Ivana Trump calls dibs as ‘first lady’

Waikato Times - - Comment & Opinion - ALYSSA ROSEN­BERG

‘‘I’m ba­si­cally first Trump wife,’’ Ivana Trump de­clared in an in­ter­view this week, ex­plain­ing that she re­mains in reg­u­lar touch with her for­mer hus­band, the pres­i­dent. ‘‘I’m first lady, OK?’’

The for­mer Mrs Trump knows how to make a splash. And se­man­tics aside, she has a point. There have been more strange things about this first year of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion than it’s pos­si­ble to keep track of, but among them has been the rel­a­tive ab­sence of the first lady, de­spite the fact that there is a liv­ing woman mar­ried to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump who tech­ni­cally oc­cu­pies the role.

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 hon­oured 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 be­hav­iour 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-im­per­illing 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 be­hav­iour 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.

PHO­TOS: REUTERS; GETTY IM­AGES

Me­la­nia Trump’s most dra­matic head­lines have in­volved her choice in footwear, a few law­suits in­volv­ing her image and now, her spat with Ivana Trump, right.

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