In an attempt to portray himself as something he wasn’t, the Democratic nominee for the 1988 presidential election, Michael Dukakis, staged a photo op.
Donning coveralls and an ill-fitting oversized helmet, the diminutive Governor of Massachusetts tooled around the General Dynamics facility in Sterling Heights, Michigan in a 68-ton M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. Dukakis’ head and torso stuck out ridiculously on top of the hulking eight-foot tall tank.
The stunt backfired. Rather than bolstering his credibility as a future commander-in-chief, Dukakis’ out-of-character photo op turned into a comedy. He looked more like Snoopy than Eisenhower. Dozens of reporters were unable to restrain their laughter.
Yesterday, Donald Trump one-upped Dukakis.
First, he needed a stage to dominate. So he sent heavily armed police to gas and forcefully remove hundreds of peaceful protesters from the vicinity of St. John’s Church.
He then stood in front of the church, awkwardly holding up a Bible as a prop.
Trump was as out of place holding up a Bible as Dukakis was tooling around in a tank. It was like he couldn’t find the handle, so he held it up gingerly, upside down, like he’d picked up an unknown foreign artifact from Mars. It’s mildly surprising that he wasn’t wearing protective gloves.
To be sure, there are enormous differences between the Dukakis and Trump photo ops. The Dukakis tank escapade was goofy. Trump’s use of the Bible as a prop was sick and deeply disturbing.
But both demonstrate what it looks like when people pretend to be something the opposite of what they really are, and do a bad job of it.
Michael Dukakis had neither the bearing nor the physical presence to portray himself as a field commander. And Trump’s posturing as a man of God is just plain ludicrous. He simply lacks the muscle memory to handle a Bible in a way that conveys authenticity, much less devotion.
The incongruity of Trump making a weapon out of a sacred symbol of religious tolerance prompted photo-shopped memes of Adolf Hitler holding up a Bible in a similar pose. It was a moment of cognitive dissonance. Am I really seeing this? Trump? A Bible? What in God’s name (literally) is going on here?
And the headlines were brutal, not only in the United States, but across the world:
- Haaretz: “Religious Leaders Outraged Over Trump’s Church Photo-op Amid Nationwide Protests”
- Al Jazeera: “Protesters teargassed for Trump photo-op”
- Daily Mail: “Trump holds a Bible like he’s never touched a book before: Hilarious memes poke fun at the president for his controversial photo in front of St. John’s church”
- The Guardian: “Bishop ‘outraged’ over Trump’s church photo op during George Floyd protests”
- BBC News: “George Floyd death: Trump’s church visit shocks religious leaders”
- People: “Donald Trump Poses with a Bible at Church Photo Op After Police Clear His Path Using Tear Gas”
- The Irish Times: “Trump turns to bible for photo op as DC burns around him”
- The New York Times: “Protesters Dispersed With Tear Gas So Trump Could Pose at Church”
- Religious News Service: “Ahead of Trump Bible photo op, police forcibly expel priest from St. John’s church near White House”
- New York Magazine: “Peaceful Protesters Gassed So Trump Can Do a Sacrilegious Bible Photo Op”
- Fox News: “Backlash grows over use of tear gas against protesters prior to Trump’s walk to DC church”
The big difference between Trump’s Dukakis moment and the real thing is that Dukakis was already a dead-man-walking candidate when he took his notorious tank ride, but Donald Trump isn’t. He’s not showing well in the polls, but he’s very much in the running. His supporters expect – and his opponents fear – that 2020 will be a repeat of 2016.
Most Americans have been waiting for the aha moment that will wake up the 40% of the public that loves Trump and force them to see him for what he is. Or at least enough of them to take him out of the race.
But this won’t be it. Nothing will. This, like all the other outrages, will soon be buried under an avalanche of new ones.
That, more than Trump’s sacrilegious photo-op, is the real shame of this moment.