There are several places rumored to be entrances to the underworld, like the fiery crater that has been burning in Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert for over 40 years. There are also various artistic interpretations of the plunge into the abyss: Inspired by Dante’s Inferno, sculptor Auguste Rodin created a pair of bronze doors to symbolize the gates of hell, a reference to Dante's famous warning, "Abandon every hope, who enter here."
If these seem like apt metaphors for our current historic moment, you’re not alone. And if you’ve ever idly wondered what lies just beyond the gates of hell, or what it’s like to indeed abandon every hope (provided you haven’t already), the White House is here for you with a
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On Tuesday, the administration staged a photo op in which President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump stare menacingly at the camera as they stand side-by-side while touring a major Catholic shrine. As is their long-held custom, their body language looks like that of strangers and they are completely avoiding touching each other. Keeping with the theme, they wear all black, he with a red tie. They stand in front of a crucifix, surrounded by pews and religious iconography — like other-worldly visitors in a setting that is meant to be beautiful, comforting, and awe-inspiring, but that is instantly turned terrifying by their presence.
"Hello, and welcome to eternal damnation. We are Donald and Melania Trump, and we will be your guides," they seem to say with their narrowed eyes. If you’ve read this far and you think we’re being too mean, may we suggest a few slightly more charitable interpretations of this photograph: The worst Wes Anderson film. The Shining. Guardians of a crypt rather than hell itself. Date night?
Viewed out of context, the photo is undeniably creepy. But in context, it’s even more so. According to the White House, the photo shoot documented the Trumps as they observed a “moment of remembrance” and laid a wreath during a visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C. The White House “originally scheduled this as an event for the president to sign an executive order on international religious freedom,” according to the shrine, and he did later in the day. But religious figures criticized Trump for abusing religious symbols for partisan purposes — for the second time this week.
Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, the first Black person to hold his position, said he was "baffled" by Trump’s visit to the shrine, adding that it is "reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree."
The visit happened the day after Trump, after declaring himself to be the "president of law and order," walked to St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House, held up a Bible — without letting anyone at the church know that he was coming or why — and encouraged military and police violence against protestors. To make way for himself and his aides, he sent federal troops to tear-gas and shoot rubber bullets at the protestors assembled in front of the White House, causing traumatic injuries.
As the nation roars with anger over police killings of Black people, such as George Floyd in Minneapolis, Trump’s cosplaying of solemnity and mourning in a place of worship is particularly unforgivable. While millions grieve, over Black lives lost to police and over the 109,000 Americans who have lost their lives due to coronavirus — who are disproportionately Black — and as police unleash unprecedented violence against protestors and journalists, Trump ignores the grief and pain in his "religious" appearances. And as he continues to assert power he doesn’t have and threatens violence, the White House communications department is working overtime to create fear-provoking imagery. These photo ops are not about compassion and solidarity with a grieving and wounded nation, they are about his dreams of Trump 2020 and beyond.