A Photograph We’re Not Going to Forget for a Long Time
Like so many images of the Donald Trump era, this photograph has the broad outlines of farce, but what it depicts is deadly serious. After storming the Capitol building, a Trump supporter stands on a pediment next to a statue of former president Gerald Ford; the supporter’s mouth is wide open in a shout, his arm around the statue’s shoulders, there’s a MAGA hat on the statue’s head, and a massive Trump 2020 flag has been put on the statue’s arm. An attempted coup is underway.
The man and the statue are framed by two of four monumental paintings that hang in the Capitol rotunda: Landing of Columbus and De Soto’s Discovery of the Mississippi, both of which depict European men intruding on native land they claimed as their own. Both images depict the calm before the storm—the colonizers have arrived, but the massacre has not yet begun.
Congress commissioned these four paintings in the second half of the 19th century. They were not viewed as somber reminders of our democracy’s bloody and exploitative origins but as points of pride for European expansion, “four scenes of early exploration” as the official architect of the Capitol website describes the images.
Also relevant is the statue itself, Gerald Ford, the vice president turned 38th president, who was sworn in after Richard Nixon disgraced himself and the Oval Office and had enough shame to resign. As this week has proven, not everyone has enough shame to follow suit—even with far more cause.
The scene is crass, pathetic, and terrifying. With our origin story, with our history, how can we be surprised that this is where we have ended up? And yet we are stunned.