When the details of former president Trump’s first indictment scandalized the public last June, the most shocking revelations must have been the photos themselves. The 49-page indictment included six photos depicting cardboard boxes of classified material stored in unsecured locations at Mar-a-Lago: stacked on the stage of a ballroom and in storage rooms, tipped over and spread across the floor of a storage room, and, in the most discussed image, in a bathroom, piled around a squat oval toilet, beneath a chandelier, beside the bathtub and a garbage bin. I lost words, could only gape at the image when I found it on the front page of The New York Times that morning. The defining news of the week showed not a professional photograph of a suited president or the war in Ukraine, but a low-resolution picture, taken by a resort employee, of white boxes and a toilet.
When we think of iconic images, those that tell the story of a nation and its people, we imagine art-photography, masterful stills of gestures and chiaroscuros that illuminate a person’s character and hold the unseen captive for our witness. These images come to represent our loneliness, our bravery and empathy, our fracture and pain. The image of the boxes in Trump’s bathroom is not artful; it is not part of the aesthetic tradition of front-page photographs and National Geographic’s Photos of the Year. Yet it illuminates as much as the paintings and photographs in Guggenheim, and it portrays the strange, absurd state of politics in 21st-century America.
The photograph, like our country, is all contradictions: top secrets and a toilet; banality and scandal; confidentiality and an unsurveilled room; class and tastelessness; a chandelier and Florida. It evidences history (Trump is the first American president to be federally indicted) and the everyday (boxes in a bathroom). The juxtaposition of the secrets those boxes held, and the toilet can only be described as uncanny — and perfectly representative of this bizarre, uncertain era of American history. The indictment cites the image as proof of crimes, but it also needed the image to transcend the length and monotony of legal documents. For this reason, I call on the Department of Justice to credit its author, for the purposes of artistic recognition, even though the photo belongs to us all now, like American Gothic and Warhol’s soup cans.
Politics is a game of images, and Trump has distinguished himself as its master. He first made himself the symbol of wealth and business success through scenes at the boardroom table of The Apprentice, and he augmented his fortunes by displaying the giant steel letters of his name on buildings, some of which he did not own (in Chicago you cannot escape the sign on the Trump Tower, the letters 20 feet tall and nearly 150 feet wide). Some have argued his political career began at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, when then-president Obama mocked him for his racist birther conspiracy, as you could see the wince in Trump’s forced smile as he pictured the image broadcast of a room of journalists and politicians laughing at him.
Trump climbed from celebrity to the presidency with the ever-presence of his image on cable news. According to one study, he earned $2 billion of free coverage, and videos and photos of Trump were inescapable once he began his candidacy in 2016. His success with anti-establishment voters can partly be explained by how he disrupted the conventional imagery of political elites, and we can follow his obsession with his own image in how frequently he watched televised coverage of himself — as president, he spent the majority of each day watching television — and in how after losing the 2020 election he asked his chief photographer to halt her plans of publishing a book of photos from his presidency so that he could use them himself, without attributions, in his own book. Self-created images also damaged his legacy: the photo op with the bible in front of St. John’s after ordering the National Guard to drive protestors out of Lafayette Square with tear gas, flash grenades, rubber bullets, and batons; the live footage of his supporters destroying the Capitol and hunting senators and his own vice president on January 6.
The indictment’s bathroom photograph underscores the importance of images to Trump’s career, especially because it continues one of the most prominent symbols in his iconography: the toilet. In 2021 New York Magazine published “A History of the Trump Era Through Stories About Toilets,” which details Melania Trump’s insistence that she would not move into the White House until it replaced the toilet Michelle Obama used, as well as Trump’s complaints that in the White House “people are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once,” and Trump’s firing of former secretary of state Rex Tillerson on the presidential throne. When Trump asked the Guggenheim to display Van Gogh’s “Landscape With the Snow” in the White House residence, the museum denied his request and offered to instead send him Maurizio Cattelan’s “America,” an 18-karat gold, 227-pound toilet displayed by the museum (in 2019, after being displayed at the Blenheim Palace in the United Kingdom, “America” was stolen and has not yet been recovered). The next major event in the history of Trump and the crapper came when Maggie Haberman released images of torn-up documents in White House toilets to substantiate her reporting that Trump flushed documents to avoid having them archived.
