Michelle Wolf to Melania’s roses: the arts and pop culture that sum up the Trump era

Travesty in the Rose Garden

Since he’s a former real-estate tycoon, it seems fitting that Donald Trump’s tenure should express itself in some sort of building. So which edifice best defines his era? Well, there is the “big, beautiful wall” planned for the border with Mexico. “Nobody builds walls better than me!” he declared, yet so far just a few miles of steel fence have materialised, some of it already blown over in the wind.

Or there’s his order to “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again”, dictating they be neoclassical in style to “reflect national values” – as opposed to recent buildings tarnished with the foreign influences of “brutalism and deconstructivism”. Once again, the defining style here is dog-whistle jingoism.

'Insipid classical collage' ... the restored Rose Garden, overseen by First Lady Melania Trump.

However, to find the true presidential Trumpitecture, we must look closer to home, at the decorator-in-chief behind the scenes: his wife Melania. With one year’s architectural training from the University of Ljubljana, she has directed her expertise at sprucing up the official residence, revamping the presidential bowling alley, designing a private tennis pavilion and ripping up the Rose Garden.

The pavilion looks like an insipid classical collage, lifting details from the White House and bodging them together, while the Rose Garden has been bleached of all character, with trees removed and paving laid over the lawn, which will at least stop her stilettos sinking in. It all feels phoney, flimsy and obsessed with surface image – in other words, a perfect reflection of the Trump presidency. Oliver Wainwright

An incendiary call to arms

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Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 was met with a series of musical responses. Tom Morello and the rest of Audioslave reunited for a Los Angeles inauguration-night set; Sleater-Kinney and others played benefit shows for Planned Parenthood; and the day after he was sworn in, there was the Women’s March in Washington DC.

CocoRosie, who emerged in the early 00s alongside other such off-kilter folk revivalists as Joanna Newsom, released a song for the inauguration and the march. It featured Anohni, who had just created one of the best political albums of recent times, Hopelessness. While Hopelessness focused on the tail-end of Barack Obama’s tenure and its ruthlessly efficient drone bombing campaigns, Smoke ‘Em Out went for the same Ronseal approach of some other anti-Trump tracks such as YG ft Nipsey Hussle with FDT (Fuck Donald Trump).

CocoRosie’s verses are an abstract word salad, but once the chorus comes in, it’s clear this is a call to arms meant to invigorate a shellshocked nation: “Got children and wives waving forks and knives / Burning down the house.” Madonna, who attended the Women’s March, echoed the song’s sentiments, telling the crowd she’d “thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House”. Her comments earned the scorn of rightwing figures including Newt Gingrich, who called for her arrest. Lanre Bakare

Wolf comes to dinner

The signature comic response to Trump’s tenure came at the 2018 White House correspondents’ dinner, when Michelle Wolf delivered a set so incendiary that it ended the decades-long tradition of comedians performing at the black-tie event. What makes Wolf’s 20-minute turn so emblematic of the era is how confrontational it is. Just as Trump bulldozes presidential norms, not least the one requiring him to attend the correspondents dinner, so Wolf bulldozed the norms of this hitherto clubbable gala. Sure, Stephen Colbert landed some blows on President Bush a decade earlier, but few before Wolf were as crude and explicit.

The controversy, which exploded before Wolf even returned to her seat, wasn’t primarily about the sexual harassment jokes, aimed at Republican politician Roy Moore, or the “pussy-grabbing” jokes, or even the abortion jokes. It was about the material on White House press secretary Sarah Sanders who – excruciatingly – sat stony-faced by Wolf’s side while the comic called her a liar and an “Uncle Tom for white women who disappoint other white women”. The right freaked out, ignoring Wolf’s many gags about the Democrats’ and liberal media spinelessness. The organisers caved in. And Wolf’s notoriety was secured. Brian Logan

Rise of the snake-oil salesmen

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I resisted The Leftovers, HBO’s multi-series juggernaut, because its premise struck me as ludicrous. This supernatural TV show unpacks the fallout from a rapture-type event in which 140 million people inexplicably disappear from the planet. Then the pandemic happened, and suddenly it all sounded perfectly plausible. If there is a show that speaks to the experience of living in the US in the last four years, it is this dissection of faith and fanaticism in which a global disaster unhinges the American mind.

