“In July of 2002, two years before Donald Trump became engaged to the Slovenian model Melania Knauss, he visited her native country for three hours,” writes Lauren Collins at the New Yorker, as the lede of an essay moment on the parallels between the Trump brand of marriage and the Trump brand of politics—which puts Collins’ facility with deft, gracefully devastating burns to tremendous use.
They’re deserved here more than ever, during the continued ascension of an insanely unqualified presidential candidate whose core platform is anti-immigration, while his wife is an immigrant, his mother was an immigrant (Scotland), and his first wife (Czechoslovakia), too. Writes Collins:
If he’s as concerned as he says he is by all the “people that are from all over and they’re killers and rapists and they’re coming into this country,” he might consider building a wall around his pants.
But Trump of course justifies his wife’s immigration process as lawful and special, as it took place through a lawful and special program. Never mind that he once said he wanted to shut that program down completely.
If Melania became First Lady, she’d be the first foreign-born first lady since Louisa Adams. (It’s a rich prospect in context; Collins quotes Melania during her period as a racist birther mouthpiece, saying, “It would be very easy if President Obama just show it. It’s not only Donald who wants to see it. It’s American people, who voted for him, and who didn’t voted for him, they want to see that!” in 2011.) But Louisa Adams was born to a colonist family that “forcefully impressed” Americanness on her and her siblings: “Her father named one of her sisters, born in 1776, Carolina Virginia Marylanda,” Collins writes. Plus the comparisons between the two women end there:
Louisa Adams played the harp, wrote satirical dramas, and raised silkworms. (She also survived fourteen pregnancies, including nine miscarriages and a stillbirth.) Melania Trump’s hobbies, she told People, include Pilates and reading magazines.
Though Melania Trump brought her parents to America and speaks Slovenian to her son, she’s a “foreigner with seemingly no affinity for her homeland.” She hasn’t tried to use her immigration story to soften her husband’s image, likely because the thing most befitting to her husband’s image is for her to seem so special that she’s above talking, above trying to seem relatable, above the rules. Collins writes, “Running parallel to Trump’s belief in American exceptionalism is a sort of personal exceptionalism: the rules, even if he makes them, don’t apply to him.” And Melania’s immigration story is more of an immigration to Trump Country, anyway, which is where the gold’s at; she was given a new life not by America but by the angry man himself.
Trump put his name on Melania. For the scores of Americans who thrill to his eponymous high-rises and video games and steaks, that makes her a winner. They can’t marry him, so, in order for them to become Trumps, he would have to be their father. The infatuation with Trump is essentially a mass adoption fantasy. He is Daddy Warbucks without the New Deal vibe.
And anyway, why make your wife stump for you when you can make your daughter a surrogate for your wife?
Ivanka, an executive vice-president at the Trump Organization, has served as her father’s stand-in spouse for most of the campaign. She escorted him onstage when he announced his candidacy, in June, as Melania looked on; advises him on policy; and has travelled with him around the country.
Collins quotes Kati Marton, an author who argues that the Presidency is a “two-person job,” and says that a first lady like Melania would bring more of a minefield than we think.
“If the President has got a smart, plugged-in partner who can get his attention and tell him what’s going on in the land, and when he’s being an idiot, as the best ones have been able to do, that is in our interest. Everybody else serves at his pleasure.” A passive First Spouse, Marton said, can hurt not only her husband but the nation. Melania Trump, she added, would be “the least experienced and the least prepared First Lady in history.”
This is the piece I’ve been waiting to read on Melania, who is so studiously proud, vapid and absent that she resists close analysis, particularly in a time when we are loath to deeply criticize women for being superficial, or “fake,” or subservient to an arrangement they chose for themselves—as is, of course, their right. But Melania is meaningful, not as a symbol, not as a joke, but as the actual result when Trump makes his politics personal.