Square Pegs

The sinister normalcy of Republican imagery

When I was growing up in South Carolina, my parents would receive thank-you cards from the Bush family. A card of George W. on the campaign trail thanking them for a minor contribution; a formal Christmas card of him and Laura on firm, glossy print in front of an 18-foot concolor fir, wishing everyone well. Such cards featured printed signatures and royal script: “With deepest appreciation for your support.” “With your help we can make America stronger, safer and more prosperous.” The Bushes introduced a Republican image for the new millennium, a business-casual upgrade from the more impersonal thank-you cards of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush at the RNC, raising their hands victoriously toward an unseen crowd; or the later portrait of Reagan in which he swapped out his family for his white, Anglo-Arabian stallion, El Alamein (named for the Egyptian town where Allied forces broke the Axis line). The George W. campaign cards, by contrast, were meant to invite upper-class empathy — a dorkish humanitarian campaign. W. hung on our refrigerator door alongside the magnets of Elvis and Michelangelo’s statue of David.

Democrats, of course, also send out such cards, which have seemed experimental compared with their Republican counterparts: Bill and Hillary Clinton’s “Road to the White House” collectibles; the Obamas’ Christmas card that included a pop-up of the capitol. But the general purpose was the same: These political thank-you notes were meant to seem like they could adorn living rooms and kitchens alongside similar missives from family friends and intimates — uniting personal and public figures in the same space, and implying community, just as one’s Instagram feed might do now.

Republican Instagram looks like an emphatic effort to socialize in a foreign medium, like an alien trying to blend into the midwest, like Governor Scott Walker enjoying a ham and cheese out of a brown lunch bag

More than a decade later, political photography doesn’t need to simulate the affect of Instagram: It can develop its paeans to normalcy within the platform — nonthreatening and aspirational for its target audience, fetishizing the hyper “ordinary” by making it conspicuous, to elicit a feeling of comfort rather than convey information. Depending on who’s looking, these political images carry a sense that everything is fine, good even; they also convey a sense of who is being excluded from the “family portrait.” The anodyne images of Republican Instagram still appear framed amid the other personal and pop-cultural ephemera for those who, like my parents, have made a minor contribution — only that contribution takes the form of a follow.

Although Republican Instagram still runs on obscene normalcy, the loss to Obama in 2012 spurred the Republican National Committee to attempt a different direction when it underwent a self-imposed “autopsy,” releasing a report called “The Growth and Opportunity Project.” The $10 million initiative tried overwriting the party’s image to “communicate their principles” in a broader, digital form they hoped could appeal to African-American, Latino, Asian, women and gay voters. “Our standard should not be universal purity, it should be a more welcoming form of conservatism,” said Sally Bradshaw, a Florida GOP strategist and one of the project’s co-chairs. The report called on candidates to communicate “with young voters” and figure out “where they get their information.” They discovered that “Technology is second nature to young voters.” The “autopsy” gained a little support after its introduction, but staff turnover at the RNC caused the goals recommended by the report to crumble. Though there remained a push toward using social media and broadening “reach,” the aims toward “universality” dictated by the report became relocated into this uncanny presentation of hyper-normalcy on Instagram, as though it were an eerie wallpaper shoddily stuck over the more overt Republican nastiness that found its place in the straight abject bigotry of the alt-right, visible even in the comments column alongside each image of a rainbow over the white house, short-cut grass, flowers. 

Photo-sharing media have taken over in some ways for the family mantelpiece, but screen displays operate according to different assumptions and rely on different visual codes. People are not only consuming images but producing them apace, while registering public responses to them in image-chat, using them conversationally on a scale far beyond what would’ve been elicited by mail or in its place at home. The seasonal, political thank-you cards had the luxury of long-term impact, whereas networked images are like an uncoordinated TV series, each image within a chronological and affective order but without directly speaking to the next.

It is no longer enough for politicians to send just a pleasant image; the image has to generate engagement, an immediate “sameness” quality, going beyond posing at the ranch to embellishing a more relatable suburbia, an imaginary payola, hunting photos like urgent offerings among the day-to-day. This has created a new genre of Republican visuals — Republican Instagram — which looks like an emphatic effort to socialize in a foreign medium, like an alien trying to blend into the midwest, like Governor Scott Walker enjoying a ham and cheese out of a brown lunch bag: the working man’s dose. He’s an example of the Republican sculpting the never-before really seen politician, a previously unimagined narrative far beyond the aristocratic duties of the seasonal thank-you card that can be self-imposed toward some idea of authenticity. Republican Instagram is a chance for a politician like Walker to say, “Hey, I’m not going anywhere” in low-quality, seemingly improvised photographs. It’s Speaker Paul Ryan placing himself front and center of every crowded, celebratory image, or having a lion-king Mufasa moment, looking out at the national mall with a blonde child in a photo captioned, “Everything the light touches.” Fear — or our hope — of their quick fade into irrelevancy is imaginatively stalled on Republican Instagram.

Official Republican photography has always attempted to present white Christian values as wholesome and inevitable as nature: not the outcome of political choices, but the “neutral” background against which American lives unfold. On Republican Instagram, we find overwhelming support for God’s law; man shit; school groups and boy scouts; the Southern comfort lifestyle that dangles like a fat pear in the breeze. Fittingly, landscapes are a staple, packaged with a sense of meditative quiet, awe, or as the backdrop to an inspo quote from Psalm 33. Elected officials place themselves against rolling pastures and leafy trees, imagery that suggests white nationalism is as naturally occurring as local horticulture.

