We know the category has been obsolete in Hollywood for almost a century, but it’s still fun to think of Melania Trump as the planet’s foremost silent-movie star. Her voice is heard in public settings about as often as her braying husband’s isn’t. Like him, but more exclusively, she prefers to communicate via Twitter—which, when matched with video clips of FLOTUS mysteriously arriving here or departing there, can take on a disconcerting resemblance to pre-sound era intertitles. Her rare on-camera interviews are simultaneously tense and bland playlets that leave viewers with very little sense of her personality, unless her flickers of anxiety about surviving them count.
Instead, Melania watchers—who are, literally, watchers, giving ornithologists a run for their money—have to interpret her via an acute study of her gestures, demeanor, schedule, and above all, fashion choices. Did she really swat Trump’s hand away on the tarmac in Tel Aviv, and then again during Emmanuel Macron’s White House visit? Wasn’t it intriguing that she looked so much happier chatting with Barack Obama at Barbara Bush’s funeral—delighted by his attentions, even downright radiant—than she ever has around Donald? Why did she go MIA for a month after allegedly minor surgery last May? And what the hell was up with that “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” Zara jacket she wore on her way to visit a border detention facility in June?
Supposedly, Trump had assured her that he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, so she could rest easy.
Amateur semiology hasn’t gotten this kind of workout since the heady days when Madonna was teaching 1980s pop fans the meaning of the word. (By which we mean “semiology,” of course; Madge herself has never known the meaning of the word “amateur.”) At least Madonna was in the business of communicating meaning, though. By contrast, Melania is barely in the business of communicating Melania. In a perfect world, the slogan she’d have worn on her back when she boarded that plane to Texas would have been “My Other Jacket Is a Rorschach Blot.”
Decoding Melania is a hobby that seems to captivate liberals far more than Trump’s base. Then again, Republicans aren’t really at liberty to find her fascinating; they’ve got too much invested in pretending that she’s a conventionally gracious and admirable First Lady, not a freakish one. But that spares them from what’s probably an exercise in futility. With one self-evident exception, our perceptions of her are pure guesswork, reflecting our biases, wishful thinking, and desperate yearning to keep ourselves amused as the world burns in about equal measure.
The exception is that no incoming FLOTUS in modern times has so blatantly dreaded the role. One story nobody disbelieved in Michael Wolff’s (crank up the time machine) Fire And Fury was that Melania wept when she realized her husband was actually going to be president, and she wasn’t sobbing for joy. Supposedly, Trump had assured her that he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, so she could rest easy about the prospect of having to move into the White House. Even now, when she’s clearly more adjusted to her situation, it’s a mildly incongruous surprise whenever she does one of the things that First Ladies routinely do, like co-hosting a White House event for bereaved military families or speaking, briefly, at a student group’s anti-drug conference.
Because Trump is Trump, however, her forlorn attempts to mimic a conventional FLOTUS—culminating, if that’s the right word, in “Be Best,” her syntactically challenged stale lollipop of a campaign to improve children’s well-being—border on surrealism. Who is this peculiar woman who pops up occasionally to murmur rote appeals for “kindness and compassion” as her husband uses his thumbs to gouge out his enemies’ eyes on Twitter? If she isn’t a nincompoop, she must be a hypocrite—or else, if you like, a seditionary. Yet she never seems to be speaking on behalf of anyone real, herself included. You never see her cuddling with or soothing the kids she’s supposedly concerned about, the way Barbara Bush—not a woman otherwise renowned for her compassion—so famously cradled a sick infant during a visit to an AIDS/HIV facility for children in 1989, back when contact with the plague’s victims terrified even some nurses.
Except on Trump’s foreign trips, and sometimes not even then—she skipped last month’s disastrous G-7 meeting, despite the chance to eye Justin Trudeau—Melania is also seen accompanying POTUS in public more infrequently than any First Lady in living memory. When she does, the couple’s notorious wariness about each other’s physical proximity is compounded by Melania’s seeming mortification that her stylishness is undone every time by his Popeye notions of presidential haberdashery and decorum. Because Trump hates being upstaged, you somehow doubt that the faboo white hat that gave his wife her Jackie moment during Macron’s visit will ever be seen again.
