It is the picture of the tie, like the echo of the words, that lingers. The tie no longer secured in its big, boastful knot, but rather hanging limply around the neck, like a boxer on the ropes. The tie, that has been as close to a sartorial spirit animal as President Donald Trump has had, along with his red MAGA hat and his elaborately constructed hair, completely untied.
The tie as it was in the small hours of Sunday morning as the president arrived at Andrews military base from his ill-fated campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, later landing by helicopter at the White House and striding across the South Lawn, MAGA cap crushed in one hand. The tie as most observers could never remember seeing it before, at least around the neck of this president.
Together, the two accessories created an image as striking as those of the sparsely populated rows in Tulsa, and the empty overflow area outside. And as potentially symbolic, though probably not in the way Trump would like.
After all, this is not a president who ascribes to the shirt sleeves photo op. Not someone who invites his electorate in to see him, jacket tossed aside, elbows-deep in work at his desk. Not someone interested, like President Barack Obama and former Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain or even former Vice President Joe Biden, who seems equally comfortable with or without a tie, in announcing his sensitivity to the younger generation and their value system by willingly rejecting the suit.
He is, rather, someone who believes deeply in the pageantry of his office, of airbrushed calculation (see: Ivana, Melania, even Jared), branding, and the power of costume. Be that pageantry in the generals whom he famously once lauded as “straight from central casting” or his disastrously staged march across Lafayette Park to St. John’s Church in response to the protests in Washington, D.C.
It’s a tenet that was clearly on display in Tulsa not just in his own uniform — the flag-reflecting blue suit, white shirt, red tie — but in supporting acts that included Lara Trump, son Eric’s wife and a Trump campaign adviser, in a white wrap dress; Kimberly Guilfoyle, son Don Jr.’s girlfriend and chairwoman of the Trump Victory Finance Committee, in bright blue wrap dress; and Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, in red, like a matching patriotic array.
And when it comes to Trump’s costume, the tie matters. Especially the bright red tie, which he made his doppelgänger during the 2016 campaign, glowing in all its Republican glory; subliminally reminding everyone of the party’s Reagan heyday; of the good old times when everyone dressed according to establishment role; representing, in all its ridiculous, below-the-belt length — well, who knows? Something! Manhood or power or Trump’s willingness to stretch the rules (he also Scotch-taped the back, remember?). The psychological speculation has been endless, and varied.
The problem is, when the tie becomes a sign of victory, it can also be a sign of defeat. So it looked Sunday morning. Sure, it was very early. You can understand why a tie might be undone. But Trump understands as well as anyone that he is always on display, always playing his part. There isn’t really a backstage in his job, especially during his entrance and exit moments.
Add to that the cap-in-hand, and the symbolism gets pretty loaded. As one observer tweeted, “I mean, when does a baseball coach scrunch up their team cap — it ain’t when they’re winning, is it?”
Nope. It’s usually when they are about to throw it on the ground and jump up and down on it in frustration and disgust, because nothing is going according to plan. At least in the movies, from which Trump does seem to derive most of his cues.
Which is why, through all the bombast and brouhaha, the denialism and accusations, that both characterized the flop in Oklahoma and followed it, the unplanned photo op stood out as a rare moment of truth, caught on camera. It was real Reality TV.
The campaign rally was supposed to be the start of a new stage (pun intended). Maybe it actually will be.