Time’s cover portrait of Donald Trump is a collage of two different attitudes.
One of them is an editorial expression characterized by an intentional disregard for typographical treatment. While the non-text aspects of the cover are handled in a fairly subdued and even refined way, the mismatches of the differing letterings include sizing, style, intensity, where they sit in foreground versus background, and whether they attempt to be logotypes (banners) or not. The approved effect is about not being careful or balanced, and the point is that this is how the editors see Trump.
The other attitude is about how Trump sees himself. Cutting to the chase, the Trump presentation says “I’m here now.” The function of the chair, with its traditional style representing comfortable success, is primarily to serve as the curtain that is being parted to show the emergent Trump just behind it. The lighting of Trump’s head, along with its turned position, means “it’s me, and here I come”.
Understanding how this image works can be tricky, but not because there is much nuance in it. It’s tricky because it exists in a media environment where, as a matter of age groups, more than half of viewers neither care about Time nor have depended on it to bestow importance on anything. The far more prevalent references are fashion magazines, memes, tv or movie promos, and other carriers of Modeling that are vigorously a-historical.
So, how then, does the image work? Well, more than anything else, in that visual environment the Trump cover is overtly staged and theatrically Retro — which is not about history but instead about Old Fashion, being exactly the way people used to see themselves instead of the way people see themselves now.
This sums up as a strong signal about Trump: he is seen “acting the part”, whether there is much real behind the behavior or not. It is highly probable that most viewers today cannot identify by name the style of the chair, nor articulate how weird the typewriter-ish personality of the “Person of the Year” lettering is, within which suddenly smaller italics would normally be mechanically almost impossible except through special effort. Such precise references can be proposed but are not especially necessary because the items in the picture are already working gesturally.
And yet, given a lingering look, almost anyone might appreciate the snarkiness of having the cover text get smaller and smaller, and “quieter and quieter”, as it reaches its punchline — contradicting the outsized ego of Trump exactly when he would celebrate the most.
Portraiture is almost by definition dia-logical. A portrait “works” as a relationship, between how the portrayer sees the subject and how the subject tries to be seen. In this cover’s example, what results is a humorous uncertainty about whether Trump wanted to strategically project understatement, or whether the editors wanted to diminish him as efficiently as possible.
Intellectual Trump detractors who notice this will be entertained by the idea that Trump would not even know he might be getting insulted. Trump fans, whether intellectual or not. will revel in the appearance of Trump smugly triumphant amongst the establishment regardless of the Establishment’s self-importance and pettiness.