The show is absurdly pretentious which, oddly, makes it more apposite as a commentary on Trump. It puts cod-Shakespearean monologues into the mouth of Justin Theroux. He plays a small-town cop but you’d think, from the glowering montages, he was Gloucester on the Heath. This seems to chime perfectly with the grim comedy of the flake in the White House.

In their confusion, Americans flock to every stripe of snake-oil salesman. Cults flourish. People hang on to anything offering hope or coherence. It is boom-time for conmen. But the show highlights the cult-like nature of anti-cult movements, too. In so doing, it exposes the point at which any tribe – irrespective of aim – ceases to be reachable and moves beyond reason. Emma Brockes

A police killing foretold

the cover of Terrance Hayes's American Sonnets

The problem with books about Trump is that he is personally so extreme, and politically such a recent phenomenon, that we’re still stuck in the first draft of history. Biographical accounts tend to be speculative, partisan or fuelled by vengeance, while fiction metabolises too slowly to have yet produced the great Trump-era novel. Poetry alone is fleet enough to find his imprint on a history that, as Terrance Hayes‘s dazzling American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin make plain, has a before and an after as well as a now.

This point is chillingly made in one of the 2018 collection’s 70 poems, an apparently whimsical musing on Dr Who that appears to foreshadow the death of George Floyd. “Question: If in a parallel world where every Dr Who was black, you were the complex Time Lord, / When and where would you explore? My answer is / A brother has to know how to time travel & doctor / Himself when a knee or shoe stalls against his neck.”

Hayes’s own explorations go back to the slave trade, interrogating the legacies of Black Lives Matter heroes ranging from Martin Luther King and Emmett Till to Aretha Franklin and Toni Morrison. He surfaces in a “junk country” where “the umpteenth falsehood stumps / Our elbows & eyeballs, our Nos, Whoahs, wows, woes.” For all his rage and incredulity, he sounds a bass note of sad resignation: “America, you just wanted change is all … A leader whose metallic narcissism is a reflection / Of your own.” Claire Armitstead

Rage of the left-behinds

Godforsaken corner ... Lynn Nottage's Sweat, when it came to the Donmar in London.

Sweat, the Pulitzer prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage, heralded the Trump era even before he had unsaddled himself at the doors of the White House. Debuting in 2015 and opening off-Broadway days before Trump’s victory the following year, the work had a terrible, Cassandra-like power that looked to the past – alternately 2000 and 2008 – to map out the path that America was taking to Trumpism. The Wall Street Journal said it “explained” his win, while the New Yorker called it a theatrical landmark of the era.

Set in a bar in a godforsaken corner of the rust belt, this story of disenfranchised steelworkers being deindustrialised out of their jobs revealed the mechanics of populism and showed how hate is bred between friends and drinking buddies, men and women, black and white. The betrayal of friendship intersects with large, immovable forces between Tracey, a white factory worker, and Cynthia, an African American promoted above her.

The play captures a blue-collar rage that is born of poverty and stoked by fear. Nottage spent time interviewing residents in small-town Pennsylvania and artfully channelled that into the creation of her characters, who are the “left-behinds”, vulnerable to the nostalgic rhetoric of “greatness” that has become a signature of Trumpian politics.

Nottage was asked in 2018 if she was surprised that Trump had won. “All of us were shocked,” she said. “But in some ways, I understand how it happened. I was in the trenches and I saw the way the country was shifting.” Her play takes us into those trenches. If there is a second term for Trump, its themes will continue to thunder. Arifa Akbar

Kind letters sent into cyberspace

A screenshot from Kind Words.

