Menu Close

Donald Trump’s orange face may be funny, but this tanning historian says it masks something deeper

Angry Creamsicle, Comrade Cheetolino, Mango Mussolini, Agent Orange – these are just a few of the nicknames that Donald Trump has picked up along his presidential road. Trump may ethnically identify as “white”, but his skin is categorically and scathingly portrayed as orange.

When Trump was elected in 2016, succeeding former president Barack Obama, I remember references such as “orange is the new black”. At once an allusion to the popular Netflix series and a bold comment on race, colour here functions as an important form of satire. And this satiric use of colour has persisted throughout Trump’s presidency. His recent UK visit witnessed the orange baby balloon and orange-faced protesters continuing this in full force.

A woman demonstrates during Trump’s trip to Scotland. Lesley Martin/PA Wire/PA Images

My specialism is the history of tanning, so I find this particular form of humour fascinating. It’s striking that Trump’s skin tone, above all else, has prompted such a level of derision.

Fake it to make it

Orange is a colour with such comedic value because it is impossible, disingenuous: it is a mark of artifice. Tanning enthusiasts speak of achieving a healthy “glow”, looking “bronzed”, and one’s (implicitly and necessarily once white) skin “browning” in the sun. “Fake bake” would seem, and is marketed as, the safer alternative to true exposure to the sun’s UV rays, which we know can cause cancer.

But the problem is it remains just that: fake. The colouring is a dye, sitting on the skin’s upper surface layer, not a natural alteration of pigment embedded deeper within the cells. Unlike red lipstick, violet hair dye, or blue eye shadow – which are also clearly “unnatural” aesthetic additions and colour modifications to the human face – the orange fake tan (or serious overuse of bronzer) is widely viewed as unacceptable within popular culture. The natural progression of skin “phototypes” does not include orange as a colour “value” on this light-dark spectrum.

Less a subtle browning than a fluorescent face plant, we find the colour funny because it’s an all-too-obvious applied coating that fails to convince anyone of natural pigmentation. Orange is not bronze, not brown, not black (and never will be). It is laughable, therefore, because it is a mark of failure, an act of mimicry gone wrong. Put simply, orange isn’t “of value” to us because it isn’t a “value” as a skin colour at all.

Agent Orange. Antwon McMullen /

And let us remember why it exists in the first place. It is a normalised belief in white Western culture that dark skin is to be envied, that altering (however temporarily) one’s original colour by darkening it several shades down the colour line will make it look more beautiful, healthier, sexier, younger. This is the case for both women, especially young white women in the US and UK, as well as men, not least male bodybuilders.

It’s not surprising, then, that Trump believes altering his natural skin colour will improve his appearance and, hence, sense of self. The belief in a “healthy tan” has existed since the early 20th century, and continues to drive tourism just as it drives the tanning bed and fake tan industries.

Getting below the surface

I’d argue that there is something very serious about Trump’s orange face – something serious about the superficial. Scottish artist and writer David Batchelor argues that colour has been feared and marginalised as trivial, as artifice, as “other”, throughout the history of Western civilisation. He terms this “chromophobia”, describing the prejudice against colour as operating two ways:

In the first, colour is made out to be the property of some ‘foreign’ body - usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological. In the second, colour is relegated to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential or the cosmetic. In one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; in the other, it is perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. Colour is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both.

Fake tan, fake news. Manutsawee Buapet /

Like his combover (his thinning hair suggesting lost youth and virility) or his sourpuss pouts (lost composure under intense media scrutiny), Trump’s orange skin is a target of ridicule – of a man obsessed with vanity yet marked by signs of failed masculinity. And yet there is danger here, too, for they are implicitly signs of weak and worrisome leadership, of a man out of control of his appearance and perhaps, by extension to his opponents, his country.

The reference to Trump as “Agent Orange” is particularly relevant. Used by the US military in the Vietnam War to destroy foliage, this chemical also contained the carcinogen, TCDD, which seriously harmed many local inhabitants and their future unborn children. For artists like Busta Rhymes, Trump is envisioned as a dangerous weapon or force of destruction that threatens global peace.

Above all, there is a crucial irony that the orange-saturated skin that has become so characteristic of Trump’s image is totally at odds with the overt xenophobia and racism that saturate his words and actions. Yet here, too, are historical parallels: Hitler equally praised the “bronzed”, sculpted bodies of the ancients and encouraged his soldiers to tan and exercise in the open air while simultaneously spouting of the purity of the Aryan race.

I am not arguing that Trump is a modern-day Hitler (even if others have). What I am arguing is that orange is a colour not of comedy but of contention, even provocation. Protesters wear orange paint like a war mask, mocking Trump’s unstable character and confused “values”. His odd, even toxic, colouring may seem trivial, but its meaning is more than skin deep.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 161,700 academics and researchers from 4,589 institutions.

Register now