November 6, 2020

Describing Melania Trump is like trying to describe a box made of dark, reflective glass. We squint, we stare, we discern the outline of something-or-other inside — but mostly, the only thing we can see is ourselves. The First Lady is tricky that way: she’s a question mark, a blank space in the shape of a woman, a pure white canvas on which to project all our own fears, anxieties, and frustrations about her husband’s presidency. In the rare event that she does deliver a statement, no matter how casual or cryptic, we pounce on it with all the enthusiasm of a lovelorn teenager analysing a text message from a crush. What is she thinking? What does it mean?!

The jacket, for instance. In June 2018, Melania was photographed departing a Texas Air Force base after visiting a shelter for detained immigrant children. She was wearing a jacket, olive green, with stark white letters on its back, a message that looked like it had been dabbed on with a child’s paintbrush: I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?

What did it mean? Everyone had a theory, including Donald Trump, who tweeted that the garment was meant as a message to the “Fake News Media” — even though many believed that it was a message to Trump himself. Still others, the harshest critics, insisted that she meant to convey her disregard for the children; one imagined her strolling through a crowd of traumatised migrant kids with I REALLY DON’T CARE emblazoned on her back. (Don’t worry, she didn’t.) Whoever the intended recipient of Melania’s disregard, everyone agreed that the jacket mattered.

By the end of the week, the jacket — a flimsy, $39 piece of fast fashion from Zara that had probably been purchased by some trollish GOP stylist rather than the First Lady herself — had been imbued with as many layers of symbolic meaning as a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Much less was made about the visit itself, despite its significance: Donald Trump signed an executive order to end his controversial family separations policy later that month, suggesting that Melania’s choice to involve herself in the issue was not just out of character but perhaps even influential.

But the jacket controversy was only a continuation of a well-established pattern. By the time the 45th president took office, we were already used to filling in the blanks where Melania might have been, but wasn’t. There was no place on Donald Trump’s campaign trail for a perpetually-present spouse, even if she’d wanted to be there; the thrice-married and notoriously philandering candidate made no pretence of being a paterfamilias in the tradition of family values Republicans.

When he did bring family onstage, it made for a striking portrait: Melania on one side, a passel of large adult children from his previous marriages on the other. And unlike other political wives, Melania’s appearances were sparing and strategic: popping up to dismiss Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” tape as “boy’s talk,” or delivering a rare 11th hour rally speech in PA (where her husband did in fact secure a surprise win.)

These appearances held all the more impact for how rare they were. Mostly, Melania was a non-entity, an inscrutable sphinx whose expressionless face betrayed nothing at all. The mystery was part of the allure, on both sides. For Trump’s supporters, Melania was part of the package that made him not just electable but aspirational: a gorgeous, glamorous, much-younger model, as much a symbol of his success as his solid gold bathroom appliances or luxury real estate portfolio.

But for his opponents, she was an intriguing cipher. There was her absence from the campaign trail and her apparent lack of interest in public life. There was the photo of her from election night — unsmiling, eyes closed in either an inopportune blink or a silent plea for strength — at the moment where Trump pulled ahead in the polls.

There was the infamous moment at the Inauguration, a smile that flashed onto her face and then vanished the moment her husband stopped looking. The moment became a gif, and the Left became briefly obsessed with the notion that she was secretly One Of Us. #FreeMelania trended. Offers of salvation were extended. An article at the Atlantic explained that Melania’s fleeting smile spoke to something bigger: “The image seemed to reveal, in its frozen fluidity, an unspoken truth — about Melania, about her marriage, about all of us.”

When Melania remained in New York for months after Trump transitioned to life in the White House, speculation abounded that she was planning a divorce. Clearly, she wanted out; clearly, she hated him as much as we did. Armchair body language experts noted her obvious disdain for her husband. Armchair conspiracy theorists speculated that she’d simply opted out of the First Lady thing entirely, hiring a series of doppelgängers to take her place.

Of course, if people had given even half as much credence to the thoughts and feelings of Real Melania as to the fantasy Resistance Melania who lived in their imaginations, they would’ve realised their error. Long before she became the first lady, she made it clear that she wanted no sympathy: “People, they don’t really know me, people think and talk about me, like, ‘Oh, Melania, oh, poor Melania,'” she said. “Don’t feel sorry for me.”

That was October 2016.

By the time Trump had finished out his first year in office, the pity had evaporated — and evolved. Where Melania’s silence once seemed full of intriguing possibilities, now it became intolerable. Without any actual statements to parse, and with her public initiatives limited to a short-lived (and widely mocked) “Be Best” campaign against cyberbullying, we were forced to scrutinise her non-verbal forms of expression in search of secret messages, which is to say, we had to trash her outfits.

That jacket was only the beginning; just a few months later, a weeklong tour of Africa culminated in countless headlines about Melania’s hats. Especially problematic was a getup that looked a little bit like the character Rene Belloq’s, from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Had Melania intentionally copied her outfit from a fictional Nazi in a movie from 1981? Had she ever even seen Raiders? Who knows? Who cares? What was important was that she did not explicitly deny it, and therefore, one could only assume the worst. As Allure noted, all this nonsense could’ve been avoided: if she’d just gone hatless, she “might not have caused the Internet to call her out for looking like a First Lady-shaped dog whistle.”

That’s right: Caused. Look what you made us do, Melania!

And in our minds, the First Lady’s transformation was complete. Before the reality of President Trump set in, she represented a sort of dark hope: a secret sympathiser, a saboteur, a Judith hidden in plain sight inside Trump’s political tent. But as denial gave way to disillusionment, and Trump himself proved not just uncontrollable but impervious to shame, criticisms of his presidency began to heap on the shoulders of his seeming enablers.

Melania’s lack of public presence started to look like not just complicity, but something more insidious, a pretence of powerlessness when she really had her hands on the levers. The one thing we know for certain about Melania is that she’s one of the few people whose opinion Trump cares about — so why wasn’t she leveraging that influence for good? Why couldn’t she just, like, do something about him?

When did we stop feeling sorry for Melania, and start to hate her instead? Why did she stop being a vehicle for the hopes of a fiery resistance, and start becoming guilty by association? Whatever the reason, it certainly wasn’t anything she did, because what Melania did was what she’d always done: nothing. Her presence in Trump’s re-election campaign, as in his White House, has been as sparse as ever. Even the inevitable book from a former advisor, Melania and Me, was less a blockbuster tell-all than a confirmation of what we already knew: that she never really wanted to be here.

And where her husband, facing likely defeat, seems determined to leave kicking and screaming, Melania’s impact will be most remarkable in its nonexistence. A stiletto heel print in an East Wing carpet here, a half-hearted rose garden renovation there: the leave-no-trace First Lady. We hardly knew her, and now, we never will. She’ll cross the threshold of the White House, get into the limo, and disappear — into the luxurious, comfortable, and above all, private life that was all she ever wanted. As for the rest of it, she just really didn’t care. Did you?