On the rainy morning of January 20th, 2017, the world watched on as Donald Trump was inaugurated to the highest office in the United States. Although all eyes were on the 45th president-elect as he held his hand up to the Bible and recited the words that make up the hallmark of our democracy, many Americans could not help but glance at the woman beside him, dressed in powder blue and holding up the holy book to her husband’s palms. At the cusp of the era of Trump-ism and in the aftermath of the most divisive election in modern history, Americans were left wondering: what lies behind the chiseled cheekbones and smoky eyes of our new First Lady?
Born in 1970 in Yugoslavia, now Slovenia, as Melania Knauss, the First Lady is the daughter of a car dealer and a children’s clothing designer who started modeling in Milan and Paris at the age of 16. Young Melania attended the University of Ljubljana for a year but never received a degree prior to being officially signed as a model at the age of 18 by an agency in Milan. It wasn’t until 1996 that she broke into the American market as she walked for New Fashion week that year and graced the covers of multiple magazine including Harper’s Bazaar. Since then, Mrs. Trump has appeared on over dozens of magazine covers from Vanity Fair and GQ to Vogue. She is also, like her husband, a businesswoman who has developed her own line of jewelry and watches on QVC. After marrying Trump in 2005, at a star-studded event attended by Hollywood elite and even former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Melania soon became pregnant with Barron Trump, the youngest of the five Trump children. Until the announcement of Donald Trump’s presidency in June of 2015, Melania had been a more reserved kind of public figures and, to a large extent, remains a highly elusive character.
In quite an unconventional fashion, Mrs. Trump played a rather minimal role on the campaign trail for both the primary and general elections, opting to stay largely out of the limelight. Although it is unknown whether this was a personal decision or a campaign tactic employed by the Trump camp, the future First Lady delivered only two speeches and a handful of appearances in the almost two year long campaign season. Her vacancy was felt at Trump events throughout the campaign because, even as she sometimes stood beside her husband waving to the vociferous crowds, her own voice was seldom heard, leaving Americans to fill in the gaps. Dr. Lauren Wright, political scientist, board member of the White House Transition Project and author of the 2016 book On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today, notes that a crucial indicator of how the First lady will perform is her campaign presence.
“First ladies have been communicating more often and giving more speeches and public appearances, meaning that Laura Bush had increased her level of public activity from Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama has blown everyone out of the water as far as frequency of public appearances goes. So I don’t know if Mrs. Trump will continue in that trend,” commented Dr. Wright.
Davenport College freshman Sarah Young, a devoted Hillary Clinton supporter and speaker at the Yale Women’s March, shares this sentiment of the First Lady as a silent figure.
“I think that, and I don’t know to what extent this is like a thing to do with Melania Trump or more to do with how Melania Trump is perceived and what people are putting onto her, but I think that already we’re seeing her being viewed a lot more as like the ‘arm-candy’. I hate that word and I’m not saying that as my own view but I think that that is really how a lot of people are talking about Melania Trump. She really is Trump’s wife. She is viewed, and maybe even he views her, as like an accessory rather than kind of like a public figure.”
Ms. Young’s comment illuminates a feeling which, although largely absent from the political discourse of the election season, commonly characterizes the public perception of relationship between older men and younger women, particular those in the modeling industry. The dynamic of the millionaire playboy and the model trophy wife is one which has been central to American pop culture for decades and which, to an extent, is the first to come to the minds of many Americans when thinking of the President and First Lady prior to the election.
Yet this view can also be characterized a by-product of the silence on the part of the First Lady which Katherine Jellison, Professor of History at Ohio University, attributes, in part, to her lack of schooling on the duties of the First Lady.
“Other presidents, you know, had political careers that their wives assisted them in before coming in the White House. People like General Eisenhower, General Grant, people who had not political careers previously but maybe military careers, the wives of high ranking officers were often called on to play the kind of roles that a first lady would,” Professor Jellison notes. “Melania Trump had absolutely no experience of that type before all you know her husband’s running for president and next thing you know he’s elected. Some of this may have been her unease in the role of a candidate’s wife who, like many public officials, is expected to play a role that reaches out to the American public.”
