The Visual Rhetoric of a Presidential Trip Abroad

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There have been reports that President Trump’s staff are intentionally keeping the President so busy during his nine-day trip abroad that he has not had time to tweet. His Twitter account has, indeed, been uncharacteristically inactive. During the first portion of the trip, the President did not speak very much publicly either. Perhaps for that reason, but also perhaps because of the need to fill up the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the visual rhetoric of key moments on the trip has kept pundits and average citizens alike busy.

It's been called the "slap heard 'round the world." At least one video captured the second or two on the red carpet in which Trump reached back to take his wife’s hand only to have her slap his hand away. Some pictures the next day caught the couple holding hands, but once again, clips showed Mrs. Trump reaching up to smooth her hair when her husband tried to take her hand as they left Air Force One. In addition to speculation about what their body language meant, there seemed to be mixed feelings about Mrs. Trump’s decision not to cover her head in Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi press applauded her conservative outfits—and the fact that she walked behind her husband in a subservient position. With little to report while the Trumps later awaited their audience with the Pope, talk turned to the fact that Mrs. Trump had appropriately covered her head for the occasion. Critics had to have something to say, though, so they attacked her for honoring the Christian faith by covering her head at the Vatican but disrespecting Islam by not doing so in Saudi Arabia. Hackles were raised again when she appeared sleeveless at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum.

Trump’s ratings back home went up after he visited the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, the first sitting U. S. President ever to do so. Images of him standing solemnly at the wall wearing a yarmulke flashed around the world. Those who were so inclined welcomed such images as signs of faith and respect; others imagined Trump wondering how Israel got Mexico to pay for the wall.

If body language is any indication, the other NATO members had plenty to say as they stood at NATO headquarters in Brussels and listened to Trump chastise them for not paying their fair share of defense funding. A panel on CNN made much of the visual image of Trump’s speech. To his left was a memorial to those who died on September 11th, a portion of the north wall of one of the Twin Towers and a reminder that September 11th was the only time that the nations of the world have come together in support of one member nation under attack, as set out in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, NATO’s founding treaty.

Clearly visual rhetoric makes the argument that the viewer wants to see, and the Trumps’ trip abroad proves that people read into images what they want to see.

Credit: President Trump's Trip Abroad on Flickr (Public Domain)  

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.