The symbolism of a declaration of war

Over the last few days, you get an impression that there was something idiosyncratic about Trump’s declaration of the Syrian strikes in relation to other Presidential addresses (and it has been on the TV enough to think about in more detail).

Each American President has their own preferences about how they like to frame their messages, to their people and wider the world.

Of course, for the natural cynics out there, this post could be looking too deep.  But it is easy to see how the seals and props of presidential authority evoke authority and divine imagery.  By symbolically framing meaning, you can assist in its comprehension.

halo 1

The Symbolic context

It was somewhat ironic that Trump presented his decision to attack Syria from the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room.  Other American presidents have talked to the press from this room, it’s just an interesting choice for this topic.

President Trump

This is not to suggest the room has been radically changed for Trump, the gold and white theme has been around since the 1960’s.  Although considering Trump’s love of the colour of gold, it might be why he has a preference.

The Symbolic Frame

At first glance, there is the juxtaposition of the Gilbert Stuart’s 1798 painting of the first President Washington to the most recent recipient of the title.   The president framed by both the American Flag and the President’s flag.

While the choice of yellow and white roses might appear odd at first flush, considering Comey’s topical description of Trump

‘Trump’s face “appeared slightly orange,” Comey wrote, “with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles’.

The choice of flowers communicates through floriography: yellow and white roses meaning sympathy, friendship and unity.  Their proximity closer to the Presidents flag – presumably signifying Trump’s sympathy for the victims in Syria.  This is counterbalanced with the American Flag, symbolic of the nation linked to the aggressive war pose of the American Eagle.   

These two messages are mediated by President Trump himself, in a sombre dark-blue business suit with an American flag in the lapel.  Wearing a royal purple tie, which is an odd choice below Washington.

Presidents Bush’s, Clinton and Obama all developed their symbolic themes and props as their presidencies evolved.   Their rhetoric and supporting visual messaging responding to the needs of changing meaning needs.  It will be interesting in how Trump will be using the theater of the White House to frame his messages in a few years time with a bit more experience under his belt.

Out of the Frame

What counts isn’t the frame, it’s what you put in it.

Otto Preminger

For all the symbolic context to guide the message, in the days that have followed there has a been a consensus that this action has lacked policy substance.


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