Why Naked Trump Misfires

Christine Cauterucci has some thoughts on the naked Trump statues that have been popping up in various cities:

“Encouraging people to laugh at the statue of Trump because it’s fat, wrinkly, and small-dicked doesn’t tell them Trump is a bad person. It tells them that fat, wrinkly, and small-dicked (or transgender, or intersex) people are funny to look at and should be embarrassed of their naked bodies. The statue’s name, with its focus on Trump’s lack of testicles, relies on the age-old rhetorical link between male genitalia and courage, a sexist connection that’s so hackneyed it’s almost more irksome than offensive at this point.”

Bottom line: the statue’s offensive. Well, of course it’s offensive. No one’s going to argue with that claim. But Cauterucci has a point, or a half a point. The problem with the naked Trump statues is that they’re offensive in the wrong way.

The easy critique here is that the statues are frivolous, a flagrantly shallow ad hominem attack, laying into Trump’s appearance when we should be focused on things like facts, positions, policies. Eh, whatever. The statues clearly belong to a long tradition of political satire. Here’s King George IV as depicted by James Gilray in 1792:Here’s French king Louis Philippe depicted by Daumier as Gargantua, the obscene giant invented by Rabelais:

Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall drawn by cartoonist Thomas Nast:

You could throw in illustrations to Gulliver’s Travels and a nearly infinite succession of political cartoons.

Like all art, this stuff has its own arcane codes, and each of these pieces uses physical flaws as metonyms for moral corruption. Corpulence signifies greed and grandiosity; age conveys decadence. This kind of crude symbolism seems bald and meanspirited by today’s standards. But there’s also a subtler level to the satire.

When political leaders present themselves as larger-than-life figures, they lay themselves open to having their flaws exaggerated along with their strengths. Strongman types have always fought this threat with visual propaganda: from Ancient Egyptian statues that depict divine pharaohs as eternally youthful warrior gods, to fussily posed portraits from the ancien regime, to the sentimental fictions of twentieth-century fascist art. Such vainglorious preening is most effectively undermined not by caricature, but by realism. The all-conquering leader wants to present himself as an indomitable force, an incarnation of strength, uniquely capable and destined for glory. Elites attribute their higher status to fantasies of innate superiority, deep as bone, passed down by blood–or, nowadays, stitched somewhere into the intricate, secret connections of the brain. Realistic portraiture deflates this kind of mythmaking by reminding us that supreme leaders and moneyed overlords are merely human beneath their gilt–veiny, saggy, sallow, decaying–aging animals, like the rest of us.

That’s what the Trump statues do–or could have done. The message comes across not in Trump’s lumpy body–handled properly, this style of hyperrealism can easily inspire pathos instead of contempt–but in the contrast between his ordinary physique and haughty expression. All of us end up with flabby middles and unsexy butts, but only some of us found political careers on projecting disdain for the weak.

Too bad the makers of the statues screwed it up. They had to do it: they went genital. And so what could have been a work of cutting political satire became little more than a locker-room prank. Pretty funny, huh? Trump’s got no balls! Sick burn!

Often the strongest insults have the weakest effect. What’s next, I wonder, making fun of Trump’s mother?

Goya’s famous painting of the family of Charles IV has often been seen as a sly critique of its royal subjects, not because it goes out of its way to mock their flaws, but because it takes the bold step of showing these potentates as they were–aging, self-conscious, a trifle awkward–something less than semi-divine. If only the makers of naked Trump had had the wit and wisdom to try something similar.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply