Donald J. Trump, the Man, the Flag

When Donald J. Trump held his post-conviction news conference at Trump Tower after his hush-money trial in May, he did so in his signature red (tie), white (shirt) and blue (suit), standing before so many flags he looked like a head bobbing in an ocean of patriotic hues.

It was a bit of star-spangled scenography for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who, more than any of his predecessors, has embraced the flag as his official fashion inspiration, using imagery to make it a synonym for himself. (One of his favorite personal factoids is that today, June 14, happens to be both his birthday and Flag Day, the date designated by Woodrow Wilson in 1916 to commemorate the official adoption of the American flag.)

In almost every major appearance, Mr. Trump stands planted in a forest of flags — 54 of them on the last night of the 2020 Republican convention alone. Descending from Trump Air, he passes beneath an imposing flag waving proudly on the tail, the colors echoed in his clothing as if he alighted from a flying flag himself.

“Most presidents have one flag behind them when they speak, maybe two,” said Lindsay M. Chervinsky, a senior fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and the author of the coming book “Making the Presidency.”

But by loading up on the flags, by hugging and kissing the flag, as Mr. Trump did in 2018 after a speech to the National Federation of Independent Business and again at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2019 and 2020, Ms. Chervinsky continued, Mr. Trump is taking the tradition a step further. “He’s trying to equate himself with patriotism and nationalism,” she said. And his dressing to match is, she said, “the most visual representation of that.”

As Henry Ward Beecher, the 19th-century clergyman said in 1861, “A thoughtful mind, when it sees a nation’s flag, sees not the flag, but the nation itself.”

In Mr. Trump’s case, the equation is simple: See him, see the flag, see the nation, get the message. In a visual age, that’s a powerful form of Pavlovian conditioning.

Mr. Trump wore navy suits, red ties and white shirts before entering politics, but his use of the uniform has evolved. The blue of his suits has become brighter in recent months — less navy or midnight blue, and closer to what Peter Roberti, the president of the Custom Tailors & Designers Association, called a “Neapolitan blue.” Alan Flusser, a tailor to the tycoon set and the author of “Dressing the Man,” called it “cobalt.” It was a relatively uncommon choice among his clients, he said.

“Trump’s type of blue is something you will now see more prevalently on TV, worn by sports journalists or those who want to stand apart,” Mr. Flusser said. Before Covid, he said, when suits were more common in the workplace, “I would estimate that out of 50 navy suit sales, maybe three were of a cobalt nature.” This is still true among politicians, who tend to favor navy or gray suits.

And though Mr. Trump has, and does, wear ties other than red — during his New York hush-money trial, which turned in part on decisions he made as a businessman, blue and gold ties were on display — he almost always reverts to his uniform at his most high-stakes political moments.

He wore his red, white and blue combo when he won the presidency in 2016 and for his first official news conference as president-elect. He wore it during his State of the Union addresses in 2019 and 2020; for his speech at the rally on Jan. 6, 2021; and when he left the White House in 2021. He wore it for his mug shot — the history-making photo that has become a key part of his campaign merch. He even wore it for his first official TikTok post.

Maybe it’s happenstance. Steven Cheung, the communications director of the Trump campaign, did not respond to questions about Mr. Trump’s choice of dress other than to say, “There has been no president more pro-America than President Trump.”

But there is no question that Mr. Trump is an avowed student of what people wear to do their jobs, both the people who have worked for him (his generals, the White House spokesman) and his opponents (Nikki Haley). He also understands the semiology of ties. Just last week, at a rally in Arizona, he announced that he had worn a gold tie on purpose, because “it represents the sun.” And flags of all kinds play a large role in his MAGA rallies, not just onstage, but as props and statements of solidarity among attendees.

Add all that together, and it reflects the changing cryptography of the American flag, which began as a symbol of nationhood available to all, no matter their political denomination, turning more fraught both during the Civil War and in the 1960s with the Vietnam War, said Sean Wilentz, a professor of American history at Princeton University.

“It goes from being a source of unity to a source of division,” Mr. Wilentz said. “All of a sudden the left and the Democrats basically cede the flag to the right, and the right picks that up and runs with it.” President Ronald Reagan, who was also known for his red ties (though they were generally seen as representing the Republican Party) being a case in point. Still, no one has run further with it than Mr. Trump.

“The flag embodies everything he wants to get across,” Mr. Wilentz said. “He is the flag, and everyone else is not. We are America, and everyone else is not.”

It is, Ms. Chervinsky said, an approach that “is directly out of the authoritarian handbook.” Almost cartoonishly so.

Flags, for Mr. Trump, serve as scenography, costume and a sign of allegiance — to him. The theatrics may be most visible during rallies, when everyone gets to participate in the pageantry through dress, but the advantage of embedding them in clothing is that they are also replicable. It is no accident that Mr. Trump’s supporters, like Doug Burgum, J.D. Vance and Vivek Ramaswamy, arrived at his New York trial in matching red, white and blue looks.

As it happens, Mr. Trump is celebrating his birthday Friday evening with a fund-raiser hosted by Club 47 USA, formed to support his re-election, at the Palm Beach Convention Center. The invitation features a photo of Mr. Trump hugging the flag and specifies a dress code for attendees. Ticket holders are advised, the invite reads, to wear red, white and blue.

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