Schrödinger’s Coat

The 20th century witnessed the rise of the media event. The 21st, with its tan suits and swatted hands and flippant Zara outerwear, is bringing a new spin to the old idea.

First lady Melania Trump gets into her vehicle as she arrives at Joint Base Andrews on June 21, 2018, after visiting the Upbring New Hope Children's Center in McAllen, Texas
First lady Melania Trump gets into her vehicle as she arrives at Joint Base Andrews on June 21, 2018, after visiting the Upbring New Hope Children's Center in McAllen, Texas (Andrew Harnik / AP)

It started, as controversies so often will, with fast fashion. On Thursday, as Melania Trump made a hastily planned trip to McAllen, Texas, to visit migrant children being kept in a holding facility at the Mexican–American border, she donned an olive-green anorak, gathered at the waist, that was printed on the back with the following words, seemingly painted in white: “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?”

It was a striking choice for a first lady embarking on a trip whose whole purpose, ostensibly, was caring—so striking, in fact, that the conspiracies about the first lady’s sartorial strategy pretty much theoried themselves. On the one hand, as East Wing staffers insisted, gamely trying to get #ItsJustaJacket to become a thing: Maybe the first lady’s foray into fast fashion was just that—a jacket, donned without much thought, by a woman who maybe got cold in her SUV as she made her way to Joint Base Andrews. Maybe people were reading too much, literally, into a piece of clothing. Ceci, c’est juste une veste.

But on the other hand, as the jacket wearer’s husband insisted, on her behalf: Maybe the jacket in question was in fact a deeply intentional choice, a sartorial strategy meant to lob more deserved mockery at the “Fake News Media.” (“Melania has learned how dishonest they are,” President Trump explained in a tweet, “and she truly no longer cares!”)

But on the other hand—on the internet, there can be so many hands—maybe the whole thing was more meta than that: an epic troll, a form of lib-triggering so intimate and so canny that Melania Trump executed it using no other weapons than the clothes on her back. After all, the jacket gave Trump’s spokeswoman the opportunity to chide on Twitter, “If media would spend their time & energy on her actions & efforts to help kids—rather than speculate & focus on her wardrobe—we could get so much accomplished on behalf of children.” And Zara, the brand that manufactured the jacket Trump wore, has previously sold jean skirts with decals that resemble Pepe and striped shirts with patches that evoke, unsettlingly, the Star of David.

And, really, how could the whole thing have been anything but intentional? The first lady wore the jacket, superfluously, in the soggy heat of the Washington summer, and also all first ladies, understanding their role as image-makers as well as news-makers, put deep thought into their public clothing choices, and also this particular first lady, as a former fashion model, has never been one to scrimp on the attention she pays to her outfits.

In all the conversation, the high, once again, collided with the low. The greatest of stakes—families separated, kids living in shelters, the wails, the suffering, the entirely preventable tragedy of it all—chafed awkwardly against the silliest of them. (Here is yet another hand: It’s a piece of clothing; who cares? Could we, just this once, not?) And yet there’s something revealing about the collision itself, about a jacket that doubles as a billboard when the body it covers happens to belong to the American first lady. There’s something telling about the six words, embodying ambiguity in the fullest sense of that term, that were silk-screened insouciantly onto the jacket that was worn to the photo op. There’s something instructive about the chemical reaction that turns a fashion statement into a plain old statement and then into, against all odds, a scandal.

In the middle of the 20th century, assessing the rise of the television on the workings of the American mind, the historian Daniel Boorstin diagnosed a new phenomenon: the “pseudo-event.” According to Boorstin, the happening that is better known, today, as the media event is something that exists only to serve as fodder for an omnivoracious information system: things like the photo op, and also the press release, and also the general tendency to assume that life itself can be steadily shaped into commercially familiar forms. Boorstin was writing in 1962, during the time in the United States in which world war was giving way to cold war and in which people everywhere were correctly concerned about the ways information could be manipulated to sway public opinion; the events Boorstin was naming, however, suggested another kind of danger. To give oneself over to the image-first logic of the media, he feared, was to cede some of the complex truth of the world to a glib, and commercialized, fantasy. While “propaganda oversimplifies experience,” Boorstin argued, “pseudo-events overcomplicate it.”