The vital thing to remember when trying to evaluate Melania is that she never signed up for this. Political spouses whose worse halves dream of the Oval Office as the climactic chapter of their fantasy Balzac or Ayn Rand novel usually get ten or fifteen years, at least, to prepare themselves for the reality. Even Jackie Kennedy, who despised and shunned campaign events—JFK’s sisters filled in for her instead—was ideally equipped for the ceremonial side of the job. But Melania was never a political spouse, because Trump was never a politician. (By any traditional democratic standard, he still isn’t.) She was a trophy wife, a chore whose limited responsibilities—arm candy, brood mare, what you will—fell comfortably inside her skill set. No communicating, let alone communing, with the public was required except as a photographed object of high-living lechery, which, of course, was the gig she’d had before she married him.
Melania obviously speaks fashion more fluently than she does English.
Liberals can sound almost comically priggish when they bemoan the fact that our current First Lady is a former nude model turned none-too-tasteful golddigger. So what? It’s by far the most American thing about her and it gives her something in common with the ultimate cartoonish nude model turned hugely-entertaining golddigger: the late, lamented Anna Nicole Smith, whose Old Glory bona fides can’t be questioned. As Jimmy Kimmel learned to his sorrow back in April, it’s also not especially enlightened to mock the country’s best-known immigrant for her exotic accent. Didn’t Melania’s fellow enigma Greta Garbo have one too?
Even so, Melania obviously speaks fashion more fluently than she does English, which is why it’s tempting to suppose that her occasional costume gaffes aren’t gaffes at all. The internet went nuts after discovering that her “I Really Don’t Care” jacket’s slogan may have been inspired by the motto of Italy’s World War I Arditi shock troops, which was coined by proto-Fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio (who was one of them). Not only does Zara have a history of toying with alt-right imagery, but the area of Slovenia Melania comes from was part of Italy at the time. Nobody who grew up there has the option of being an ignoramus about local history.
The idea that the choice was inadvertent is farcical, because when was the last time she wore anything that only costs $39? But that doesn’t get us any closer to figuring out what she meant by it, since a proud declaration of her Fascist sympathies seems unlikely, just not impossible . . . which is how it goes with Melania. (Trump’s assertion that she was attacking “Fake News” was only slightly more plausible.) The most attractive theory is that she meant to blindside her husband by cryptically advertising her disconnect from him and his administration, especially since visiting immigrant detention centers at all was apparently her idea and he only grudgingly endorsed it.
However, that gets us deep into the left’s most persistent—and giddiest—Melania fantasy: that she’s secretly one of us, can’t stand Trump either, and will go rogue one glorious day. Aside from the fact that it’s an enchanting scenario, there is no basis for this except that it’s how we’d feel and what we’d do if we were Melania, which only makes it more screamingly obvious that we aren’t. All the same, the smallest clue that they’re estranged—which they may well be, for any number of conceivably mundane reasons—can transform her in Trump haters’ minds, if only for a nanosecond, into a potential resistance fighter. The preposterous (or was it?) rumor that she didn’t even live in the White House sent Team Free Melania into a tizzy.
More reasonably, we can infer that she’s a devoted mother—devoted enough, in fact, to keep Barron in New York for the first six months of Trump’s presidency instead of unsettling him with a move to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The police and Secret Service security cost taxpayers a bundle, but Melania may have enough Trump in her to see no significant difference between her husband’s boodle and the U.S. Treasury’s. Needless to say, her protectiveness was also a terrific excuse to postpone having to move to Washington herself, making you wonder whether poor Barron—to whom Trump seems otherwise indifferent, as he’s not yet old or venal enough to join his adult half siblings in the Trump Enterprises scum pond—is a pawn in a marital chess game. Could it be true that she’d have left Trump by now if the threat of withholding access to their son didn’t give him leverage?
To say the least, this isn’t the way people used to talk about Gerald and Betty Ford, say, or Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, or Dubya and Laura Bush. Only the Clintons’ marriage invited similarly overwrought and tendentious conjectures, and the moldy figs about Hillary’s sexuality or the couple’s sinister power compact seem like mere warm-ups for this combination of Dynasty and Lucia di Lammermoor. Yet if we can’t help trying to imaginatively fill in the gaps in the Melania mystery, the simplest explanation may be that, with rare exceptions—and never in her husband’s company—she doesn’t look very happy. If so, this is the only thing about her that makes sense and invites identification. At some level, we’re searching for the human face of the Trump White House, and the paradox is that we’re looking for it in a vacant, pampered, exquisitely well-tended mask.