A Grand Old Portrait


Richard Speer

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So this is what we’ve come to: a Wonder-Bread winter wonderland of a family portrait from the heartland. The kids gathered in front of the Christmas tree with their toothy, goofy grins, by all appearances fresh from the holiday hoedown of the county 4-H Club. Mama is on the sofa with her newly frosted highlights, and papa’s wearing his fuzzy pullover. Everybody is so darned hale and wholesome, so American — right down to the automatic and semiautomatic assault weapons they’re all hoisting aloft to celebrate the birth of the babe in the manger who later stood on the mount, preaching how the meek shall inherit the earth. This could be any American family, but in fact it’s that of a U.S. Congressman, Thomas Massie (R-KY), who in infinite benevolence and wisdom posted this family portrait on December 4, four days after four teens were shot to death at a high school near Detroit. Brilliant timing, Mr. Congressman. 

 

According to prosecutors, the Oxford High School shooter is a 15-year-old boy who was given the semi-automatic murder weapon as an early Christmas present from his parents. Christmas and guns, guns and Christmas, parallels linked by lovers of Jesus, carnage ratified by the National Rifle Association. The Michigan massacre was one of 34 school shootings tallied as we near the end of 2021 in the land of the free and the home of the brave, a small subset of the 676 mass shootings total we’ve had since January 1.

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El Paso, Colorado sheriff’s office yuks it up with Santa

Claus, in to apply for his permit to carry a concealed handgun

“Merry Christmas!” Massie tweeted with the cheery photo, effectively thumbing his nose at the families of 14- to 17-year-old children so freshly dead, most still in the morgue. “P.S.,” he appended, “Santa, please bring ammo.” Hilarious, yes? That’s the caliber of cornpone that raises a good hardy-har-har among proud members of the Grand Old Party these days. On Twitter, 86,000 people loved the tweet, and although the lawmaker was roundly criticized by Democrats and mildly swatted by a smattering of Republicans, he never even considered taking the picture down. In fact, he took a certain glee in having tweaked the Left with such spectacular success. As he subsequently crowed to conservative radio host Todd Starnes: “I posted it, and wow! I didn’t just kick a hornet's nest, I aggravated every hornet in the world!” Clearly, this was a big moment for a Methodist cattle farmer in Kentucky’s fourth district. 

 

“You know,” he continued, invoking an analogy that showed off his deep erudition and fondness for run-on sentences, “in ‘Ghostbusters’ they said, ‘Don’t cross the streams,’ and I crossed guns with family and Christmas, and those are three things that really could trigger the leftists, and I didn’t realize that it would be such an explosive cocktail when you put it together, but it adds up to freedom.” Re-read that pearl and listen for the body of Alexander Hamilton circumvolving in his tomb. “I’m going to double down,” he concluded. “I’m never going to delete that picture.”

 

In a different era, obstinacy, tone-deafness, and flagrant stupidity such as this would likely have earned formal censure. Today it inspires copycat tackiness. In solidarity, Massie’s colleague in the House of Representatives, Lauren Boebert (R-CO), best known for her Islamophobic hate speech and gun-shrine Zoom background, posted a picture of herself posing before her own Christmas tree with her four young sons, each of whom wields an assault rifle. On her lips she wears an expression borrowed from Cruella de Vil while her boys dutifully play their parts as props and pawns. “Yes, Mommy,” you can almost hear them sighing. The three younger kids look a little silly and embarrassed, as if they’re just doing what they’re told. The oldest, however, isn’t cracking a smile; he’s got his kill face on. Puberty is setting in, and he’s got a new toy. Testosterone plus bullets, great combination.

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Vincent Valdez, “The City I,” 2015-16. Courtesy of the artist, David Shelton Gallery and the Blanton Museum of Art. Photo: Peter Molick

Meanwhile, over in Maury County, Tennessee, Republican mayor Andy Ogles posted an equally creepy portrait of his family of five, congregating by an impressive tree beneath the staircase of his ostensibly impressive McMansion. All are wielding big, scary firearms, the type designed not to kill Bambi, but to slaughter enemies in foreign wars. 

 

Finally, maybe the most perverse entry of all in this photographic group show was put out by the sheriff’s office of El Paso, Colorado. “Guess who came in to receive his concealed handgun permit today?” read the tweet in question. The accompanying picture showed none other than Kris Kringle himself about to be handed the permit by office staff. Being Santa Claus is a dicey job, after all. You never know what mischief you’ll encounter at the bottom of all those chimneys, especially in the bad parts of town. One of those naughty children might still be awake, might even get startled when you slide down the flue and reach for a toy gun that looks real. Better be prepared, St. Nick. You might have to blow the brat’s brains out.

 

In our collective consciousness we hold a storehouse of images that supposedly encapsulate American family values. The most famous is probably Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” (title borrowed from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address), also known as “The Thanksgiving Picture” or “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” You know the image: The family matriarch and patriarch serving a fat roast turkey to nine guests seated ’round a quintessential small-town dinner table. Then there’s Grant Wood’s classic “American Gothic,” with its stolid man and wife (or is it father and daughter?), paragons of piety and the Protestant work ethic, the solid Midwestern values that Wood celebrated (and slyly tweaked) as a preeminent regionalist. It is no terrific surprise that these artists did not embody the Pollyanna ethos they contributed to the national mythos. Rockwell was haunted by clinical depression, treated in psychiatric hospitals; Wood was ever-paranoid he’d be outed as a closeted gay man.

