In September 2017, President Trump — surveying hurricane damage in Florida — assured the crowd, “Melania really wanted to be with us,” implying that other commitments had kept her away. Yet Melania was standing right next to him. Had he forgotten she was there? Or — as rumors suggested — was he so accustomed to her body double that he didn’t realize that “real” Melania was there? (Even so, shouldn’t he have pretended she was?)
I don’t know if Melania uses a stand-in for events she prefers to sit out, but whether or not she actually does doesn’t matter. What matters is how easily such a theory takes root, how plausible it seems that there’s a spare Melania. Such rumors reinforce the notion that Melania is more a category of person than an irreplaceable individual, and that the president’s marriage is grounded in something essentially transactional, rather than in any notion of romantic love. It affirms our sinking feeling that the president regards his presidency with the same objectifying gaze he trains on his wife — as nothing but a means to an end.
Speculation about Melania’s body double — possibly a look-alike Secret Service agent — resurfaces periodically. In mid-March, when the Trumps toured Alabama’s tornado wreckage, some felt FLOTUS again looked “different.” The View’s Joy Behar took a foreseeable swipe: “You mean there are two women who have to pretend they’re listening to him?”
As Behar’s joke reminds us, the rumors reflect a common presumption about the Trumps’ marriage: She’ll do anything to avoid him (see: hand, slapping away), and he barely knows or cares if she’s there.
Certainly, Trump has never evinced much respect for women or for the institution of marriage. In Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff writes of Trump’s habit of boasting about sleeping with his friends’ wives. In an interview with Howard Stern, Trump famously mused that age 35 was “check-out time” for any woman he dated. Stern also recalls that, at Trump’s second wedding, to Marla Maples, the future president took him aside to impart this bit of nuptial wisdom: “Howard, vagina is expensive.”
But should we even care about the State of the President’s Conjugal Union? Yes. Because it’s a barometer for the state of the president’s union with us, the citizens he serves.
Presidential marriages have two sides: the “behind-closed-doors” relationship, and the “official,” public one. The latter alone merits consideration since we know only what the First Couple shows us. Only the outward manifestation of a presidential marriage concerns us; indeed, it’s woven into our experience of American government.
Marriage is an institution of faith, and — fairly or not — we look to the president’s marriage as evidence of his trustworthiness. The spouse (so far, only “the wife”) is a guarantor of the president’s humanity, proof that he loves and is loved. All politicians know this. It’s why Amy O’Rourke sat, grinning tightly, next to Beto in his first television commercial. It’s why Bill and Hillary held hands on camera right after the Monica Lewinsky revelations. A show of marital solidity remains a sine qua non for presidents. (Only two unmarried presidents have ever been elected: James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland.)
Some First Couples carry it off with élan. Remember the Obamas dancing together at his first inaugural ball — gazing into each other’s eyes? They made one of the planet’s most public events feel intimate, like a newlywed couple’s first dance. (Michelle even looked bride-like, in white chiffon.) That wedding-y feeling spilled over to the spectators, humanizing the political ceremony and reminding us that the president’s spouse sometimes symbolically represents us all. If s/he looks happy, we, too, feel inspired about our own future “dancing” with this president.
Now recall the Trumps’ inaugural first dance. As Melania strained stiffly away from him, peering into the middle distance, Trump smiled vaguely, looking toward the crowd. The song playing was peculiar, too: Frank Sinatra’s classic “My Way,” which begins: “And now, the end is near.”
If Melania symbolically represents us, we are in big trouble. Such uncertainty hovers over her: What is she thinking? Where was she during that mysterious “medical” absence? We even wonder whether the Melania we see is actually Melania. This nagging, even ontological doubt is disorienting. Not knowing what to make of her and her marriage creates psychic dissonance, an estrangement from ourselves.
The anomie between the Trumps is also contagious, spreading to those around them. When Trump “forgets” that his wife is right next to him, for example, she does not react. Nor does anyone else on the podium. When it comes to light that Trump knew all about the Stormy Daniels pay-off, Melania says nothing, Trump says nothing, and we, the American public, duly note this latest disturbing detail and then “forget” it. We are all pressed into service in a giant performance of not knowing and not feeling. Trump demands mass self-anesthetizing, and his marriage is the ur-manifestation of this.
Finally, let’s look at the moments when Trump does use the word “love.” They never involve friends or family members. Instead, Trump speaks of love when referring to murderous dictator Kim Jong-un, who he says has sent him “love letters.” And, crucially, Trump speaks of love in relation to the crowds at his rallies.
The most recent “rally romance” occurred at the 2019 CPAC in Maryland. There, Trump walked onstage and immediately threw his arms around an American flag, rocking it gently back and forth, wearing a beatific expression.
That flag — an inanimate object — likely received more demonstrable affection than any Trump wife or child ever has. This was not a case of fevered patriotism, this was Trump acting out the erotic rush he feels before cheering throngs — an entirely solipsistic, even onanistic love. Later, during his rambling, two-hour speech, Trump declared, “I’m in love, and you’re in love. We’re all in love together … There’s so much love in this room, it’s easy to talk.”
The remark had a certain sadness. Perhaps this is what being in love feels like to Donald Trump — license to humor his every thought, unchecked. But this love involved no specific individuals. It was, rather, a mass-scale, anonymous love, channeled through applause and MAGA hats.
Perhaps our president feels “married” to his base. But what about the rest of us? Our relationship with him mirrors more the painfully disconnected, stilted rapport we witness between him and Melania. (“If I weren’t beautiful, do you think he’d be with me?” Melania once retorted when asked whether she’d married for money.) And yet for all its seeming artifice, the Trump union is uncannily authentic in one key way: It telegraphs precisely what kind of transaction we have entered into.
*A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!