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Melania Trump isn't a liberal punchline. How a model became a despot's wife.

Far from a helpless stereotype, the often-misunderstood first lady knows what she's doing.
President Donald J. Trump
President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump walk from the Oval Office to board Marine One and depart from the South Lawn at the White House on Jan 31, 2020.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

What is the role of women in a political movement as misogynistic as President Donald Trump’s? What does it take to be the consort to an authoritarian?

Washington Post writer Mary Jordan’s deeply reported book focusing on Melania Trump tackles, in its own way, several of these questions. While the initial buzz centered around rumors that the first lady leveraged her husband’s election to revise her prenup — this book is much more than a standard Bob Woodward-style recitation of insider accounts. Far from the helpless stereotype that has become a running punchline, Jordan’s research reveals something larger: the personality and strategy required to become a successful despot’s wife.

What is the role of women in a political movement as misogynistic as President Donald Trump’s?

The first requirement for such a figure is accepting that the chief role of the feminine in an autocracy is to bolster male sexual power. “How I adore you,” Clara Petacci wrote to Benito Mussolini after making love to him, according to a book of her letters. “You were so beautiful this evening, as aggressive as a lion, violent and masterful. You are the man who triumphs over other men and over life.”

From the beginning of their relationship, Melania played this role well, making sure to tell Trump’s detractors that he was “a real man,” according to Jordan. She purred on Howard Stern about Trump’s Olympian bedroom talents. When he broke up with her at the end of 1999, she stayed home for months and didn’t date, thereby luring him back, Jordan writes. For Trump, she erased her past with other men, including a Frenchman who had gifted her a car.

Discretion is the better part of valor, especially when power relies on branding. The FLOTUS has it in spades. Jordan’s reporting details how Melania systematically deleted her personal history by cutting off friends and mentors as she moved from Slovenia to New York.

Because authoritarians need facts to be malleable, the second requirement of the despot’s wife is to be comfortable with lies and fabrications. Melania’s career as an elite “supermodel” has always been difficult to prove, but Jordan concludes it is far from the truth through interviews with photographers and model agents.

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Jordan does confirm that Melania worked as a catalog model, much like “First First Lady” Ivana Trump. Sadly those images have apparently not stood the test of the digital revolution. What pictures that do exist have been scrubbed from easy internet searches. (Besides the famous faux lesbian shoot first published in the French lad mag Max and then recycled in the New York Post during the 2016 campaign, other lurid spreads that my own photo researcher turned up.)

Jordan fills in new details about what Melania really did during the years between leaving Slovenia in the early 1990s and turning up on Trump’s arm in public.

Jordan fills in new details about what Melania really did during the years between leaving Slovenia in the early 1990s and turning up on Trump’s arm in public circa 1998. To explore this time period is perilous — Melania’s lawyer, Gawker slayer Charles Harder, one of a select few personal guests Melania invited to the family’s exclusive candlelit inaugural dinner — is only the most powerful of the guard dogs keeping the lid on this kind of research, as I personally discovered working on my own book about the women in Trump's orbit.

The Trump scrim of litigation and nondisclosure agreements is well-known, but less understood is the fear they allegedly instilled in Slovenians. (For more on how difficult it is to find sources to speak to Melania’s past, see my book.)

Jordan states upfront that she has never reported on a more difficult subject. Many sources wouldn’t talk on the record. Many of the ones who did — Roger Stone, Corey Lewandowski, Sean Spicer, Chris Christie — have been known to bend the truth, or outright ignore it. Many of these shills claim that Melania is one of Trump’s closest advisers, and that she has her finger on the pulse of American political sentiment. Melania surely can give Trump advice on what lighting does to his television face (although he was already attuned to this himself from years of narcissism and then in reality TV). And her gut instincts about loyalty terrify the White House staff, according to Jordan.

Finally, the autocratic wife must worship materialism above all, and this Melania did not need to train for. “She always thought if something had a bright price tag on it, it was beautiful,” former roommate Matthew Atanian tells Jordan. Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, as Oscar Wilde defined the cynic, also proved a blind spot that hurt her modeling career. She couldn’t “transform the clothes,” Atanian said.

When Imelda Marcos was run out of Malacañang Palace in 1986, she left behind 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, 888 handbags, and 3,000 pairs of shoes. Like Marcos, piling up shoes while the bodies of dissidents were piling up in the streets, Melania doesn’t bother to hide her devotion to the trappings of Trump's lavish lifestyle. Her apparent unconcern with the cruelty that is this administration’s hallmark are clear in her White House priorities, beginning of course with the installation of the “glam room” and including her shell of a project, “Be Best.”

Fascists adored the archetype of the attractive mother. In Italy today, where Steve Bannon has decamped, neo-fascist organization CasaPound has been working to make fascism cool again using an attractive young rightist mother named Carlotta Chiaraluce. Melania, wife of an American president who has privately advocated, according to John Bolton, for executing journalists, would likely be welcome in this club.

Jordan deftly, and without an agenda, decodes Melania. The cold, determined woman revealed is practiced in deception, deeply attached to splendor, seemingly unconcerned by racism, oblivious to the suffering of the working people from whose ranks she flew, and instinctive about bolstering male power. She is not Elena Ceauşescu(to whose younger self Melania bears a strong physical resemblance), building a glittering palace with billions in stolen Romanian public money and slave labor. But this revealing portrait confirms that she might join the pantheon.