The first lady’s jacket of all trades: It is, on top of everything else, just one more reminder of how urgently relevant Boorstin’s 20th-century ideas remain in the 21st. What could be more overcomplicated than a piece of clothing, its question and its mark, expanding to occupy so much space in the fickle American psyche? What could be more self-defeating than that occupation crowding out the ostensible reason for the donning of the jacket in the first place: a trip to visit children who have been torn away from their families by the American government?

We do, as a matter of reflex, precisely what Boorstin feared we would when he warned about the triumph of pseudo-reality in American life: We capitulate to images. We allow ourselves to be distracted, so easil—sorry, I lost my train of thought. We lose sight of the real story until finally we lose the point.

Which is a very old idea, of course, but also a distinctly new one; the more recent twist on it is that we’ve now simply upped the game for the digital age. It’s no longer merely a matter of events existing to become media; it’s now a matter of events existing to become memes. The media event gives way to the meme event. Obama’s tan suit. Clinton’s BlackBerry. Melania’s inaugural smile-frown. So many, many more. Things happen, silly things and sweeping things, and they are not simply news events; they are also fodder for collaborative joke-making and truth-squadding and meaning-making. The stories shed their contexts. Their readers lose their place. That’s often a very good thing. It is occasionally a very bad thing.

What’s especially striking about Melania Trump’s trip to Texas is how neatly it served as both types of Boorstinian event, as media and as meme, at the same time. The first lady’s voyage, after all, no matter how much her staff insisted it was, was not a great work of nuanced humanitarianism. It was a performance. It was a “surprise” trip that was, of course, no surprise at all to the photographers and film crews assembled to document it.

The cameras were there as the first lady boarded the plane at Joint Base Andrews, Secret Service agents in tow. They were there when she disembarked in Texas—when she briefly interviewed the heads of the shelter. And when she posed with policemen, and Border Patrol agents. And when the visitor and the visited, arranged at a table in front of a tree made out of a collage of brightly colored construction paper (“Acts of kindness make me bloom,” the foliage announced), engaged in a stiff conversation about the ways children cope with trauma.

The cameras were there when, after an extremely brief amount of time had elapsed—“Plans for her to visit a second facility where children housed in cages were seen by the Associated Press last week were canceled because of flooding there,” the AP reported—Trump got back on the plane again. They were there when she disembarked in the Washington area, wearing the jacket once more. They were there from the first act to the last, ready to bear witness to her bearing of witness. “She wants to see what’s real,” the first lady’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, told CNN, without a hint of irony. “She wanted to see as close to what she had been seeing on TV.”

To be a politician, at this moment—to be someone who works within the realm of politics—is to make a series of compromises. One of them is to capitulate to the notion that attention is capital and currency: something that is, quite literally, paid to you in return for your attempts to earn it. Another is to recognize that the full, warm, terrible truths of the world—in this case, the children in shelters, the people in cages, the announcement that the American government is making plans to house as many as 20,000 migrants on military bases—can easily get lost, precisely within the efforts to call attention to them. Inevitably, within such arrangements, the line between helping people and exploiting them will become vanishingly thin.

The most generous reading of Melania Trump’s trip to Texas is that the first lady, as a mother and a human, deeply cares about the plight of the families who have been separated because of the policies of her husband’s administration; the less generous is that she made the trip out of concern for imagecraft and/or soft power and/or spite. What Daniel Boorstin knew, and what becomes clearer every day, is that the effects of either interpretation will be precisely the same: She will perform empathy, and we will look at the pictures of the show. We’ll argue about the jacket, because it is easy and meme-able and arguable and there. It’s photo ops, all the way down.

And so it was predictable—it was pretty much inevitable—that the jacket would became the story of the day, on Thursday. And that the story about the jacket would become the story—this jacket is controversial—and then that the story about the story about the jacket would become the story—should this jacket be so controversial?—and on and on and on, until Snopes was weighing in on it and Jimmy Kimmel was professing partisan indignation about it and the president of the United States was tweeting about it and Trevor Noah was joking about it and Kirsten Powers was getting angry about it and Anderson Cooper was dedicating a portion of his show to the cause of righteous jacket-truthing, all while the children the first lady visited, and the many, many more she did not, remain incarcerated simply because they are helpless kids. Through all the tumult and all the talk—through all the words and pictures and human attention expended like exhaust into the empty night—I don’t fully know what the American government is doing, right at this moment, right in this world, right on this ground we all walk on, to change that. Do u?