The impression made by Donald Trump’s victory speech in the early morning of Wednesday 9th November was less terrifying than many people had expected. In the speech, he was conciliatory towards Hillary Clinton, he was apparently respectful towards dissenters and he pledged to be a President for ‘all Americans’. However, if the speech made an impression on me watching befuddled at 7am that morning on my phone, it wasn’t just his words that landed – it was something else at the periphery of my vision. A blonde homunculus on the tycoon’s right fidgeting and looking uncomfortable, like a cross between a Macauley Culkin and Little Lord Fauntleroy (don’t order the extrajudicial killing yet, Donald, it’s meant as compliment!).
The softness of the face, cherubic like a celestial puttee, next to his intimidatingly hulking – and perpetually Saturnine father – rendered eerily Bacchanalian for the evening. It was quite a contrast. And that contrast between the two got me thinking
The visual juxtaposition of the lumbering grizzly bear of a septuagenarian tycoon and his fragile, diminutive offspring I felt instinctively was almost certainly a mise-en-scene by design. This. I’m sure. Before you say it. Is not. A highly original thought.
I usually write about branding, and in doing so I employ a perspective called semiotics. Semiotics is interpretive practise, which suggests that what we see and hear we make sense of partly through the lens of the way we have been conditioned by the culture we are socialised into. It is permission to dig deeper into visual imagery and explore wider to join the dots between phenomena.
Semiotics asks simply: Where have I seen this before? In what context? And what meaning and rhetorical effects did it have in that context? And what can we learn from that in terms of what meaning is imported into this seemingly new situation? Every semiotician is obsessed with the patterns to be found in collecting inventories of different types of visual communication genre.
I have for instance catalogued political campaign imagery. The two images above are good examples of how this can work. On the left, arguably, the politician is far more authoritative. This is partly because the shot is wider, and his stance is more erect and gaze quite neutral. His stiffness of gait connotes officialdom and high office. But it is also because he is framed by the high panelling of a Baltic chancellery and most importantly by a flag (which is an Estonian flag). The figure on the right is far less formal. Sure the shot is wider, the stance hunched forward in complicity and the gaze fixed on and somewhat solicitous of our attention. The decor is also different. The formal cabinet suggests something formal, but somehow much less official. This is a simple example, but it is a good way of showing how framing works. In this example, the surrounding of a politician with the accoutrements of statehood helps to convey a more formal impression of competence, authority and power. But conveying strength and authority is not always the rhetorical objective in political image making. Sometimes, it is quite the opposite!
One of the most basic semiotic principles is that the human mind works through fast implicit association. If I see you together with a certain object I come to associate you with the values and qualities of that object. This is why print ads are often based on juxtaposition between the product and some desirable or dream like scenario which implicitly presents itself as the brand effect.
This is the idea of ‘framing’ used in social semiotics to designate the phenomenon whereby “the disconnection of the elements of a visual composition…or the ways in which elements of a composition may be visually connected to one another… connected elements will be read as belonging together in one way or another, as continuous or complementary, for instance.” To take a simple example of this car ad. communication context, there is a transfer of meaning automatically from the architectural style of the building swish, contemporary onto the car which translates into brand and value perceptions: a proxy for cultural capital. So, for example, the car in the print ad is rendered more contemporary by the Le Corbusier like architecture and Zen cut hedge.
Academic writing on image making in political campaign advertising there is a well established literature on the use of children as rhetorical weapons. In Sherr, Susan A ‘Scene from the Political Playground: An Analysis of the Symbolic Use of Children in Presidential Campaign Advertising’ Political Communication; 16:1, 45-59 (06 August 2010) she examines the use of children to soften candidates in US presidential campaigns. Sherr writes: “The “baby-kissing politician” is an American cliché, and it is a rare politician who does not propose that he or she can help bring about a better world for our children and grandchildren. Furthermore, images of candidates surrounded by their own children are commonplace”.
Sherr argues that children may be deployed as a ‘rhetorical panacea’ and elaborates that: “By employing children as a metaphor in rhetoric concerning numerous and disparate issues, politicians may change the issue-specific focus of an argument to one… driven exclusively by emotionality or misdirected sentiment.” This is something which we will see very much at play in during the Donald Trump speech TV frame . Quoted in Sherr: “Messaris (1997) argues that visual persuasion is also accomplished by establishing juxtapositions, but among visual objects. Through the construction of montages of visual imagery, the attributes of one object can be associated with another in order to create a visual argument. In this way, candidates can use the symbolism of childhood to create associative meaning. For example, a child holding an American flag can symbolize the future of the nation”.
I think we can all agree that the below poster for the Front National in France, gruesomely, proves my point. Jean- Marie Le Pen derives many things from being juxtaposed with a small child. That he is a family man, he has soft hands, is sensitive, but most importantly that he’s a steward of the future. His caring for a child seeks to persuade that he can be trusted in government.
But even before that the use of children in the craft of power is legion and extends far back into history. Catriona Murray published a monograph recently entitled, Imaging Stuart Family Politics, which as the review writes “brings together royal ritual, court portraiture and popular prints to examine the promotion of Stuart familial propaganda through the figure of the royal child.”
