The decorations, themed to “America the Beautiful,” mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, celebrate first responders and highlight the country’s wildlife. Trump goes it alone in this slow-motion video that eschews behind-the-scenes flashes of the many masked volunteers who climbed atop ladders and wielded glue guns. There are no references to socially distanced team work. She’s not guiding the public in an intimate virtual tour.
The video is a high-glamour narrative in which she is the star.
Four years ago, Trump promised something different. It seemed as though she would follow the lead of her most recent predecessors and aim to stride, as much as possible, in step with regular folks. There’s no way for a first lady to truly be relatable once she steps inside the White House bubble, but in the past the goal has always been to at least try. To give the illusion of a connection where only politicking exists.
And so, in the beginning — in 2017 — in the first video dedicated to the White House holiday decor, the first lady was depicted tying bright red bows onto wreaths, inspecting sugar cookies in the kitchen and adjusting ornaments while dressed casually in dark trousers and an oversize gray sweater. Chefs and assistants and other hard-working elves have notable cameos.
It was all of a piece with a September event that same year. Trump appeared in the White House Kitchen Garden with a group of local youngsters to underscore the importance of healthy eating and to let the public know that she intended to work with the National Park Service to maintain the symbolic vegetable plot that Michelle Obama had sowed. For the occasion, Trump wore black pants and an expensive Balmain red flannel shirt, which sparked the same sort of hand-wringing that Obama’s pricey Lanvin sneakers caused when she wore them to a food bank. Such was the nature of controversy back then.
The 2018 video unveiling no longer featured Trump in the kitchen, but she was examining the floor plans for her forest of red Christmas trees. She wasn’t so much as hanging ornaments as fingering those that had already been hung. By 2019, it was as though she was just passing through the public rooms on her way to an event to which the masses were not invited. Her ivory coat was draped over her shoulders. She paused to sprinkle a bit of faux snow onto a tree, and the camera zoomed in to capture her perfectly manicured fingernails.
As has long been the case, the holiday decorating is done by an army of professionals and volunteers, but the responsibility for making sure that the White House glows with seasonal warmth falls to the first lady, whether she likes it or not. An audio recording that captures Trump speaking privately to her former aide and friend Stephanie Winston Wolkoff makes it plain that worrying about Christmas decorations is most definitely something that the first lady does not appreciate. This may explain why, in the video, Trump seems to be playing the part of a mildly amused noblewoman.
This is where we are in this moment that begs for connection. Trump leaves us floating in vacuum.
Over four years, the first lady has come into her own. Her place is on a pedestal where so many others have stood, oftentimes uncomfortably, often trying to make room for others. And she seems perfectly content there.
Alone. Like an objet d’art.
Gaze upon her. Do so without guilt, because she has actively chosen this passive, inscrutable role. But do it with discomfort and uneasiness because of the enthusiasm with which her choice has been received by some. The first lady has positioned herself as this country’s version of Marianne — the embodiment of the French republic.
It’s an identity that so many other first ladies have publicly fought against. They struggled with the attention paid to their attire and to their appearance, even if they enjoyed fashion and the pleasures of dressing up. When the focus was inevitable, they used their clothing to tell a story — not about themselves, but about an industry, a place, a diplomatic urgency or America itself. Trump has not felt compelled to even put American designers first when selecting her public wardrobe. Some might argue that she was freed of that obligation when so many in the fashion industry denounced her before her husband had even taken the oath of office and glossy magazines begrudged her glowing cover stories. But does she not have an obligation, just as the president does, to be bigger than her biggest detractors?
During a trip to various countries in Africa, she lamented her wish that news media “focus on what I do, not what I wear.” This was after wearing a pith helmet in Kenya. But mostly what she has done is to look very nice — or curiously ill-tempered — in pictures.
That, however, appears to be enough for her supporters. They see in her someone to admire, regularly describing her as elegant and classy, not because of her words — which are few — or her deeds, but because of her appearance. Because of the way that she stands onstage and embodies a particular vision of womanhood in America. Gaze upon her: tall and thin and White.
If Obama, with her Ivy League degrees and supermom bona fides, fought against the caustic assumptions about Black women’s femininity, intelligence and humanity, Trump has been a beacon for many of those who held firm in their refusal to consider Obama’s dogged arguments.
Elegance is perceived in Trump’s physique, because this is a country that despite all of its verbiage about body positivity and inclusivity still measures all female bodies against the sort in which Trump moves through life. She is classy because she evokes an image of a place where others aspire to be, which is to say that they see in her a righteous inevitability. She isn’t breaking any rules; she’s offering reassurance that the rules still apply. She is comfortably alone on her pedestal.
Trump is not a change maker, which is her greatest allure. Policies can be diluted. Legislation can be overturned. A “first” can sometimes end up being “the only.” Trump has shaped herself into a symbol, and supporters have bestowed it with meaning. To her admirers, she is a symbol of the way things are supposed to be and how things are supposed to look.
And symbols, the longer we gaze upon them, can be stubbornly difficult to dislodge.