Bruni | Melania Trump’s call to greatness

Published on August 22, 2018 5:42PM


Maybe someday, when the history of Donald Trump’s presidency is written, we’ll pinpoint the start of this week as his pivot into complete derangement and come up with a pithy name for it. Maybe we’ll call it Melania Monday.

We’ll note that on Aug. 20, 2018, the first lady, again with a pussy bow, publicly chided cyberbullies at the same time that her husband ranted and raged on Twitter, likening Robert Mueller to Joseph McCarthy and demonstrating a grasp of history commensurate with his grip on civility.

We’ll admire the wickedness of her announcement, just hours later, that she’d be making a solo trip — her farthest and flashiest yet as an official ambassador — to Africa, whose nations the president can’t pronounce, let alone respect. She didn’t choose that destination randomly, throwing a dart at a map. She chose it defiantly, throwing shade at her husband.

Surely Melania Trump is getting under his skin. Certainly she’s making the effort. If she would just turn these fitful baby steps into full-length strides, she might finally undo him and set us free. Melania the Savior. A pussy-bow coup. Stranger things have happened. Less exhilarating fantasies have been born.

And is it really so far-fetched? To judge by his tweets, tantrums and apparent belief that Rudy Giuliani is an appropriate advocate, Donald Trump teeters at the precipice of incoherence and self-destruction, needing only a shove. Who best to administer it but a spouse with her own, separate bedroom in the White House and her own, separate hotel suite when they travel?

She inches ever closer to open contempt for him. She finds increasingly clever ways to show it. And it’s a perfect wedding of patriotism and payback for all the humiliations that he has heaped on her.

This first-lady thing clearly flummoxed her at first. It’s a ludicrous job. You’re supposed to make a difference without making waves, find a passion while veiling your convictions and smile blithely through a ceaseless forensic examination of your every accessory.

It’s infantilizing. It’s objectifying. If a presidential administration were a sedan, the first lady would be its hood ornament. If it were a manse, she’d be the topiary bracketing the front stoop.

Usually Melania Trump was absent topiary. America had a denuded front stoop. And we made hasty assumptions. When she initially announced her cyberbullying campaign in a speech in November 2016, we thought that she was out to lunch. Did she not see the contradiction?

The updated theory is that she’s trolling him. I buy it. It fits in with so much else.

For the president’s first State of the Union address, she wore a white pantsuit that served as a sartorial reminder of suffragists and of Hillary Clinton. This month, after he questioned LeBron James’ intelligence in a tweet, her spokeswoman released a statement that asserted the first lady’s admiration for James’ work with at-risk children in his hometown, Akron, Ohio. Melania was possibly interested in visiting the school there that James had helped to start, the statement said.

And my colleagues Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman recently reported that during a trip overseas last month, the president had a fit because the first lady’s television on Air Force One was tuned to CNN, not his beloved Fox News. Was CNN an accident or a provocation? Well, in a public response to the incident, Melania’s spokeswoman made clear that the first lady watches “any channel she wants.”

I’m not sure what to make of that “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” jacket that she wore on her way to a detention center for migrant children in Texas. It’s the “rosebud” of our time. But what if the message was that she didn’t mind if we interpreted her behavior as a rebuke of her husband’s?

Marriage as psyops — it’s not virgin territory, but the stage and stakes here are epic. On Monday, as The Washington Post’s James Hohmann noted, she used the phrase “global society” in both her spoken remarks about cyberbullying and her written remarks about the trip to Africa, which she praised for its “rich culture.” Her husband, of course, treats “globalists” and “globalism” as dirty words, and some of his “shithole countries” are on that richly cultured continent. She’ll be going there without him.

Other first ladies beautified highways, promoted reading, planted squash. This one could abbreviate a nightmare. She’s in a situation that her predecessors weren’t, on the arm of an overlord who needs undermining, and it’s her invitation to greatness, or at least her prompt for an itinerary tailored to taunt.

I urge that visit to James’ school. Bring Don Lemon along. I suggest lunch dates with Maxine Waters, Aperol spritzes with Angela Merkel and pajama parties with Nancy Pelosi. And pussy bows and pantsuits for days on end. They’re the threads of a revolution.

Frank Bruni, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times since June 2011, joined the newspaper in 1995 and has ranged broadly across its pages. He has been both a White House correspondent and the chief restaurant critic.



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