On Republican Instagram, their fear — or our hope — of their quick fade into irrelevancy is imaginatively stalled

This equation has a long history in fascist propaganda, maybe best exemplified by Adolf Wissel’s “Farm Family from Kahlenburg,” the 1939 portrait of rural Nazism from the Reich’s campaign “Blood and Soil” (recently revived by alt-righters last August in Charlottesville). It’s echoed in the sentiment of American Regionalism paintings, like Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic, but often styled, deliberately or not, after 18th-century landscape paintings, like Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of moneyed landlords Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, posing with a shotgun and loyal hound on their rolling farmland. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger described the ideological work this painting performed: “Of course it is very possible that Mr. and Mrs. Andrews were engaged in the philosophic enjoyment of unperverted nature. But this is no way precludes them from being at the same time proud landowners … Their enjoyment of ‘uncorrupted and unperverted nature’ did not usually include the nature of other men.”

On Republican Instagram, “Blood and Soil” has been transposed into the idiom of genial, familiar awkwardness: Paul Ryan’s strained half-grin seems photoshopped across shots of him fishing, biking, posing for family portraits, lifting a dark brew in a green tie on St. Patrick’s Day. He wears square-toed slip-ons, pats a New Balance factory worker on the back, and leans against a screen showing the words American Health Care Act — captioned “Few things in life are more exciting than a wonky powerpoint presentation.” There’s the notorious selfie-stick photo with Capitol Hill interns, who appear to be about 99 percent white, bearing a striking resemblance to Jack Torrance and company at the Overlook Hotel’s July Fourth Ball, 1921. His checkmarked, verified account, @speakerryan, is meant to showcase his breadth of leadership qualities. Everything he posts is “professional,” and the bulk of it staged — though not composed: His accounts are calculatedly stripped of anything like artful sophistication, resembling instead the types of painting prints that hang in dentists’ offices to soothe patients’ anxieties.

On Republican Instagram, the outdoors are pictured pastorally, pristinely: Senator Kelly Ayotte is shown studying the New Hampshire foothills; Kevin McCarthy posts a shot of the cavernous Californian Bakersfield Cemetery filled with the gravestones of veterans woven through the landscape, and officials wear expressions of appropriate reverence. These nature shots seem meant to suggest a value system beyond materialism, but they do the opposite, implying an ownership of the natural world. The Emersonian Republican Instagrammer says, We own this land, but the landscape is all of ours. These pastoral shots romanticize “the old days,” the pleasures of owning property, against the fear of losing it to city decadence.

The Emersonian Republican Instagrammer says, We own this land, but the landscape is all of ours

Shots taken indoors tend to show Republican politicians with workaday objects — the symbolism is ordinary, pleasant, redolent of average days in safety and prosperity. The point is to co-opt normalcy, to make Republicanism synonymous with what’s mundane and familiar for the party’s supporters, passing a monocultural vision of the world as benign universality, a “universality” that is all the more sinister in the visual equivalence it makes between normalcy and whiteness. Governor Walker, with his propensity for poorly composed posts of brown bag lunches, as well as beer bottles and apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, seeds his account with working-class signifiers, while the minimum wage in Wisconsin remains at $7.25 an hour. Texas Representative Will Hurd posts a spread of breakfast tacos; Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson posts an eCard-looking meme of strawberries, blueberries, and almonds. Betsy Devos, taking the cue, posted a bag lunch around the same time she proposed legislation to cut public school funding.

Of course, these calculatedly placid shots are not what most associate with the words “Republican” and “social media”; if you search “Republican,” “America,” or “conservative” in Instagram you’ll likely find racist memes and signifiers, jokes about “shit-libs” and about using liberal tears to oil a Glock. These are Republican Instagram’s abjected materials — the cast-out or pushed-out sentiments that nonetheless make up Republican Party policy and are its byproduct. The Republican Instagram of politicians retains the insistent, deceptive banality from its old menu of visual cues. But it also belies the more hideous symbolism of its base and suggests its own kind of Lynchian foreboding. With the GOP’s more overtly fascist turn, that creepy mundanity now seems terrifying; it suggests the implacable indifference they have to “others,” as they aggressively work social media to solidify its notion of “us.”

Perhaps the most honest Republican Instagram account of all, at least poetically, is that of Dan Scavino Jr., Trump’s caddie turned White House social media director, who steers the administration’s content on the platform. He’s the one who selected the image of Hillary Clinton with the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever” superimposed over a Star of David, lifted from a white supremacist message board. He potentially orchestrated the posting of the CNN wrestling gif — which originated from Redditor HanAssholeSolo and shows Trump beating down a logo of CNN in the form of a person — on Trump’s Twitter feed.

The sharply filtered Instagram images Scavino engineers tend to be ominous, more overtly fascist — trained on monuments, big crowds, big things, with a somberness in tandem with his boss’s demeanor. None of the account lines up for normalcy like the brown-bag lunches and Ocean Spray of Walker’s branding; this is in a different key from nostalgic normalcy. Scavino instead presents all the big, heavy, monumental objects in the realm of sublime. The account’s intent is to evoke Trump’s ability to wield power.

These images lend themselves to sinister readings: President Trump and First Lady Melania hold hands in front of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” at the Sistine Chapel (and, oops, the Trumps are standing with the Damned, Donald’s head far below the steroid angels pulling poor souls into heaven). A rainbow arches over a capitol flooded in cold white light. A haunting, bare-limbed saucer magnolia is back-dropped by the White House, branches still not hindering the American flag from view. This visual code starkly demonstrates what all Republican political images on Instagram are trying to flout — political and religious dissention — as a business, as usual.

James KWilliamson fact-checks and writes in New York City. His writing has appeared in the Trace, Columbia Journalism Review, and Narratively.