— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 30, 2018
The image appears before us like something out of a bad dream. He is seated behind the Resolute desk, his Chiclet teeth exposed in a rictus of extreme jollity. She is standing slightly behind him, considerably more sombre. In buttoned-up black, her long, dark locks tumbling in abundant waves, she is Botticelli’s Venus as channelled by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark—an icon of the Calabasas Renaissance. Her pose is stiff, her jacket sleeves pushed up in a gesture of can-do, eighties-style power-dressing. The familiar colors of the Oval Office appear newly garish, as if reflecting back to us those posing against them: the golden drapes and the gold of the man’s hair, the salmon chair and his ruddy skin, the flowing flags and the woman’s flowing mane. In an era rife with unbelievability, here was another near-unbelievable moment: the reality-TV mogul Kim Kardashian meeting with the reality-TV mogul Donald J. Trump, at the White House—an “American Gothic” for the age of gaudy, late-capitalist spectacle.
There was, it was true, a political pretext for Kardashian’s photo op. Since watching a viral video on the Web site Mic, Kardashian has become aware of the case of Alice Marie Johnson, a sixty-three-year-old great-grandmother from Tennessee who was sentenced, in 1996, to life in prison without parole on drug charges, despite being a first-time, nonviolent offender. Seeking clemency for Johnson, Kardashian met with the President, and with Jared Kushner, who, along with multiple other responsibilities, has been put in charge of the issue of prison reform in the Trump Administration. (The following morning, Trump did announce a Presidential pardon: of the right-wing pundit and convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza.)
Certainly, Kardashian using her platform to advance the case of a vulnerable woman of color, one who has clearly paid her debt to society, is a positive development. (Even if it’s likely the case that, as the writer Kara Brown tweeted, “Kim Kardashian has never even finished a long form article on prison reform, never mind an actual book.”) And Presidents before Trump—and not just Clinton and Obama—have had plenty of mutually beneficial, even star-struck engagements with celebrity. Truman played a piano on which Lauren Bacall perched; Marilyn Monroe sang—at the very least—for Kennedy; and Nixon welcomed a velvet-suit-wearing, enormous-gold-belt-buckle-sporting Elvis to the very same Oval Office in which Trump hosted Kardashian. If anything, Trump’s unpopularity in largely liberal Hollywood has kept him relatively alienated from A-list, but also B-list and C-list, stars.
But the Kardashian-Trump meeting was palpably creepy. It coincided with the ever more conspicuous absence of the President’s wife, Melania, who hasn’t been seen in public for nearly three weeks, following a hospital stay. (“You are Melania now” is how the writer and podcaster Ira Madison III captioned the image of Kardashian and Trump, ventriloquizing the President.) The image also evokes Trump’s virulent misogyny, his view of a woman as—at best—a pussy to be grabbed, a piece of ass matched with a pretty face; Kardashian, who is famous not least for her physique, and who first came to fame via a sex tape, would seem to be no exception. (Her gloomy gaze could indeed be seen as a proxy for Melania’s—the two women’s frozen-faced, doll-like looks are not dissimilar—but the First Lady telegraphs her moods in small, almost imperceptible gestures, such as swatting away her husband’s hand, while Kardashian’s are more operatic.) Trump’s leering hatred of women added a sinister weight to his wolfish grin, and to Kardashian’s uneasy mien and uncharacteristically high-necked, covered-up look. (If clothes could speak, hers would have surely said, “Do NOT look at me; do NOT touch me.”)
In December, 2016, as a post-election Trump was holed up in his headquarters, at Trump Tower, Kardashian’s husband, the rapper Kanye West—who has recently caused much consternation by voicing his support for Trump—came to take a meeting with the President-elect in order to “discuss multicultural issues,” as he then tweeted. (The tweet has since been deleted.) At the time, West was freshly emerged from an eight-day hospitalization at the U.C.L.A. Medical Center following a mental breakdown. In what were the very early days of the Trump era, we were starting to get a taste of an Administration whose already staggering optics included an only recently institutionalized mega-celebrity entering a gold tower in midtown Manhattan to meet with a smirking former reality star whom he saw as a peer and a friend—one who was, it now appeared, our new President. What was most upsetting about Kardashian’s audience with Trump on Wednesday, then, was not its novelty. It was that, more than two years after Trump met with West, this type of meeting—this Boschian spectacle of horrors, this stand-in for the reflective, responsible work of actual public service—is, somehow, still happening.
A previous version of this post misstated Alice Marie Johnson’s name.