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.”