Among at least half of the electorate, Donald Trump’s presidency has been a betrayal of ideals, a shattering of institutions, and an attack on basic civility. Yet the president himself has proved immune to criticism, willfully unencumbered by the cosmic pain he is causing some significant part of the country: His poll numbers have ticked upward, and his party remains unpunished for its support. The speculation about what sins may be behind his wife’s absence, therefore, is equal parts pessimism and optimism: If it’s bad enough for her, it might just be bad enough for him. The first lady, and her presumed plight, has been weaponized.
“The left is looking for any opportunity to show distance between the first lady and the president,” NBC’s Jonathan Allen told me. “Like the idea that she doesn’t agree with him on issues, the idea that she is angry at him for alleged sexual indiscretions, the idea that she doesn’t want to be physically near him. You see it over and over again with the memes of the hand-holding.”
The now-infamous Hand Slap videos—officially part of our American chronicle—were the closest that downtrodden spectators could get to a Trump scolding, the first lady’s fingers acting as metaphorical rebuke on behalf of the politically disenfranchised.
Likewise, when Mrs. Trump wore a wide-brimmed white hat during French President Emmanuel Macron’s first state visit to the White House, to some observers, it was not merely a fashion statement: It was sartorial protest, a sign from the White House wilderness that the first lady was actually a gladiator for good—in the mold of Scandal’s Olivia Pope.
The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan speculated:
It was a diva crown. A grand gesture of independence. A church hat. The Lord is my shepherd. Deliver us from evil. Amen.
So it was earlier, for the white pantsuit worn to President Trump’s first State of the Union: It was not an ensemble, it was a political statement. The New York Times reported that Mrs. Trump’s clothing was
exactly the kind of outfit that became a symbol of her husband’s rival, Hillary Clinton, during the last election, and has since become widely accepted as sartorial shorthand for both the suffragists and contemporary women’s empowerment and something of an anti-Trump uniform, and also what the women gathered behind Kesha wore to display their sisterhood at Sunday’s Grammy Awards—[and it] seemed to be about as subtle a slap in the face as could be contained in a garment.
I see you, this pantsuit seemed to whisper to those on the outside—and with that, perhaps, the voice of the woman wearing it: I am one of you.
Bereft of actual, self-designated gladiators, progressives are searching for someone to end this hallucinatory episode of American politics. At the outset of the administration, Democrats may have believed that warrior to be Ivanka Trump, who willfully cultivated the image of a change agent, weighing in on issues including women’s empowerment and climate change, anathemas to her father’s administration.