Monday 24 June 2019

Melania: rogue agent or tactical genius?

After she contradicted the US President's comments on basketball star LeBron James, Eleanor Steafel asks, is Mrs Trump trolling her husband?

Rude awakening: Was the purpose of Melania’s statement
meant to soften Trump’s tweet about LeBron James. Photo: AP
Rude awakening: Was the purpose of Melania’s statement meant to soften Trump’s tweet about LeBron James. Photo: AP

Ah, Melania. She must surely be the most enigmatic First Lady in political history. The fringe (can you even call it that?) is a real head scratcher, for starters. But it's her behaviour which is becoming truly puzzling.

Who is she? To the right, Melania is a fashion icon and a source of inspiration; to the left, she is secretly working to overthrow her dastardly husband.

Is she the silent, discreet First Lady with as much political influence as a teapot? The crafty, calculated observer, with a knife at her husband's back, waiting to dig it in at any moment? Or is Donald in on it all, from her improbable cause de choix, the #BeBest cyberbullying campaign (yes, really), to that jacket?

There are three models for First Lady: there's the activist type (in other words, Michelle Obama), who has her own policy agenda, and objectives which bolster the president's but are carried out from a separate power base, not dependent upon his staff for pursuit or implementation.

Then there's the more traditional, ceremonial First Lady, representing the country as a goodwill ambassador, without any particular policy focus.

And in between, there is the Laura Bush model: a First Lady with a few select personal projects, who will mainly be remembered for standing next to her husband at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

LeBron James. Photo: Getty Images
LeBron James. Photo: Getty Images

So far, Melania Trump has seemed to chart this middle course. And yet, in the past year, something has been going on in the East Wing. At the moment, the most frequent label applied to her is 'troll'.

On Saturday, Melania's spokeswoman released a statement praising America's most celebrated basketball player, LeBron James, just a day after her husband had laid into him in one of his late night Twitter rants.

On Friday, the president had publicly questioned LeBron's intelligence after the star gave an interview to CNN about the new public school he has opened in his hometown in Ohio.

"LeBron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made LeBron look smart, which isn't easy to do," Trump tweeted.

The First Lady wears an almost ‘naked’ dress while accompanying her husband to the Nato summit. Photo: Getty Images
The First Lady wears an almost ‘naked’ dress while accompanying her husband to the Nato summit. Photo: Getty Images

Cut to the following afternoon, when a statement emerged from Melania's office proclaiming: "LeBron James is working to do good things on behalf of our next generation and just as she always has, the First Lady encourages everyone to have an open dialogue about issues facing children today," adding that she would be "open to visiting the I Promise School in Akron".

Where does such insolence leave us, the viewer? Was Melania sending her husband a (very public) signal? It seems unlikely Melania would have launched a major new campaign from the White House without the president's sign-off.

Or maybe it's a clever media ploy, orchestrated by the White House's spin department, in which Melania is used to soften the late-night ramblings of her hubby? An elaborate ploy to make him appear more nurturing?

Her trolling even extends to her wardrobe, with many of her outfits being interpreted as broadsides against her husband. The now infamous jacket with "I REALLY DON'T CARE. DO YOU?" emblazoned across the back, worn on a visit to detained immigrant children in Texas, was seen by some critics as an attack on Trump.

Then there was the white pantsuit worn on the night of Trump's State of the Union address - a carbon copy of the suit worn by Hillary Clinton on election night in 2016.

And last month, she accompanied her husband to the Nato summit in a sheer dress. The Elie Saab design was "pretty much the closest a First Lady can get to wearing a naked dress", W Magazine declared, adding: "There's no arguing that the whole affair was further proof that Melania has finally found herself a hobby: trolling."

Meanwhile, the New York Times described her as a "Slovenian Sphynx" who "will never be as brilliant at trolling as her husband," but "has her moments".

Others are more sceptical. American writer Amanda Marcotte, author of Troll Nation, calls out Melania's behaviour as a political tactic straight out of the president's office.

She tweeted: "Folks, don't buy the Melania-loves-LeBron story. This is an old school Republican tactic of using the wife to soften the husband. The Bushes did it by 'leaking' that their wives are pro-choice. McCain's wife made a point of disagreeing with him on gay rights.

"Trump's people aren't as crafty about it - #BeBest is hilariously dumb - but it honestly doesn't matter. The audience for this is the Republican woman who is having pangs of doubt, because she wants to go along with her community but sometimes the meanness starts to bother her."

So, is Melania cleverly undermining her other half, or is she all part of a grander plan to ensure The Donald stays in power beyond the 2020 election?

Whichever side you sit on, one thing's clear: until the Trumps leave the White House, and Melania writes her tell-all book, we may never know. For now, we'll have to keep looking out for signals.

Irish Independent

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