These instances present an uncanny combination of qualities that have come to define Trump and America: farce in all the potty humor, the need for 15 flushes; racism in the fear of using Michelle Obama’s toilet; a disregard for the law in ripping up and flushing documents; and power, the ability of a man to relieve the secretary of state of his duty while relieving himself. The most recent bathroom occurrence thrusts the humor and severity of Trump into its most concise, evocative image yet: classified documents, detailing American secrets, plans for war, within inches of what we the people call the can.
The image is distinctly Trump’s: outside of the White House, outside of convention, and out of fashion, decorated with dark granite and a chandelier. Despite his opulence, Trump’s rich old man tackiness — described by one writer as “dictator chic” — appealed to voters, both in camouflage and khaki shorts, in Crocs and boat shoes: this was a president who would write in all caps, like us, and eat KFC, albeit with a fork and knife on a private jet (recall, also, how he asked the White House chefs to make him a Quarter Pounder, and when the recreation dissatisfied him he sent the Director of Oval Office Operations to bring him one from McDonald’s, or how the millionaire president provided a banquet of Domino’s, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King on silver platters on to the 2018 NCAA football national champions). The appearance of power, set alongside the vulgar and even criminal: this is the real image of Donald Trump, which was captured in the photo of the classified documents stacked beside a toilet, underneath a chandelier. The image captures Trump’s contradictions, delusions, and failings, as well as those of our nation.
The aesthetic of Trump’s bathroom reminded me of the American culture I grew up outside of and once longed to have. My parents are immigrants; I was raised within the wallpaper, fragrances, and speech of another time and place. We lived close to a gated community, and in high school, I befriended some of the boys whose families lived there. When I came over to study with them or play tennis on their country club’s courts, I marveled at their kitchen islands, their walk-in pantries, their brown quartz countertops and chandeliers. But slowly it began to seem odd, and I felt like I had entered a surreal nightmare: all the excess televisions and food, all the kitchen appliances, and those wrinkles struggling through the Botox in the parents’ pulled-tight faces. These people and their homes were all surfaces, all appearances, trying to conceal the less glamorous but real parts of themselves.
The same lack of authenticity comes through in the early 2000s lake house aesthetic of the bathroom photo and corrodes contemporary American politics. The image is representative of the scandalous infotainment that has replaced the soul of our country. Late-night talk show hosts stopped writing jokes and started to show clips of each day’s political news. When Trump first ran for office, we were all laughing, and marveling, at his spectacle, and the Clinton campaign did not take his threat or working-class voters seriously, and he won. In 1985 Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death. Thirty years later, we should ask: What is the future for a culture that feeds on images?
It would be trite to claim that American politics and decorum have ended in the bathroom, alongside the classified documents. We require the perspective of another decade or two to understand whether the indictment images represent the end of dignity in American politics or whether they merely represent the end of an odd, laughable, suddenly dangerous figure. And we do not yet know what follows the image, and whether American discourse can become genuine again in the time of the social media feed.
I often wonder about the backrooms of history, the machinations of power, and the daily personal dramas of the people who wield it. With Trump comes the surprise that oftentimes these secret dealings, the private lives of presidents and kings, might be more banal than the little dramas of our own. That the images a country uses to brand itself — flags, crests, military uniforms and vehicles, podiums, manicured gardens and lawns — sometimes give way to the other images that define a country: landfills, fires, handcuffs, corpses, guns. Toilets, papers, cardboard boxes of a country’s secrets.
It is like the old, tested, magical process of tintype photography: the photographer opens the lens — for 20 seconds, 30 — and after he coats the tintype in the proper solution, suddenly the image starts to appear, the image that was there all along.
Source images courtesy of Racool_studio, Thomas Pajot, somchaisom, bamidor, stockphoto-graf, Gage Skidmore, and Michael Vadon, via freepik.com, stock.adobe.com, and commons.wikimedia.org. All images have been altered.•