Was Trump painting herself as a prisoner entrapped in a cold, cold palace? Was she sapping the joy from this joyous season to send a signal about what the country had become not only for the rest of us, but for her, too?
Take 2: “American Treasures,” or so said the White House. Most everyone else said “blood trees.” The message to go a little less monochrome was received perhaps too keenly, and in came the crimson. The topiaries were installed to “honor the unique heritage” of this nation, and admittedly, the nation has a lot in its history that is threatening. Trump strode through the corridor in a collared black coat surveying her carmine handiwork; Photoshoppers aplenty turned the saplings into Margaret Atwood’s handmaids and the first lady into an aunt in their tale — a traitor to the oppressed of her sex, trading their freedom to gain a smidgen of her own.
“I think they look fantastic,” the first lady said in an interview at Liberty University.
Forget the prisoner idea, commentators pivoted. Now, maybe, Trump was signaling her power.
Year 3 was more traditional, but it nonetheless gave observers something to read into. The hallway still served as the statement room, this time filled with crystalline snowflakes. Elsewhere lay more of the glitter and glitz and gilt you’d find in the lobby of any of Melania Trump’s husband’s branded hotels. The icy dusting on the limbs of the trees was very obviously fake — and more obviously so when Trump herself sprinkled it in the season’s customary promotional film.
These video montages of the first lady walking, staring and occasionally even smiling have always cried out to the bored and desperate masses searching for a message. One surreal scene in the 2017 installment features the first lady standing utterly still and expressionless as ballerinas twirl before her. Her face is so neutral that it could be a piece of art. The composition begs for exegesis.
Trump has always invited us to fill in the emptiness. Sometimes she has even written the opening sentences of our analytic essays: “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” read her jacket as she stepped on a plane to visit children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. She dared us to resist, and we succumbed instead, mouths frothing and pens hemorrhaging ink. We looked as silly, in the end, as she did heartless — focusing on a coat rather than the kids in cages.
This, perhaps, is why the holly jolly Christmas on offer in 2020 is so disappointing. “Faith,” reads an ornament. “Love,” reads another. A chugging choo-choo train traverses a piney bow. The White House may as well have copied over a Hallmark card and called it quits. There’s that famous hallway again, but it’s only festooned with potted plants in appropriate colors. “The pots look like funereal urns,” people yelp, “when so many have died of covid-19!” Yeah, right. The pots look like pots. And suddenly, in retrospect, the topiaries start looking like topiaries and the twigs like twigs. We are learning, now that the first lady has given us so normal a holiday with so little to read into, that we may have been seeing something that wasn’t there this whole time.
Anyway, Trump told us that much herself: “Who gives a f**k about the Christmas stuff and decoration?” she asked two summers ago on a leaked call with a friend. Well, we cared, and more fool we.
“What is she thinking?” Trump tweeted in the distant days of 2012 to accompany a snapshot of a beluga whale. The creature’s head is thrust through the sea’s surface, and its jaw yawns wide open in what it is tempting to call a smile. The post resurfaced as she took on the title of first lady, and ad infinitum those watching her, hating her and loving her have pondered the query. This unusually usual holiday display may finally give us an answer: not much at all.