Shortly after Melania Trump donned a baby blue dress with matching gloves and stood by her husband on the steps of the Capitol, watching as he took the oath of office, #FreeMelania trended across social media. During Donald Trump’s inauguration, the new first lady had stopped smiling the minute he turned his back on her, a definitive sign to close watchers that she must be secretly sympathetic to the waves of protesters who had come to Washington, D.C. with knitted pink pussy hats packed in their luggage. Trump, the narrative went, was cruel to his wife. He ignored her when they went to the White House to meet the Obamas, leaving her to the kindness of the outgoing president and first lady, models of political decorum particularly in comparison to a brutish Trump. “Melania: Blink twice if you need help,” signs at the Women’s March read.
Melania was quickly transformed into a secret member of the Resistance, her only qualification was simply that she was a woman and, as such, she too must be appalled by her husband’s boorish, sexist behavior. That Melania agreed with her husband was decidedly beside the point: here was a pretty white woman who didn’t smile and who clearly didn’t relish her role as First Lady. She must be a victim of Donald Trump; she must be just like the women who lined the Mall holding signs and protesting Trump’s election to the presidency. Melania Trump must be different.
This was, of course, all fiction.
The Melania who believed in a sentimental, soft-focus feminism never manifested because she was never real. But then, Melania had never pretended otherwise. She publicly agreed with her husband that Barack Obama’s birth certificate was fake; she raced to his defense after the infamous “pussy” tape leaked, describing his words as nothing more than “boy talk”; she dismissed the allegations of sexual harassment and assault as lies; and at the 2016 Republican National Convention, she delivered a speech partially plagiarized from Michelle Obama on the same night that speakers lined up behind the podium to give angry anti-immigration speeches. #FreeMelania trended after all of this, proof either of the fantastical powers of white feminism or the persuasiveness of bigotry when delivered with a delicate tone—perhaps it was both.
Melania herself was successful in deconstructing the liberal myth that she was somehow undermining her husband. On a visit to McAllen, Texas, in the middle of the ongoing family separation crisis, she wore an Army green jacket with the words “I Don’t Really Care. Do U?” scrawled on the back. The jacket, she later told ABC News, was a message for the “left-wing media who are criticizing me.” It was a truly Trumpian response: pettiness in the face of such cruelty. Like her husband, Melania only cared for her own feelings, offering an unnecessarily performative response to imperceptible slights. Of course, Melania had no sympathy for the children separated from their parents by her husband’s policies. As she told her former advisor Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, “Give me a fucking break.”
Despite this, Melania’s public image as First Lady was dedicated to children. Her vague initiative Be Best was devoted, among other things, to ending online bullying. In public appearances, she stressed kindness and unity in what often felt like vicious irony. But Melania was doing her job, not necessarily as First Lady, but as Donald Trump’s wife. As she denounced bullying on social media, purposefully ignoring her husband’s own behavior, she implied that the persecution was being done by the critics of the Trump family, be it the left or the media. Like her husband, she saw enemies everywhere. But instead of ranting and threatening, Melania was largely silent, her response was a disdainful distance punctuated by moments of racism and sexism. If Melania’s legacy is anything it’s that she was the perfect wife for a man who fashioned himself as a petty dictator: supportive, expensive, and mostly quiet.
Melania Trump sealed that image when, shortly after the White House announced that the Trumps would not meet with Bidens as part of the traditional Inauguration Day transfer of power, she delivered a short farewell message shared on social media (on platforms, ironically, that have banned her husband). “I ask every American to be an ambassador to Be Best, to focus on what unites us, to raise above what divides us, to always choose love over hatred, peace over violence,” she said. It was her last job as First Lady, a delivery of platitudes about America even as the Trump family uses their last gasp of power to undermine the fragile institutions that hold it together.