Personal Work: Trump Gawkers
Photo + written essay published by The New York Times - Lens
I searched the folded glass above me, smooth as tar and just as dark. Trump Tower magnetized a persistent ring of gawkers to itself - mouths ajar, eyes scaling the opaque tiers, fingers twitching with a constant urge to self-record. It was November 9th, and I was there on assignment, the cacophony of Election Day still deafening my ears. Donald Trump was president.
Days coalesced into weeks, and I found myself unable to look away, wading through the pulsating crowds - they, undeterred by the imposition of a growing security detail, weather elements, or their own scale. Daily, hoards undertook the trek, to stare, gawk, absorb, document. This fascination with Trump Tower seemed like an extension of what elected the man inside it, and I had to find out more - through pictures and words, from Trump foe and supporter alike.
Upon first look, people traveled to Trump Tower for sport and amusement, but underneath the upturned eyes and selfie smiles, I discovered a common undercurrent of anxiety - and not just from those who didn't want Trump in the Oval Office. Some of the electorate that voted against Hillary was now unsure which version of Trump they’ve elected. People's upward gazes, no matter their political views, sought answers: How could this happen? Or now that it has, what will it mean?
In the days between Election and Inauguration, voter sentiment spanned elation, dismissal and bewildered anger. I met a woman dressed as a giant middle finger; a female corporate executive who, while choosing anonymity, opined that Trump was the "real Cinderella story,” and that his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton had "slept her way to the top"; the Muslim Albanian who did not believe Trump would enact any anti-immigration policies (later shocked by the new administration’s immediate ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries) - and her friend, a Moroccan immigrant who had changed his name from Mohamed to Steve in order to get more resume callbacks - which he did; the Las Vegas business owner who said minorities are responsible for loss to his business profits; a family of Trump supporters chanting “America first” upon entering the Tower's lobby.
Post-inauguration, another vein of thought gathered strength: fear and uncertainty. It overtook fascination, now second to deciphering a new reality. I noticed many more felt the need to temper, modify, disclaim their words: in apologetic, hesitant tones, via half-serious humor, or in direct request to go off-record. The first I met was a Muslim woman who couldn’t spare me a minute (let alone a photo) because her consulate had forbidden any conversation on Trump, in fear of retaliation. Unsurprisingly, a German visitor drew a parallel between the current political climate in America to pre-Fascist Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Most unexpected was an avid traveler from the U.K., who capped an incredibly temperate interview with a chuckling defense: "I'm normally pretty neutral, but I just don't want to get banned from the U.S. if I say the wrong thing.” His joke belied a real anxiety: as he added, no one knew who would be targeted next.
Then there were the bold, now even bolder: a group of University of Florida women arriving on Women’s Day to photograph themselves with roses expressing their “femininity” and fight “against sexualization” in the media and by other men, that they said is now more permissible under Trump - who got cat-called the entire time they photographed. A former journalist and artist who said she emigrated from Communist China in 1992 to seek more artistic freedom, nonetheless believed most news reports on Trump in America were “fake” - and thus, justified any resulting media censorship. As we were each survivors of Communist regimes in disparate parts of the world, I was especially interested in why, after running away from government control of journalism and the arts in her home country, she supported an iteration of it here.
“This is different from China - there the government controls everything. But in America, there's too much freedom. That's why we need Trump as president,” she said. "He's blocked media from press conferences because they're doing too much damage to the country. I don't think he deserves the bad stories. I know it's all fake news because Trump's not going to be fake. That doesn't make sense - it would damage him to be that.”
This cognitive dissonance - the urge to blend one’s own hopeful perceptions with the contradictions of reality - is something I’d seen in many Trump supporters. Most notably, a retired psychotherapist from Palm Beach - who thought the First Amendment did not bestow the public with the righst to protest, but instead, protected Trump against protesting - offered a head-turning theory on why Trump had chosen anti-environmentalist Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency: reverse psychology.
"I think that Trump's just making a statement that he'll turn this guy around. This guy, Pruitt, is aware of climate change despite being against it. Trump has a strategy - he takes the underdog and turns him around because he likes a challenge. And sometimes people do the opposite of what they want to do, because they like a challenge. There's a method to his madness.”
The point being, that this bizarre, humorous, and horror-filled stream of attention has not simply been frivolous selfie fodder; without the voyeurism synonymous with our era, a politically-inexperienced celebrity with a fiery social media account might not have gotten elected. As one Canadian visitor put it, "I like him. He is trendy.”
From trendy to trending, a hashtag turned president. These are his gawkers.