“She convincingly demonstrates how these representations were strategically crafted and deployed to promote political agendas and royal sovereignty.” In the image below we see Henry VIII with his male heir. Very much like Barron Trump he is not a childish figure but a statesman in miniature. He wields a sword as a sign of inherited power and brandishes it with purpose.
With Trump, what popped out at me was that when you’re a polarising fellow who is feared and feted by half of the American populace, and you’ve just won the highest office in the land, to mount a conciliatory charm offensive, you need to first neutralise any sense of danger. And to neutralise danger, the first thing to do is not to overtly persuade them but covertly influence them.
So what better to use than your child? So what does he do? He places in the line of sight his son, half blinded by the spot light, nervous and unsure of what to do with himself, nervously holding himself erect and simpering. Now I have no idea what Trump and his core team had in mind that night. But I would bet that there were people more central to his campaign than a 10 year old boy. I would imagine that many of these individuals would have wanted, potentially, to be honoured as part of his inner sanctum by being placed on his other side. I’m also guessing Barron did not relish being in the limelight. In fact, his reactions show his obvious discomfort. And why would he? He’s only 10. So, why is he there? Well, I’d argue because of the associations. Associations that his father wanted to garner for his triumphant introduction to the American people as their next President.
Virility and Stewardship – family instincts, protector, continuity
Firstly, there is the fact of a young son, recently conceived, signifying virility. There is something sacred and precious about the bond between father and son and special about the child.”Higonnet explains that the emphasis on the child’s body in the mass production of illustrations and photographs, beginning in the late nineteenth century, led to the transformation of the Romantic child into the “knowing child” possessed of a more complex, ambiguous and problematic constellation of attributes.”
Where have I seen this before? It is the Patek Philippe print ads – classics of the luxury watch genre; absolutely unmistakable. The premise of the ad campaign of course is that just as DeBeers diamonds are forever, a Patek Philippe watch is never owned only passed on. The preppy sartorial cues and clear visual construction of power succession with a senior, successful patriarch grooming his male offspring for the rigours of power and responsibility, I thought that the visual parallels here were so striking.
Apparently, according to Hollywood Reporter, Melania Trump told ABC News in the same 2013 interview that she refers to the youngest Trump offspring as “mini Donald” nonetheless. So he given his prominence here, he is being molded in his image.
Rejuvenation and Optimism – progressive, hopeful, fresh start, new era…
Well, this is very much a well worn strategy in political advertising where children are proxies for the American Dream. If we pay attention to the words he used. “A better, brighter future… working together … rebuilding our nation…renewing the American dream…untapped potential… programme of national growth and renewal … no dream is too big, no challenge too great… ” we can see how complementary his son might be in that communication context, given the thrust of Trump’s rhetoric.
Again, as Sherr comments: “The association of childhood with innocence contributes to the construction of the past as better than the present. Childhood is also a time to be remembered and reflected upon, perhaps nostalgically. Children become symbolic of a future characterized by the nostalgic innocence of the past. Conversely, because children will reach their potential as American citizens in the future, they also represent progress and potential. In this construction of the future, children are symbolic of the unimagined possibilities awaiting the nation. Here a politician can use children symbolically to claim that he will lead the country into a new era.”
We can see this strategy at work in a number of campaigns from the 1970s onward. In particular Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America campaign which used kids as proxies for a comment on the future. And, George Bush senior’s campaign where he was pictured striding into the distance with his brood of children and grandchildren. Both of these occasions drew upon and at the same time strengthened associations between children and a hopeful vision of the future. Something Barron’s presence triggers.
Cuteness and Kitsch – tenderness, vulnerability and sentimentality
There is something very heartwarming about a young boy. A soft boyish face, particularly all dressed up in a suit is cute. This made me think of a study on cute. Cuteness is a persuasive visual ploy – in Japan it can make grown men melt over small cats.
A pair of Yale studies suggest that when people say they want to ‘eat up’ babies, it’s prompted by overwhelming emotions – caused, one researcher has speculated, by frustration at not being able to care for the cute thing, channelled into aggressiveness.
These emotions are triggered chemically, deep within the brain. Experiments hooking up volunteers to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners have shown how seeing cute creatures stimulates the brain’s pleasure centre, the nucleus accumbens, causing a release of dopamine, in a way similar to what happens when eating chocolate or having sex. It is what is known as supernormal stimuli. This sense of vulnerabilty and the President as a protector has been used before. Most famously in the Daisy spot in favour of Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 Presidential campaign Daisy where he wanted to foreground his opponent’s weakness through playing on fear of nuclear holocaust using the tenderness of a young, cute faced little girl picking daisy petals.
On the latter point, Milan Kundera wrote about kitsch being a natural concomitant to authoritarianism. “When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.” Kitsch is a beautiful lie. This is also a popular visual trope in Social Realism from the Soviet Era. Joseph Stalin in particular liked to soften his image in the minds of the Russian people pictured alongside blonde children for whom he was a munificent benefactor.
