reading the signs

Surrogate Angels of Death

What to make of the First Lady holding the motherless child and youngest survivor of the El Paso massacre.

Photo: @FLOTUS/Twitter
Photo: @FLOTUS/Twitter
Photo: @FLOTUS/Twitter

Imagine this: A shooter has entered a public place, where you are walking with your family. You have but a minute to realize you can save your 2-month-old by using your own body to shield him from the bullets raining down around you. Mere days later, your baby, the youngest survivor of the El Paso massacre, will appear on television with the very man who inspired the terrorist who killed both you and your husband. A photograph is taken, for posterity.

In the photo, your baby wears a bowtie and tiny jacket; someone has dressed him up for this occasion. He gazes off to the side (toward his aunt, who stands beside First Lady Melania Trump), his body stiff, his face solemn. He is not at ease in this strange lady’s arms. How could he be? Your child has just gotten out of the hospital, where he was treated for broken bones incurred when you desperately threw yourself over his little body and took the bullets that seconds later orphaned him and his two siblings.

Neither the president nor Melania so much as glances at Baby Paul. Oblivious (as ever) to the solemnity of their occasion, they smile broadly, matching veneers on full beam. Your husband came from a family of Trump supporters. Perhaps, in a different world, you might even have wanted to meet Donald Trump, or take a photo with him as he gave one of his signature thumbs-up gestures — everything is A-OK here.

Imagine this, then look at this photo again.

Babies make excellent political props — so useful for a quick kiss and cuddle during campaign stops, instant humanizers of even the stiffest politicians. But the Trumps are different. We rarely see them with babies. They are the least “familial” First Family in our lifetimes, despite (or perhaps because of) having created the most family-centered, nepotistic, mob-dynasty-style administration in history. We detect no family warmth from this president (save his unsettling attachment to Ivanka). No spousal affection. But also so little acknowledgment of any of his other children, of the fact of being a father (and grandfather) at all. Where is Barron, for example? We never see him or receive even the most anodyne updates about him — his progress in school, his favorite sports team. Where are the grandkids? Nothing. And certainly, Melania is the least publicly maternal First Lady we’ve ever had. She doesn’t even pretend to care.

No, in Trumpville, the emotional texture and familial feeling usually modeled by a First Family has been replaced with the enthusiasm of anonymous crowds, with the mass hysteria whipped up at Nuremberg-style rallies led by the President, where people seek the thrill of connection conjured by ritualistic chants of racism and misogyny (“Lock her up!” “Build that wall!” “Send them back!”). Donald Trump seems to experience love only in such soulless settings, with their underlying threat of violence — and he encourages his followers to do the same.

Those fascistic ceremonies lie at the root of the El Paso massacre, and that’s what makes this photo especially galling. Motherless Baby Paul is the latest victim of the hatred those rallies gin up. For Trump then to create uncharacteristically this faux portrait of familial love, to play-act a kind of happy Daddy, Mommy, and Baby — by borrowing THIS baby — is an abomination. In this simulacrum of a family portrait, the centerpiece is a direct evocation of the massacre that rendered him available for “adoption” in this photo in the first place. And since the picture blithely replaces the baby’s slaughtered parents — murdered for the family’s Latinx ethnicity — with two unconcerned, smiling white people, it performs a kind of symbolic kidnapping, cruelly appropriating someone else’s child for personal gain. (Note also the marginalized positions of the two Anchondo relatives.)

The abuse and kidnapping of children of color are recurrent themes in this administration. Consider the children of the 680 Mississippi food workers cruelly arrested this week, who returned from their first day at school to find their parents vanished. They are the victims of child abuse, if not outright psychological torture. Ditto for the many children who lost parents and other relatives in three, largely racially inflected gun massacres in the past two weeks. Not to mention the children who were themselves killed in those shootings (including a 6-year-old Latino boy in Gilroy, CA). As for the thousands of migrant children ripped from their parents’ arms and held in subhuman, lethal conditions (with no plans in place for family reunification) they are unmistakably the victims of ongoing mass-scale, state-sponsored de facto kidnapping.

There is, furthermore, strong evidence that some of those migrant children have now been forcibly adopted out to white American families via “Bethany Christian Services,” an anti-choice adoption agency known for its coercive practices and run by Brian DeVos, a cousin-by-marriage of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. This amounts to kidnapping on top of kidnapping — and probably represents the end of any hope that these children might ever reunite with their own families.

All of these ghastly truths make themselves felt in this single photo of the vacuous and smug Trumps masquerading as kindly hospital visitors, seeking to comfort the El Paso survivors. Posing for this photograph, the Trumps remove any last doubt about their dead-eyed cruelty and transactional view of life. Smiling emptily above this wounded little boy, whose life was shattered before he could take his first step, the president and his wife call to mind those famous safari photos taken by Trump’s sons, Eric and Don Jr. — in which they, like their father, smile brightly over the victims of their own heedless cruelty and violence. To Donald Trump, this baby is little more than a hunting trophy in his own brutal race war (which explains his triumphant thumbs up).

Injured, confused, squirming away from Melania’s brittle embrace, and straining toward what’s left of his family, Baby Paul now stands in for all the children — indeed, all human beings — who, like him, have been harmed and are being held against their will by a white supremacist president.

Of course, Trump would have liked to include many more of the survivors in his photo op, but he met with none of the others. Of eight survivors in the hospital, five outright refused to meet with the president. As speaking, sentient adults, they were able to withhold their consent. (According to the hospital, the absence of other survivors was due to their injuries or the Spanish-language barrier.) But Baby Paul was too young to say no. When he learns later about what happened to his infant self, about the day when both his parents, as well as the peace of his childhood, were stolen from him, how will he feel about this photograph then? How would you feel?

This post has been updated to correct the age of the child killed in the mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival (he was six, not two), and to correct Brian DeVos’s relationship to Betsy DeVos (he is her cousin by marriage, not her brother.)

Surrogate Angels of Death