American presidents have long tried to use the media to project American military strength. Theodore Roosevelt sent the U.S. Navy on a highly publicized around the world tour as a sign of America’s naval superiority and rising place in world affairs. George W. Bush, who started two wars he started in Asia, famously announced “Mission Accomplished” from the deck of an aircraft carrier, surrounded by fighter jets and military personnel. These efforts had the additional purpose of making the presidents themselves look powerful and strong as well. Not every attempt to portray this strength was successful. Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic candidate for president, was routinely mocked for riding around in a tank wearing a helmet several sizes too large. While it did not cost him the election, the stunt did make Dukakis seem unprepared and ill-suited for the presidency. In recent weeks, the Trump administration has made efforts to demonstrate American power abroad with trips from high-level officials to Iraq and South Korea. These efforts, however, have done little to reassure anyone that the Trump administration has any understanding of American military power or how to use it abroad.
In early April, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner travelled to Iraq and was photographed looking like he’d just fallen out of a Vineyard Vines catalogue rather than someone who had a grasp of the situation in the Middle East. With a flak jacket over his blazer and buttoned-down shirt, Kushner was the first high ranking Trump administration official to travel to Iraq—ahead of the secretaries of defense and state and the national security adviser. While a break from precedent, Kushner’s trip was not surprising as Trump has invested in his son-in-law a wide range of policy tasks including finding a solution to peace in the Middle East, serving as a senior adviser, opening up negotiations with China, and leading the Office of American Innovation to make the government more efficient. As the scion of a Manhattan real estate mogul, Kushner lacks the qualifications for any one of these jobs, let alone all of them. His biggest qualification is that he married the president’s daughter, Ivanka. Instead of projecting American military power, Kushner bewildering sartorial choices revealed an administration ill-equipped to tackle the growing problems in the Middle East.
Just a few days ago, Vice President Mike Pence travelled to South Korea, as the Trump administration seeks to escalate conflict with North Korea. Clad in a leather jacket wearing a hastily attached patch bearing his name and title, Pence stared across the demilitarized zone at North Korea. He explained that “I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face.” As with the optics of Kushner’s visit to Iraq, Pence’s performance is woefully out of touch with reality. The vice president believes that foreign policy is best accomplished by a good firm gaze across the DMZ. Pence’s jacket looks like one worn by an ex-high school athletic star clinging desperately unto some last vestige of his faded glory. Who can be intimidated by a man who’s afraid to have dinner alone with a woman who’s not his wife? Certainly not a power-hungry dictator who recently had his own brother murdered.
Roosevelt and Bush carefully crafted their public images to project the power of their administrations and personalities. Roosevelt wanted to assert American influence across the globe and announce America’s presence as a world power. Bush similarly surrounded himself with images of military strength to bolster his administration. The Trump administration has tried to project American power through a trust-fund baby and a man who said smoking doesn’t kill people. That’s not a good start.