Prior to last night’s joint session of Congress, at which President Donald Trump delivered his first formal address to legislators, there was much anticipation of what gestures, symbolic or otherwise, the Democrats would make to register their antipathy for the President and their repudiation of the positions and policies he has sought to enact in the past six weeks. Would they shun the President as he glad-handed the aisle? Sit on their hands as he spoke? Jeer? Or would the respect customarily due to the office be extended to the office-holder, even one who has bragged, lied, insulted, and abused his way to the highest position in the nation?
At the event, the most striking demonstration of dissent was the wearing of white by many female members of Congress, who responded to a call put out by the Democratic Women’s Working Group to outfit themselves in the color associated with the women’s suffrage movement—the same choice that Hillary Clinton made when she wore a white Ralph Lauren pantsuit to accept the Democratic nomination, last July. Television cameras showed several rows of female representatives attired in white blazers, dresses, and suits: “Not the white power Trump intended,” “The Daily Show” quipped on Twitter.
But as the chamber filled with lawmakers and their guests, the TV cameras revealed another expression of dissent. When Melania Trump, the First Lady, emerged atop the steps of the gallery above, from which it is traditional for members of the First Family and their carefully curated guests to observe the proceedings, and descended to take her seat, Republicans gave her a long and enthusiastic welcome. Many Democrats, meanwhile, declined to join in the ovation; they could be seen turning back to their seats, forgoing what might, in less contentious times, be a routine gesture of good manners.
Being First Lady, as has frequently been pointed out, is often a thankless task. The spouse of the President is, by convention, expected to be the nation’s hostess: choosing flower arrangements for state dinners with diligence and taste; conducting guests around the White House with impeccable manners; selecting an unimpeachable cause—the welfare of children is a favorite—for which to be a not-too-strident champion; and humanizing her husband when his politics render him unpopular. The job is an unpaid one, but nonetheless the First Lady’s execution of her supposed duties is put under exacting surveillance, as is her appearance and her wardrobe. Her domestic and marital choices are subject to informal national referenda, while her demeanor is the object of perpetual critique, and her inner life an issue for endless speculation.
The role is inherently retrogressive, as the tenure of Michelle Obama, highly accomplished in her own profession, made abundantly clear: How many law degrees does it take to organize an Easter Egg Roll? And it is unbearably invasive, as the sphinx-like Laura Bush telegraphed in every gesture while she occupied the East Wing. (The question of what compromises Mrs. Bush may or may not have made in her marriage proved so fascinating that it even inspired a novel, the excellent “American Wife,” by Curtis Sittenfeld.) It is an impossible job, imposed upon an applicant who is often ambivalent. Melania Trump’s unprecedented balking at the performance of its unspoken duties—she has opted not to move to Washington until the summer, citing her wish not to disrupt the schooling of Barron, the Trumps’ ten-year-old son—has prompted some observers to hail her as an unlikely, if probably unwitting, champion for women’s equity. “Want Melania in the White House? Pay her,” was the headline on a recent Op-Ed by Jennifer Weiner, the novelist, in the Times.
The former Melania Knauss’s route to the White House—however infrequently she chooses to occupy it—is as unlikely as her husband’s ascension to the Presidency. The wife of a virulently anti-immigration politician. a man who was elected on the strength of his promise to build walls and seal borders, has as her biography a version of the scrappy-immigrant success story, beginning with her arrival in New York, in the late nineteen-nineties, as a model intent on forging a career in the United States. (Trump has yet to fulfill his campaign promise to hold a press conference to clarify questions surrounding Melania’s immigration status; perhaps he will cover the matter in the same press conference he holds to issue his tax returns.)
As a former model, Melania may be the first First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy—that polished product of Miss Porter’s finishing school—actually to have been schooled in the art of walking. She showed off her abilities last night as she descended the few steps to her seat with aplomb, despite a steep rake and high heels. First Ladies are compelled to be role models, objects upon whom the American public projects its hopes and exercises its judgments. As an actual model, Melania’s job, in her pre-political life, was to serve as an object of fantasy—to be a vehicle for a fashion designer’s artistic expression or commercial ambitions, or, in the case of one well-publicized shoot for British GQ in which she posed nude on a fur blanket in the private plane of Donald Trump, who was then her boyfriend, to appear as the consummate accoutrement of a very wealthy man. Her chosen profession required her to be a cipher, and her responsibilities now, as the President’s wife, have some of the same quality. She has learned to be a blank slate. She is the O without the Jackie.
It has become a widespread, ironical meme—Melania, blink twice!—that the First Lady is an unwilling participant in Trump’s ascendancy, a victim of his cruel, chaotic efforts at misrule, not a co-conspirator. Last night, observers on Twitter paid close attention to her behavior—her smiling acceptance of the acclaim of her husband’s supporters, her own measured clapping on cue at the speech’s applause lines—in hopes of seeing the mask slip, at least for a GIF-able instant. It’s entirely possible—indeed it seems nothing short of certain—that the very last thing Melania aspired to be was First Lady. If she makes it seem to be an unenviable role, that is understandable, though to an outside observer it hardly seems worse than being Mrs. Donald Trump.
Still, like the President, she can only be judged by her actions, not by her imagined reservations. Thus far, they have not been impressive. Her most substantial act as First Lady has been to refile, in New York, a lawsuit against the Mail Online, the parent company of the Daily Mail, for its report, since retracted, that she once worked as an escort. (The suit had previously been filed in Maryland, which a judge found wasn’t the proper venue.) The suit, which seeks punitive and compensatory damages of at least a hundred and fifty million dollars, claims that the erroneous report has hindered Mrs. Trump’s potential of earning millions of dollars in her capacity as “one of the most photographed women in the world.” (After an outcry, an amended complaint removed the language about her earning potential.)
Tuesday night, several trillion photographs were added to that putative count, showing Melania in a black sequined suit by Michael Kors, applauded by her husband’s supporters—an outpouring of such vigor that, surely, honored not just her position as loyal spouse but also signalled a more basic, or simply base, appreciation of her extraordinarily privileged beauty. In the eyes of the nation and the world, Melania could not have appeared more elegant and graceful; being elegant and graceful is what Melania knows how to do best. But if her husband’s political opponents declined to add to the clapping and cheering—if they even declined to extend her the politeness she might, as an untested political wife, have expected—that action was understandable, and deserving of its own acclaim. In times like these, the withholding of ordinary graciousness may be the very least that one can do.