Given her lack of training for the role and her tendency towards privacy, it is also possible that the First Lady was simply lost in the shuffle of the tumultuous election season. The explosive, and often draining, campaign season consisted of litany of stories often breaking in a single day as reporters rushed to cover Donald Trump’s latest tweet or fact check the previous night’s town hall. In the midst of these circumstances, any possible stories about the First Lady were lost in the shuffle and the families of the candidates, on both sides, managed to stay out of the crossfire for most, if not all, of the campaign season. The glaring exception to this general trend was the outrage concerning the plagiarism of Melania Trump’s speech during the Republican National Convention from a speech given by former First Lady Michelle Obama during the previous election’s Democratic National Convention. Capturing the attention of the news cycle for about a week, the speech contained more than a few phrases which were almost identical to those of Mrs. Obama’s speech from 2008. The Trump campaign vehemently denied claims of plagiarism, sending surrogates to dispute the claims on the usual talk show circuit. However, campaign staff writer Meredith McIver released a statement on the matter shortly afterwards, claiming responsibility for having included portions of Michelle Obama’s speech in Mrs. Trump’s remarks as a mistaken transcription following a conversation with Mrs. Trump about said speech.
“First of all, that speech with the lifted portions made her even more distrustful of the media than she was in the first place,” Dr. Wright told The Politic. “We know from reporting that she was very unhappy with the backlash that resulted from that speech. She really went underground at that point and I think it made her more reluctant to give speeches on the campaign trail, made her more wary of the media, and she really withdrew in a way that eliminated the opportunity for Americans to get to know her better and therefore to increase her favorable ratings.”
The controversy was one of the only times in which Mrs. Trump was part of the election news cycle and, along with the polls showing her dip in popularity to around 30 percent in the immediate aftermath, it does partake in the narrative surrounding the current transition from First Lady Michelle Obama to First Lady Melania Trump. Ms. Young notes this, stating that in regards to the scandal that “to have that kind of shape her coming into the role as first lady, I think, has contributed so heavily to the idea that she isn’t going to be a figure in her own right. The very fact that she was reliant on the words of another First Lady is like such a symbolic thing that places her in a really different kind of light than her predecessor.”
The comparison to the Obamas is also a wonted and significant one, as the departure of the First African-American family from the White House is bemoaned by many throughout the nation. Ms. Young provides some insight into the relationship between the two families as she notes how they represent two opposite ends of the same spectrum.
“I do think Trump, a lot of what he exemplifies and what his family exemplifies, is about more like superficial values,” Ms. Young said. “They’re a family of beautiful, shiny rich celebrity-people as opposed to a family that really exemplifies the value of education, the prioritization of education, hard work… In a way, you can view them as kind of like representing two different kind of ideals of the American self-made dream. Because, you know, for a lot of people, that dream involves the ideal opulent wealth, being rich and famous, that Trump completely embodies. But then there’s also a very different approach to that, which is the one that Obama took of becoming so highly educated and working your way to the top that way.”
Similarly, Professor Jellison agrees that the transition has been a difficult one for many.
“Several people say, you know, it’s like they have whiplash to go from one First family who had one type of image, you look around overnight in place of another First family that has the diametrically opposed image,” Professor Jellison states. “And I do wonder what the image and expectation for future First families will be in the wake of the Trump presidency. Will they have upended all the expectations about how members of the first family should act and the kinds of language they should use? It’ll be interesting to see in the long term.”
Mrs. Trump, whether intentionally or not, has begun to redefine the very role of the First Lady, calling into question the unrealistic expectations of the role and, seemingly, adopting the more traditional role of White House hostess.
“Her rejecting a more up-front role as First Lady unintentionally, I think, in the long run could dismantle all these almost impossible expectations that we have heaped upon a first lady,” Professor Jellison commented. “She’s supposed to be this wonderful, generous person all the time but also be a good wife and mother and she’s supposed to never have a hair out of place. We’ve created, sort of, an impossible standard for the modern First Lady and with Melania playing this lower profile, I know it’s not her intention, but she might be dismantling all of these unrealistic expectations that we have for a first lady and that might make the next First Lady’s job easier.”