 

Perhaps a more accurate tableau of our character comes courtesy Texas-based artist Vincent Valdez’s 2015-16 painting, “The City I,” which The New York Times dubbed “an all-American family portrait, all in white ... a selfie for 21st Century America.” It depicts about a dozen kinfolk, among them a mother swaddling her baby, who clutches a teddy bear in his tiny arms, a man nearby nursing a Budweiser, women with charm bracelets adorning their wrists, guys with college rings and wedding bands on their fingers, the family dog lolling about the pickup truck. These nice folks have matching outfits on: white sheets and hoods with eye-holes cut out, all the better to see through when it’s time to get on with the lynching. They’re a clan all right, spelled with three K’s in a row. As in so many families, their morals and hobbies, not to mention their linens, have been passed down through the generations like cherished heirlooms. Pretty soon the adorable infant will be a toddler dressing his teddy bear in little white robes.

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Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY), holiday greeting card

While Rockwell presents his halcyon Americana straight-up, Wood his own with a hint of buried camp, and Valdez his vision with chilling irony, the Christmas-card-ready greetings of Massie & Friends rely on a heavy infusion of divisive derision. To Republicans, mass shootings are occasions for droll, folksy chuckles and cruelty delivered with a twinkle in the eye. “The cruelty is the point,” to invoke Adam Serwer’s 2018 essay in The Atlantic, which outlined far-right tactics for destabilizing the left. As Donald Trump, Jr., ignoramus spawn of an ignoramus progenitor, puts it, “Own the libs.” As G.O.P. placards, yard signs, teeshirts, and stickers proclaim: “Fuck your feelings,” “Make liberals cry again,” and “Melt the snowflakes.” That’s the formula: troll, mock, repeat.

 

It’s a diabolically brilliant strategy. Gets a rise out of us every time, lands rubes like Massie at the top of the newsfeed, and energizes the base — yee haw! This is what it looks like at the nadir of our decades-long descent from substantive public policy to political theater to base imbecilic entertainment. This is what happens when a reality TV host ascends to the leadership of the free world and brings with him the playbook of reality TV: fake conflicts, outrageous soundbites, and an exhausting cavalcade of cliffhangers. “Duck Dynasty” and Donald Trump: soulmates made in hell.

 

In my own anecdotal experience with Republican friends and relatives, the lowbrow humor may be more the point than the cruelty per se. Many of them don’t seem to actually believe that Trump’s inaugural crowd was the biggest in presidential history, that QAnon is anything other than a ruse, that the 2020 election was stolen, or that the January 6 insurrection was seeded by antifa. They simply delight in the outrageousness of the assertions, the sheer, guffaw-inducing absurdism. They know it’ll ruffle Democrats. The mockery is the medium and the message. Republican family members swear to me they abhor Trump’s cursing, his insulting both the living and the dead John McCain, his paying off porn stars he slept with while his third wife was pregnant, and his enthusiasm for grabbing women by the pussy. However, they confess, “He makes me laugh.” “You never know what he’s going to say next.” “He’s not afraid to let ’er rip.” And, “I looked at his Twitter every morning to see what he came up with while I was asleep.”

 

There ya go. Entertainment value is everything, the more puerile the better. This tactic isn’t going anywhere. We will not defeat it by going high when they go low. We will grow old and die waiting for gentility to return to the halls of government. The Lady of the Lake is not going to hoist Excalibur from the Potomac, heralding a new Camelot. When they go low, we need to go lower, at least in terms of the tools of the digital trade: memes, gifs, tweets, trolls, asinine but catchy social-media posts that stick in minds like the best corporate jingles. Mildly amusing political cartoons in The New Yorker do not cut it anymore, if they ever did. For too many elections we’ve let the bullies set the terms. We are not aided by our tendencies to forgive those who trespass against us and devour our own young in the face of their united front. We have the nuanced arguments; they have assault rifles and Tucker Carlson.

 

Christmas is now behind us. The Massies and Boeberts will soon be storing their ornaments, plastic snowmen, and artificial wreaths in their three-car garages. But their big, long, hard, lovingly oiled guns will remain at the ready, their hotlines to the N.R.A. on permanent speed dial. Between the rabidly conservative Supreme Court and the gear-up for 2022’s midterm elections, it’s going to be a hell-ride. If we want to get through it intact, we have to learn some new tricks. There is no ignominy in borrowing successful strategies from those who would destroy us. There is no advantage to high roads in low country. There is no nobility in defeat.

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Carl Fredrik Reuterswárd, “Non-Violence,” or “The Knotted Gun”, 1988, bronze. Placed at the U.N. Headquarters in Manhattan, it serves as the symbolic image of the Non-Violence Project Foundation.

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