This is an era in which words and the technology that spreads them have been weaponised. You can barely dash off an idle thought on social media without hearing from some bad-faith stranger. Kind Words, a beautiful game made by two American designers, feels like an essential antidote, allowing you to write kind letters and send them out into cyberspace to bring comfort.

It’s set in a little bedroom. You sit at a desk, listening to dreamy chill-hop. Paper aeroplanes drift across the space, bearing random thoughts and affirmations sent from other bedrooms. You can sift through other people’s letters and send responses, or send out a request of your own and wait for replies. Reading through people’s worries tells us so much about the times we live in and how we try to survive them – by seeking out others and trying to connect. Keza MacDonald

A reckless, dangerous follow-up

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Sicario 2: Soldado is a violent, amoral, toxic-macho thriller that has radioactive Trumpism coursing through its bloodstream. The 2018 film is a sequel to the narco thriller Sicario (cartel slang for “hitman”) that looked at the use of deniable “black ops” by the US to get tough with Mexican cartels on their soil, with Josh Brolin as a hardbitten government agent OK with torture and Benicio del Toro as an operative with an insider link to the criminals.

The follow-up is more reckless, dangerous and subversive: a fiercely cynical and paranoid action-noir that turns on precisely that nationalist neurosis and supposed Latino gangbanger-migrant conflation that Trump is always trying to proclaim and exploit. Some detested this film for being fascist. I don’t agree. Soldado, in a spirit of provocation, a spirit of craziness, grabs all the political paranoia and bad faith that Trump pumped into the atmosphere and converts it into a movie of visceral hostility and nihilism. It’s a film in bad taste. It seeks to shock and confront, but it is also supercharged with pulp satire and dissent. For good or ill, it is a key Trump document. Peter Bradshaw

The symptoms of a white malady

Huge sweep ... an image Arthur Jafa's video work The White Album, 2018.

After the success of his Love is the Message, the Message is Death, made shortly after Trump’s win, Arthur Jafa created the much longer, ruminative montage The White Album in 2018. The earlier film had as its score Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam, which Jafa had seen West perform on Saturday Night Live. Next time West appeared on the show, he wore a MAGA baseball cap and supported Trump. By then, it was clear something more than the musician was unravelling.

While the earlier film celebrated blackness and black achievements, and juxtaposed it with white violence, The White Album confronts ingrained white supremacy as a pathological malady whose symptoms are everywhere. Its sweep takes in musicians Oneohtrix Point Never and Iggy Pop; CCTV footage of Dylann Roof calmly entering a Charleston church, where he killed nine worshippers; US drone strikes in Iraq; helicopter footage of a black man being beaten by police during the 1992 LA riots; former redneck racist Dixon White discussing white fear and guilt; and a young woman tying herself in knots as she denies her own racism.

Jafa’s gut-wrenching montage, with its shocking juxtapositions, deals in contradiction and stasis. Unrelieving, exhausting, appalling, The White Album grinds away at the MAGA mindset. Adrian Searle

A second TV contender
Craven manipulation and lies

the Roy family of Succession.

An all-powerful, narcissistic father who thinks little of lying and will stop at nothing to get what he wants. A daughter who is next in line for the top job at his multinational corporation and her goofy husband who has been given more responsibility than he can handle. His two sons who compete for his affection but can’t manage a competent act between them. No, I’m not talking about the Trump family, I’m talking about the Roys, the central clan on Succession.

The show, created by British writer Jesse Armstrong, is largely thought to be modelled on the Murdochs but this could really be any rich and powerful family. During the Trump era, many people have realised how insidious money and privilege is to American life, how you can get away with anything if you’re rich, how corrupt systems perpetuate themselves and care about little else.

Yes, Succession could be about the Trumps. But more importantly, it is about what makes the Trumps. Shockingly, the craven manipulation of the Roys is often played for laughs. When talking about an administration that is as corrupt as this one, or a family as awful as the Roys, you can’t make it through without a little comedy. Brian Moylan

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