Staring Down Donald Trump, the Same Elephant in Every Room
Every now and then, the internet coughs up a viral video that has the quality of found art. It may be jittery amateur iPhone footage; it may be a spontaneous moment captured by a pool photographer covering a news event. But it has the elegance and integrity and uncanny formal symmetry of something scripted.
One remarkable example is a recent video of the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, shot at the United Nations in New York on the morning of Sept. 23. The clip begins with Thunberg standing at the edge of a lobby crowded with onlookers and reporters. The camera is tightly focused on her face, and we watch that face transform. Thunberg’s eyes narrow and harden; her mouth twists into a skeptical scowl. Suddenly, the camera whizzes back to reveal the object of her glare.
CreditCreditVideo by Guardian News
President Trump has entered the room. He is flanked by aides and dignitaries, and his mouth is moving rapidly, as it often does. But what seizes our attention is Trump’s imposing physical presence in the foreground of the shot. We watch him move, with an imperious rhinocerine trudge, into the center of the frame, until he obscures our view of Thunberg almost altogether.
This sequence lasts only a few seconds, but it is a complete narrative, a story told so deftly — with such faithfulness to Aristotelian dramatic principles and so sure a command of cinematic clichés — that it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t cooked up in Hollywood. The blocking, the beats, the zipping camera movement and, especially, the exaggerated actions and reactions of the protagonists — all seem designed to heighten the drama and to underscore, for anyone who may have missed the point, that we are witnessing a stark morality play. The episode even had a foreshadowing prologue. That morning, in a speech to the world leaders gathered at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, Thunberg delivered a warning. “My message is that we’ll be watching you,” she said. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you.” And there she was, not long afterward, fixing the planet’s most notorious climate-change denier with what the internet quickly deemed a “death stare.”
The video rocketed around the internet, generating memes and quips, none of them especially clever: “Make America Greta Again”; “This Greta Thunberg stare-down is life goals”; “Find yourself someone who looks upon your worst enemy the way Greta Thunberg looks at Trump.” Julián Castro, the Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted out the GIF under the caption “I think a lot of us can relate.”
The eagerness of so many to claim Thunberg as their glowering proxy was curious. That withering “death stare” was directed at Trump — but was it directed only at Trump? Thunberg’s message, reiterated that day in her speech at the United Nations, is a broad generational indictment that spares no one, at least no one over 18, for their empty words and inaction on the climate crisis. The countless thousands who have crammed social media feeds with variations on the theme “We are all Greta Thunberg” are seeking an absolution that Thunberg is not offering.
In fact, the viral popularity of this video may have little to do with climate change, or with the scouring power of Thunberg’s gaze. The clip concisely encapsulates an experience to which, as Castro suggests, millions of us can relate. The key moment comes with that abrupt shift in focal point, when the camera seems to jump up and flee, zooming away from Thunberg to document the arrival of the president. It is a jarring bait and switch, a visual joke with a grim punch line. Thunberg is a small person but a mighty moral force; Trump, it seems fair to assert, is in both respects Thunberg’s antithesis. Yet the camera is drawn away, and Thunberg recedes from view, her sharp features and bright magenta blouse reduced to indistinct splotches. She is eclipsed by the person of Trump, who heaves into the center of the frame like one of those giant cruise ships that arrive in the harbor to blot out the sun.
Famous, powerful people are known to make grand entrances. It is part of the gig. But Trump’s way of lurching into a room is inseparable from his propensity for creating chaos and obliterating meaning. “Thank you very much, thank you very much,” he booms as he steps into the United Nations lobby. He seems to be addressing this thanks to everyone in the room, as if all those present have just burst into applause. (They haven’t.) He is merely Being Trump, doing what he does when he shows up anyplace, whether it’s a meeting of the Group of 7 or a wreath-laying commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery or a Super Bowl party at Mar-a-Lago: subjugating the entire purpose of the event to his own ego and id. It is a demeanor that announces that if anything is going to get done today, it will happen in spite, probably in defiance, of the president of the United States.
Trump wound up attending the climate meeting for about 15 minutes. There were more pressing matters to attend to. He posted on Twitter a dozen times that day, including tweets mocking Mitt Romney, Joe Biden and Adam Schiff. He also directed a trolling tweet at Thunberg: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”
We are not “all Greta Thunberg,” but all of us know what it’s like to be ambushed by Donald Trump. He pops up on your social media feed with hateful words and impulsive policy announcements. He flickers on TV screens in bus terminals and airport departure lounges, forever looming over your shoulder. He barges unbidden into your dreams. It is a condition of being alive in America in 2019. No matter who you are or what you’re trying to accomplish, whether you’re a 16-year-old working to save the planet or an ordinary citizen trying to make it through the day with some peace of mind intact, you will inevitably confront the specter of Trump, drifting into the frame in a cloud of disorder and bad vibes. Even the president’s most dedicated enablers scan the sky warily, awaiting today’s cyclone, the next reckless, capricious twist of the plot. The door swings open, the president enters, all heads turn. The camera whips around, and suddenly, everything else — better angels, higher ideals, common decency, common sense, beauty, truth — blurs into the background.