When President Trump went to one of the busiest neighborhoods in Texas
Mexico border Thursday morning he was dressed for a natural disaster. He was scheduled for a round table discussion on immigration and border security in McAllen, Texas, and a safety briefing in the Rio Grande. Nevertheless, none of these places involved a natural fire or an earthquake or a rogue storm. Frankly, the weather reports looked pretty pleasant. The ground was not shifting. But it does not matter. It was not about whether there was burnt debris to navigate or water-soaked benches and mattresses around which maneuvering could take place.
The clothing was a symbolic bloom to underline the message: the border itself is the disaster.
Trump is a creature of tailor's habits. He finds his packs baggy and his red ties extra long. And when he has traveled to places where nature causes great damage, he usually comes in a khaki pants, a white shirt with open collar, a navy wind jacket with the presidential seal on the chest and a baseball cap. He usually wears boots.
He has worn this look when he was lying on the ground in the aftermath of hurricanes Florence, Harvey and Irma. (Often the first lady was with him – she in her own version of disaster stuff, which usually contains a safari-style coat and a baseball cap.)
There have been a few variations on this theme, for example when he visited the border in Laredo, Texas, as a presidential candidate in July 2015. He wore a navy blazer because he did not have a presidential anorak yet. Typically, his baseball cap is white in these cases, although in November 2018 he wore a camouflage copy for a visit to Paradise, California. Perhaps because he was afraid that all ash and smoke from the deadly fires would spoil his pristine appearance.
The baseball caps are decorated with "USA" or with his campaign slogan "Make America Great Again". It is especially striking when he chooses a white version of the so-called MAGA hat, because it is the red iteration that is better known; it is the one he has made famous. But the white hat suggests that he sees himself coming as a bit of a white knight – the president shoots benevolently or self-justly on stage. The characterization all depends on one's tendencies.
The disaster ensemble of Trump has a striking resemblance to his golf togs. But that is not surprising. Trump has limited imagination in the field of clothing, so a trip to a desk or a lectern suffers from a particularly small number of self-edited choices. In that sense – the self-editing part – Trump is not much like his predecessor, Barack Obama, who once told Vanity Fair that he only wore gray or navy suits to reduce the number of decisions he had to make on a given day.
But when Trump looked into his closet for Thursday's uniform, he did not choose the suit and tie that speaks of the servant management or sports jacket that is still a favorite with the business casual set. Trump selected the uniform that announced: Unscheduled chaos, danger and destruction in the offing!
In the battle of Trump across the border, facts have disappeared, wrongly formulated or so mutilated that they have been made unrecognizable. His concrete boundary wall has been renamed into steel laths, transparent barricades, a beautiful fence or simply border security. Mexico will pay for it; Mexico already pays for it. The families seeking asylum have been transformed into violent hordes of drugs and the narrowing of the barriers that already exist. The story of the border has become a fabricated drama with consequences from real life. And Trump was costumed as the hero in the story he made carefully.
When Trump arrived in McAllen, he was followed by Air Force One by a supporting cast with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Who looked like his wardrobe was inspired by "Walker, Texas Ranger," along with Acting Chief from Staff Mick. Mulvaney and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, both of whom were the cheerful urban outbackers of people who maintain an account with REI. (Sen. John Cornyn [R-Tex.], dressed for a completely different adventure, was in a navy blazer with golden buttons.)
All presidential journeys to disaster zones are meant to be symbolic, even if they give the commander a glimpse of the situation in real time. They offer the public the opportunity to see the president get started with the restoration of a city. They give the President a few moments to assure those in need that their government, at the highest level, sees and hears them. And the importance of every word of being and every handshake is loaded with meaning. The throwing of paper towels in a crowd of displaced US citizens in Puerto Rico, which the president has done in October 2017, sounds like an inhumane nose gag about their plight. Arriving at the American border with Mexico, dressed as if he is on his way to the edge of a raging firestorm, is in itself a form of heated rhetoric.
The president chose not to wear a suit jacket, which would have suggested that this is not a situation that requires a state of emergency, that there are no large waves of terrorists and plague stops across the border. Instead, it would have been a nod to the weakest possibility of a bourgeois discourse. A suit would have suggested that maybe he was working now.
Instead, his clothes startled that he had inspected the damage. And certainly there is damage. Widespread wreckage. But there is nothing natural about it.