One woman stands on stage as glamorous misdirection. First lady Melania Trump puts a thin coat of gloss over the xenophobia and racism that runs through her husband’s administration. She ratchets down the temperature of his heated rhetoric with her cool demeanor and unruffled silence. She is the president’s better-dressed alter ego.
The other woman, Jill Biden, draws the focus to the heart in her husband’s message — one that includes gratitude.
The country last saw its current first lady in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday posed just behind the president in the East Room as he erroneously declared victory in his reelection campaign. Melania Trump wore an all-business black pantsuit with a white shirt and her signature heels. She was smiling when she entered the room, the golden streaks in her hair echoing the gilding in the historic space. She was a striking figure, which has been one of her greatest skills as first lady, if only because it is the one that seems to take precedence over everything else.
The president hides behind the power and grace of the American flag
As President Trump began his remarks, her face lost affect and her expression didn’t discernibly change as he carried on with his unsubstantiated claims of voting fraud. As he wrapped up, Melania revived her smile and applauded. It was her version of a raucous four-more-years chant.
In that moment of political and personal distress, when the president was all but flailing his arms as he was being pulled under by the rising tide of Joe Biden votes, Melania did not move closer to him in an expression of support and comfort. She stood so far apart from him that it’s hard to imagine she provided any physical reassurance. She didn’t nod enthusiastically when he spoke. She wasn’t his Greek chorus emphasizing his thoughts.
She stands on stage as an individual looking out for her singular interests. She is with him, but not connected to him.
Melania has crafted her own public image, but one that drafts off of her husband’s. She is the perfectly poised and well-dressed first lady who occasionally says or does traditionally first lady things such as decorating the White House for the holidays or selecting the menu for a state dinner. But she is also the patron saint of his followers, the ones who are immigration hard-liners, Muslim-ban backers, birthers and anti-maskers. She is the administration’s policies transformed into glossy, freshly blown-out glory. And she has glided into history.
For years, she has told the public that she is her own woman and that she makes her own choices. “I don’t want to change him. He doesn’t want to change me,” she told MSNBC in 2016. They were perfectly suited to each other just as they were.
He is the swaggering braggart. She is the elegant woman on his arm — or at least in his vicinity. Each has served the other.
During a conversation at New York University more than a decade ago, a student reportedly asked Melania whether she’d be with her husband if he were not rich. According to a glossy magazine, she quipped: “If I weren’t beautiful, do you think he’d be with me?”
Perhaps theirs is a transactional relationship. Only those actually in a relationship truly know the nature of it. But her words suggest that there’s little fog in how they see each other or any discomfort with utilizing the power of appearance.
When the public last heard from Melania, she was campaigning for her husband. And she was echoing his grievances. She was repeating his divisive rhetoric, but in whispery tones and with the occasional smile. She was a full partner in the administration’s commitment to painting the media as the enemy, the Democrats as corrupt, the Russia investigation as a hoax and her husband as an exquisitely kind and loving commander in chief. This is not his story alone; it is also hers. He writes in angry, all-capital letters. She tells it in pretty pictures.
Jill Biden, who could be the country’s next first lady, stood alongside her husband when he spoke to supporters on Wednesday, again urging them to be patient as all the votes are counted. They were outside at one of their drive-in rallies and both were wearing masks. He took his off as he began to speak, but hers remained on. The former vice president began doling out thanks when Jill offered him a reminder, which was a bit muffled, and so he paused and asked her to repeat her note. She asked that he add Delaware’s governor to his gratitude list.
It wasn’t a big thing, but it was notable because it was a reminder that Jill was not on stage as a silent prop or as someone looking out for her own interests, but as someone in a partnership. The former vice president might well have gotten around to thanking the governor without Jill’s nudge, and even if he didn’t, he could have done so later or in private. But the point is that she was scrolling through the list of names in her head and had no qualms about speaking up because she wasn’t on stage just for show.
She was on stage to use her voice if necessary, to support him, to be an extra set of eyes because no one person can see everything. Jill was present. And she was making sure that her husband was seen in his best light.