Melania Trump is so opaque that it genuinely counted as news when, during the course of her visit to the Vatican, the public learned that she is Catholic. Amazingly, since moving to Washington, she has largely remained that way, issuing anodyne statements about “the unforgiving side of Mother Nature” after Hurricane Irma and about how honored she would be “to visit and speak with women and children from different countries, with different perspectives” on her first international trip as first lady. Her most dramatic headlines have involved her choice in footwear, a few lawsuits involving her image and now, her spat with Ivana Trump.
Given the way the rest of her extended family has approached their stays in Washington, there’s something moderately refreshing about Melania Trump’s low-key approach. At least, unlike her stepson-in-law, Jared Kushner, she hasn’t swanned into a series of the most pressing and complex policy problems that face the country and acted as if her unique genius will surely succeed where generations of wise men and women have failed. Unlike Ivanka Trump, Melania Trump hasn’t spent her time in Washington desperately trying to spin herself as a good actor in a bad situation in an attempt to preserve her future commercial and political prospects; she doesn’t even try to pretend that she has power to influence her husband’s behavior or thinking. And unlike her husband, Melania Trump has the normal level of self-control that keeps her from throwing Twitter temper tantrums with agenda- and world-imperiling consequences.
It’s also true that, given that the traditional first lady’s role often consists of mothering the nation, Melania Trump’s decision to do the bare minimum carries the whiff of a rebellion. Just a whiff, though, like the ghostly scent of day-old perfume. It’s not as if Melania Trump refused to move to Washington, or insisted on continuing to work in her profession while her husband began his new one. The desire to see her as an innovator reshaping an antiquated but irksomely persistent role says a great deal more about those of us who are vexed by the constraints on the first lady than it does about the performance of the current first lady herself.
In fact, despite some gesturing toward issues involving children and cyber-bullying, the function Melania Trump has chosen as first lady has been to provide an opaque surface onto which Americans can project their fantasies about her and the president’s marriage. After a video captured a smile fading quickly from her face during her husband’s inauguration, the clip went viral, prompting conjecture — both tongue-in-cheek and serious — that Trump was a captive in her marriage. The chatter went into overdrive again in May when Melania Trump’s personal Twitter account briefly liked a comedic tweet suggesting that “the only Wall @realdonaldtrump’s built is the one between him and @FLOTUS.”
If we imagine Melania Trump as a prisoner in her own marriage, trapped by her fear of life outside it, or, say, her husband’s violent deeds or abusive words, then President Trump would be a monster. By contrast, the idea that Melania Trump secretly despises her husband and takes opportunities to humiliate and reject him in public, wherever she can find them, speaks to a different desire. This scenario makes her an ally to Trump’s opponents, meting out discipline and shame in an intimate way that mere voters never could.
The public debate about Melania Trump’s other predecessors, including Hillary Clinton, has often been terrible. But at least it’s about them and the big questions prompted by their life choices: Should talented women make personal and career sacrifices for love? What is the best way to deal with repeated adultery in a marriage? In the face of sexism, should women in public change their behavior to accommodate that reality, or should they be themselves in an attempt to dismantle those stereotypes?
Whether it’s what she intended or not, Melania Trump has ended up playing the same role as first lady that she appears to play in her marriage: as a decorative, reflective object who matters only because of what she suggests about the man she married.