On Wednesday, Melania Trump gave a speech before a luncheon gathering of United Nations spouses, addressing cyberbullying and child advocacy. As usual, her look, affect, and performance conveyed infinitely more than her brief scripted speech ever could. Melania, in fact, is beginning to seem like an increasingly powerful — albeit unacknowledged — expression of all the madness swirling around the current administration.
At the U.N., Melania took the podium in an eye-straining vivid-fuchsia Delpozo dress, distinguished by gigantic puffy sleeves and belted snugly — like many of her outfits — just beneath the bosom. The outsize, three-quarter sleeves functioned almost like sails or balloons, creating fabric hollows that inflated with air and billowed widely out around her. Her long, middle-parted hair was styled in its customary unmoving waves, curving around her sculpted face like a stage curtain stalled at mid-rise. The matching stilettos were at least four inches high. Taken together, this was a high-glam, show-stopping, BIG look, both literally and figuratively. The critics pounced. “Outfit is not flattering. Sad,” wrote one Twitter wag.“Melania wearing a pink Snuggie,” smirked another. And some deemed it poor taste for the First Lady to wear a $3,000 dress while declaring, “No child should ever feel hungry.”
The First Lady’s appearance did feel “off” somehow, but these were not the reasons. The dress was chic and interesting (if oddly voluminous), and the spouses of world leaders are always going to wear fine, expensive clothes. That’s just normal. The unease we felt watching Melania this week stems from something deeper: the many striking incongruities that underlie many of the First Lady’s public performances.
On Wednesday, we saw some of those incongruities on display as Melania took her place and began to speak. At first blush, she seemed larger than life — a voluptuous ship of state propelled by shocking-pink sails. But look again and listen: the First Lady seemed uncertain, her face contorted as if on the verge of tears for a few minutes. As she invoked the importance of “human dignity” and “leaving no one behind,” Melania’s soft voice quivered, her eyebrows rising into an upside-down v of distress.
When she spoke of motherhood being the “most joyous role” of her life, her voice caught in her throat most unjoyously, like a stifled sob. The remainder of the eight-minute speech was delivered in tremulous tones, at times it was as if she were reading her words phonetically. If we experienced discomfort watching this speech then, it came not from the First Lady’s dress, but from these marked contrasts — between that oversize fuchsia glamazon power outfit and the halting, childlike woman wearing it, between the words and the person speaking them.
In its content, too, Melania’s speech troubled us with contradictions. In the wake of her husband’s cruel repeal of DACA — with its potential expulsion of 800,000 young Dreamers — and a mere day after his coarse, belligerent U.N. speech, the First Lady exhorted us — with no detectable irony — to protect children from feeling “frightened … or afraid, with nowhere to turn,” invoked “peace,” and extolled the importance of imparting “ethical lessons” to the young. In response, journalist Joy Reid dryly tweeted a newsflash to Melania: “Your husband is Donald Trump.”
Oddly, though, in the end, Melania Trump’s speech proved powerful and moving, not in spite of all its tonal and affective contradictions, but because of them. The Trump administration likely views Melania as a useful “softening” agent, believing her beauty and fashionable wow factor effective distractions from her husband’s brutal policies and untruths. But when pressed into service as a spokesperson, Melania winds up performing the very things her husband would wish her to screen out.
In this disconnection between messenger and message, her obvious discomfort in the role thrust upon her, and — as we saw on Wednesday — the estrangement she can display even from her own high-fashion costumes, Melania reminds us that she represents the most incongruous and ill-fitting presidency of our lifetimes. Like Melania at sea in her big pink dress, the president seems to have donned a costume for a role that far exceeds his capacities.
Melania faltering over her words reminds us of a president who seems unaware (or worse, heedless) of the import or ramifications of his language. Like Melania, the president performs a troubling distance from what he is called upon to do. These are not missteps in the era of Trump, they are its hallmarks. The First Lady’s public appearances incite unease because they are not decorative interludes in this presidency but symptoms of its deepest truth.
Rhonda Garelick is the author of Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History.