Louise Linton must have thought that the photo looked great. The sun was bright in the pale Kentucky sky, casting a wing-shaped shadow underneath the gleaming royal-and-white government plane. A breeze on the tarmac blew back Linton’s elbow-length blond hair, leaving her face tilted into the light, like a sunflower, if common flora wore four-hundred-dollar shades. She was outfitted in spike heels, wide-legged pants, a floppy blouse, a Birkin, all in shades of pristine white and cream. Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary and Linton’s husband of two months, descended the plane’s staircase behind her, wearing sunglasses and a black suit. His tie was red: an apt flourish for a patriotic Instagram post, one that offered a built-in caption—“UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” is painted on the plane.
Linton is an actress whose most prominent project is the 2016 horror movie “Cabin Fever,” a remake of the 2002 movie by the same title. There was no obvious reason for her to accompany her husband to Kentucky in his ongoing attempt to push a tax-code overhaul, or for the two of them to take a government plane for a domestic trip. (Typically, Treasury Secretaries fly commercial, unaccompanied by their spouses, on brief U.S. work jaunts; a Treasury spokesman stated that the Mnuchins reimbursed the government for Linton’s travel.) But there is an increasingly popular notion that nothing is inappropriate to use when it comes to promoting one’s personal brand, even—and perhaps especially—the resources of the American government. Ivanka Trump’s Instagram is full of similar photos: Ivanka and her husband holding hands as they stride across electric-green grass at the G-20 summit; her kids ascending the crimson staircase of Air Force One. What’s notable is that Ivanka, like Linton, often does not procedurally belong in the settings where she is photographed; there is an undercurrent of White-House-as-lifestyle-blog-prop. Nonetheless, these images seem ordinary when viewed without context. If Linton hadn’t provided quite a bit of additional information, first captioning her Instagram with a slew of brand hashtags, and then lashing out at a random commenter, the acquisitive smugness of her photo might have just sat there.
“Great #daytrip to #Kentucky!” Linton wrote. “#nicest #people #beautiful #countryside #rolandmouret pants #tomford sunnies, #hermesscarf #valentinorockstudheels #valentino #usa.” This is an unsubtle caption, drawing on a type of hashtag-saturated social-media syntax that I associate both with discount-clothing retailers attempting to optimize their search results and aimless individual souls hoping to catalogue their membership in some tribe. Charitably, we could assume that Linton was writing in the latter spirit, registering herself as a lover of the #daytrip, of #people and #beautiful #countryside—a sister to all who love #tomford sunglasses and #valentino heels. (She wasn’t being paid to advertise for these brands.) A less charitable interpretation, that Linton wanted to reiterate that her outfit was as expensive as it looked—as unattainable for most of us as a photo op on a government plane—is suggested by her response to a woman who wrote, “Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable.”
In a reply that is at least twenty-five times as long as the original comment, and is a crystalline example of the “I’m not mad—you’re mad” genre of online response, Linton wrote, “Did you think this was a personal trip?! Adorable!” (If this did not count as a personal #daytrip for Linton, in #beautiful #countryside, it is unclear what type of trip it possibly could have been.) “Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country. I’m pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day ‘trip’ than you did. Pretty sure the amount we sacrifice per year is a lot more than you’d be willing to sacrifice if the choice was yours.” In a few aggrieved sentences, Linton managed to frame her husband’s three-hundred-million-dollar net worth as a burden, her six months in Washington as harrowing public servitude, and an ordinary American as a contemptible member of the economic underclass. She punctuated this bit with two emoji, a flexed bicep and a kissy face, which were meant to convey nonchalance but instead communicated a type of strained, hierarchical female fury that I have not witnessed in person since cheerleading camp in 2005. (She has since apologized for the “highly insensitive” post.)
Throughout this online incident, Linton, who spent part of her childhood in her family’s castle in Scotland and once gave an interview to Town & Country about her twelve-piece suite of wedding jewelry, cemented her appearance as an appropriate partner for Mnuchin, whose company OneWest earned him the nickname “Foreclosure King.” She is currently receiving a big wave of public blowback, but she’s been here before. Last year, she achieved Internet notoriety for her co-written and self-published memoir, “In Congo’s Shadow: One Girl’s Perilous Journey to the Heart of Africa,” which was riddled with basic factual errors, and in which the major points appeared to be that Africa was terrifying and that Linton was angelic, white, and thin. (“If I were discovered in my bolthole, I would be raped,” she wrote. “I would be cut down. Smirking men with deadened eyes would brutalise me before casting me aside like a rag doll.”) The two fiascoes are twin parables, really—each one illustrates how a desire for reverence leads easily to ridicule, and how, when you visibly strain to perform your identity for an audience, the audience often rebels. The trouble with a manufactured self-image is that it requires onlookers for confirmation. The philosopher Kurt Riezler wrote something about this, in an article for the American Journal of Sociology, in 1943: “During all the phases of this indefatigable process of dependency and creation, shame and awe hold hands.”