look at the Flickr photos from that day, it looks like a very normal experience. There’s no groping of any kind if White House photographers are to be believed. The photos from November 4, 2019, show happy baseball players and Trump being presented with a jersey that reads “45" since he’s the 45th person to hold the office of the U.S. president.
Giving presidents a jersey with “their number” on it is a long tradition that’s been observed for George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And the emphasis on this moment, rather than the strange groping scene makes Trump appear like a normal human being, rather than the absolute weirdo that he truly is.
Or consider Halloween. Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump went viral for placing candy on a kid’s head as they were dressed like a Minion. It was very, very weird. All they needed to do was hand the candy to the kid or put it in his bag.
But if you look at Flickr, all you’ll see are the president and First Lady handing out candy like normal people.
And there are countless examples. Think of the defining moments of this presidency, and the official photos for that day give you a warped perspective. Remember the Washington Nationals World Series game where Trump was loudly booed by fans?
The official photos, if that’s all you had to make an assessment, show people laughing, smiling, and taking pictures of the president. You don’t get to see the president’s heart sink as thousands of people boo his presence.
Admittedly, there are a handful of photos published on the White House Flickr account that would seem odd by the standards of another era. But it’s a testament to just how much Trump has changed the very definition of “normal” that these are published proudly.
Take President Trump’s hugging of the flag. If another president aggressively hugged the American flag, it would seem very weird. Hell, it would seem weird if any individual hugged a flag. If you were hanging out at a bus terminal and someone was in the corner hugging an American flag, you’d probably assume that person was disturbed and needed medical attention. But President Trump has turned flag-hugging into something that’s supposed to be completely normal.
Trump hugged a flag at the Conservative Political Action Committee meeting in March of 2019, and a photo of that was even uploaded to Flickr. But this is yet another example of how photos can obscure the full context. The president’s speech at CPAC that year was arguably one of the most bonkers of his entire term in office. It’s weird enough to hug a flag, but President Trump’s two-hour speech at CPAC that year was particularly unhinged, even for him.
This entire exercise gives you a sense of what could be possible in the future. There will certainly be people who will attempt to paint Trump as a completely normal president who sometimes merely took unorthodox approaches to the duties of the office. But those of us living through this era know how much damage he’s doing, and exactly how surreal the Trump presidency continues to be.
Back in January of 2019, we wrote about the ways that the Trump campaign was using photo-manipulation tools to make the president look thinner. His campaign was even giving him longer fingers, a sore spot for a president obsessed with the size of his hands. But after getting called out, Trump isn’t photoshopping his official photos anymore. All that’s left is Trump’s official Flickr page, and even without alterations, Americans aren’t getting an accurate picture of recent history.
Official White House photographers are almost always acting like a propaganda arm of the federal government, but it’s jarring to see the difference between the “official” version of the Trump presidency and the unfiltered one.
But make no mistake, there will be plenty of people who try to rewrite history and tell the story of Trump as one of a competent underdog just fighting against an unjust system. Don’t let them. And don’t let them use “normal” photos when you know the truth behind a given moment.
As we saw with LBJ, lies and distortions can last for generations. And proper context is the only tool we have to fight against misinformation, both today and well into the future.