During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump’s tell was fully on display: when a criticism or an allegation was getting to him, he’d turn around and accuse someone else of the same thing. From “Little Marco” to “No, you’re the puppet,” Trump turned the trail into a running game of “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” And the president’s critics are developing a tell of their own: projecting their antipathies, hopes and anxieties on the women in the president’s professional and personal life.
Take the furor over a wire photo of the president’s senior counselor, Kellyanne Conway, kneeling on an Oval Office couch during a meeting between the president and representatives of historically black colleges and universities. By the standards of presidential photography, which has historically involved men in suits, it is a somewhat unusual image: Conway is relaxed, and her stylish red dress hits above the knee. To some observers, the image was proof of everything from hypocrisy about presidential decorum from conservatives who criticized President Obama for taking off his suit jacket to Conway’s disrespect for the college officials.
There are plenty of reasons to dislike Conway, from her cool mendacity to her willingness to toss feminist principles under the bus, without needing to manufacture phony incidents of disrespect for the office she serves in order to feed that animus. The uproar over the photo is particularly silly because the context exists for it in other wire photos taken shortly before that shot: she had knelt on the couch to get all the college officials into the frame of a smartphone picture she was taking. Deducing from a single image that Conway must always lounge around the Oval Office in a supposedly disrespectful way when there’s easily accessible photo evidence of the contrary says a great deal more about the psychological needs of the people who can’t stand Conway than about Conway herself.
Conway, at least, is regularly captured in the routine rounds of White House photography and is interviewed in ways that give her opportunities to explain her own conduct and to spin that of the president. The temptation to effectively write fan fiction about Ivanka Trump and especially Melania Trump, who despite their relationship to the president are much less accessible to the press, appears even more irresistible.
These stories correspond rather neatly to a series of wishful fantasies. Learning that Melania Trump is miserable, or worse, abused, would confirm a sense of her husband’s bad character. News that they were divorcing would reinforce the sense that Trump himself is a hound incapable of marital happiness, or give audiences the empowerment-by-proxy sense that Melania had liberated herself. The belief in Ivanka as a secret but substantive policy adviser to her father is an attempted check on anxiety: maybe he won’t be so terrible in absolutely every policy arena.
These fictions are unlikely to be contradicted. Trump’s two ex-wives stayed on message during the presidential campaign; I doubt we’re about to learn the details, whether dark or mundane, of a third Trump marriage. Similarly, Ivanka Trump’s relationship with her father is, by all accounts, defined by loyalty. At the very least, a balancing act that preserves an affectionate relationship between Ivanka and her father while freeing her from identification with all of his policy positions and outbursts is as much if not more beneficial to Trump herself than to the republic.
Americans spent almost 25 years using Hillary Clinton as the screen on which to display debates about marriage and working women and fidelity, and when it was all over in November, we didn’t know anything more about her marriage or her true character. Our willingness to treat Conway and the Trump women in the same way, like characters in a soap opera, suggested our decades of projecting onto Clinton didn’t teach us much about ourselves, either.