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The US president knows exactly how to use the media to his advantage. Can this self-portrayal get him reelected?
President Donald Trump likes to pose for photos in a way that makes him look determined and serious, taking on a stiff posture even when he's smiling or flashing his trademark thumbs up.
Nevertheless, Trump fans "identify with him because he seems authentic," says media expert Marion Müller. The fact that his imagery is always consistent, she adds, contributes to a polarized election campaign.
His tanned face, oversized ties, feathery comb-over and pouted lips, "are studied poses; it all looks like a caricature," says Müller, "and through them he managed to turn himself into a cult figure."
Trump's persona is so simple and iconic that everyone can instantly recognize that this child with a red tie and blonde wig is dressed up as the US President
Trump may come across as simple and aggressive, but that works well with the fact that he does not aim to be perceived as a complex politician who makes deep assessments before taking informed decisions, but rather as an authentic guy who simply trusts his gut. "The world is so complicated that people long for simple answers and simple personalities — and that's what Trump delivers," explains Herbert Fitzek, economic and cultural psychologist at the BSP Business School Berlin.
Beyond the formal settings, press photographers are hardly given access to the president in a private context; they're even barred from certain official appointments. Even the official White House photographer, Shealah Craighead, only releases selected staged photos of the Commander-in-Chief.
The contrast with Trump's predecessor is particularly revealing.
Barack Obama also knew how to stage himself carefully, but official photos of him also showed other sides of the man — joking with children, playing with his dogs, dancing with his wife, Michelle, or casually putting his feet on the Oval Office desk.
The photos aimed to stylize Obama as a president with human facets, allowing the world to get the feeling they "know him" and turning him into a media darling. "It was well received here in Germany," says cultural psychologist Fitzek, "but in the USA many people were fed up with this image. They wanted someone simple and straightforward — just like Trump."
Two propaganda photos illustrate this difference, each published by the White House after a successful operation against a leader of terrorist organizations.
Obama and his team in the Situation Room of the White House, following the mission against Osama bin Laden
The first one shows Obama, surrounded by former Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other members of the national security team, as they tensely follow the raid against al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden.
The other one portrays Donald Trump and his team, as Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was about to be killed.
Both photos have the same goal: promoting the United States' power through decisive actions against terrorism.
But the first picture with Obama has a documentary feel to it, showing a team of people at work, while Trump is solemnly placed at the center of his shot. In the background, the seal of the President of the United States circles his head like a halo. The uniformed men at his side look like a pack of vicious shepherd dogs.
It shows Trump in control of the situation, says Fitzek. "The message is simple and poignant, at least for a part of the population," the psychologist adds.
Obama and Trump were worlds apart, and that also applied to their media staging. New York Times staff photographer Doug Mills, who has been reporting on six US presidents from 1981 to 2020, summarized their strengths in a recent interview with the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel: "Obama was the most photogenic president ever; Trump the most iconic."
Adapted from the original German article by Elizabeth Grenier.