I think this is important because this visual schema performs valuable rhetorical work. It helps give Trump a softer, more conciliatory side, helps to mollify feelings towards him and to neutralise negativity. It also cues balance in the presumes profile of the new President Elect. A colleague on Linked In Fredrik Goffhe uses a design rhetorics methodology to look at how to either familiarise or de-familiarise objects. If the object is boring, you need to de-familiarise it through making it more exotic or dangerous. If the object evokes anxiety you need to neutralise perceived threat through various mitigating or softening gambits.
Hence, young Barron.
Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence right hand man: a solid Republican stalwart and a stabling influence – playing the straight man to the outrageous Trump like Joe Biden did to the exotic Obama in 2008. What could we place in a slot to his left to switch up the meanings? Let’s look the rhetoric of the image and do a commutation test. This is really just a fancy way of saying, let’s mess with the elements of this image and see what alters the overall meaning. It’s a way of determining the impact of individual visual resources. I might apply this in my professional consultancy to see what difference a font or colour makes to the overall associations or value perceptions attached to product packaging. But the same principle exactly can be applied to politicians.
Short version: I’d argue that the visual support would have been much less effective if he’d been flanked by other figures. These would elicit different meanings. A burly bodyguard with a buzz cut and ear piece, and this only reinforces a sense of danger and threat, an entrenched, belligerent bully poised to bludgeon his opponents and to settle scores with a long shitlist of nemeses.
If he put another of his sons in the line of sight while delivering the speech the mind of the scared onlooker is filled with fears of cronyism, nepotism and oligarchical control. That he will turn the Oval Office into a board room for shady deals and corporate rapacity. And of course, he would have missed all the positive connotations that he gains from associating himself with Barron.
Ivanka, and it evokes a sense of nepotism. Ivanka, brand strategist, Lean In feminist and Rasputin like figure in terms of the hold she has over her father would explicitly signal Trump intended to reward and project his Inner Circle. Flanking with his glamorous daughter would have perhaps done some work in implicitly addressing charges of misogeny – no matter how flimsy a counterpoint it is to such blatantly sexist views – but her overt glamour and partisanship might have been received much more suspiciously. And it certainly would not have done the effective neutralisation job that his youngest son did – it would have been just another form of erotic power.
What about if he was to be pictured with Ben Carson, African American GOP contender and supporter of his campaign? Carson is already being pitched as a possible Housing Secretary in the administration. This would indicated a more inclusive approach to some of the broader electorate and might have acted as a ploy to conciliate people of colour in America awaiting a Trump administration with understandable trepidation. But it would have been incongruous, possibly alienated some of his more bigoted voters and would have been greeted with suspicion by those familiar with the standard playbook of diversity tokenism.
Ultimately, none of these options mollified in the way his actual choice of Barron did. The fresh faced innocence and gauche mannerisms were disarming and suggestive of naiveté. Overall what his presence achieved was a mollifying influence – softness, vulnerability, tenderness – the perfect foil to his father speech’s overt message of unity, healing and reconciliation.
So, to conclude, the visual juxtaposition of his son in the frame during his victory speech on November 9th performed some valuable rhetorical work for Donald Trump. It brought a sense of hope through kids as a proxy for an optimistic future and the American dream, it cemented his perceived authority through connoting trustworthiness as a steward and it was a disarming ploy through using the tender cuteness of an innocent in order to subtly neutralise his anxiety inducing threatening image.
What is unique to the semiotic enterprise is the methodology’s sensitivity to taking in and observing what other approaches neglect and another is its awareness of the meaning in the image. In addition to this, semiotics should bring a cultural memory to the task of making sense of today’s world – a world where media obfuscation and manipulation are all too common. If indeed we are entering a ‘post-truth era’ as seems to have become the received wisdom, then politics and the projection of ideology through media organs, is surely a critical facet of this. If semiotics is not relevant here, then I don’t know when or where it is?!
Barron connotes the great solicitude of power in the office of the President of the USA. Power always needs to exercised and to cover its tracks. Obfuscation has become the handmaiden of ideology. Trump’s camp saw the value in deploying it early. Power works through ruthlessness but also through great guile via the authority of visual symbols. In the UK with Brexit and now with Trump emotional content of messaging when allied to huge media influence is a huge arbiter of political sentiment. It can prime us as an electorate us into taking things for granted or on the other hand discounting other possibilities as ‘unthinkable’. I am looking forward to seeing Trump’s Inauguration Speech on January 20th 2017 and how the visual rhetoric will be framed.
Goffhé, Fredrik ‘Design Rhetorics’ Semiofest Presentation, (London, 2012)
Kress, Gunter, Theo Van Leeuwen Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (London: Routledge, 2006)
Murray, Catriona Imaging Stuart Family Politics (London: Routledge, 2017)
Sherr, Susan A ‘Scene from the Political Playground: An Analysis of the Symbolic Use of Children in Presidential Campaign Advertising’ Political Communication; 16:1, 45-59 (06 August 2010)
Van Leeuwen, Theo Introducing Social Semiotics (London: Routledge: 2005)