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Melania Trump Is No Victim

A new book shows that the current first lady got to where she is through a combination of ambition, calculation, and persistence. But her path to becoming Donald Trump’s wife is tied up in the post-communist collapse in Eastern Europe — and the diminishing gender equality that followed.

First lady Melania Trump waves to children at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, on December 12, 2018. Photo: Tristan Biese

Models make excellent ciphers. They look lovely, but it’s not their job to have anything to say. Their inner lives leave a lot to the public imagination. There has, therefore, been a certain poignance to the emergence of Melania Trump — a beautiful and now aging former model — as first lady after such outspoken and thoroughly modern professionals like Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, especially as accompaniment to the presidency of the equally outspoken and crudely misogynistic Donald Trump.

During the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches, this “feel” or “mood” — as the internet puts it — was expressed by cute, ironic signs and hashtags urging “#FreeMelania.” In The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump, Washington Post reporter Mary Jordan argues convincingly that the pussyhat crowd’s view of the first lady is pure projection — she’s no victim.

Jordan does some excellent reporting on Melania and the power she wields in her marriage and in the administration. As one might imagine, the Trump marriage falls short of most people’s companionate ideal: Donald and Melania spend little time together and don’t enjoy the same activities. But the president values Melania’s opinion and depends on her steady temperament. In Jordan’s best scoop, she solves the mystery of why Melania took so long to move to the White House when her husband took office. Melania had said she was focusing on Barron, her son, and didn’t want to move him during the school year. Melania is probably an excellent and attentive mother, but there was more to the story than that.

Jordan reports that the new first lady’s absence caused considerable consternation at the White House. Politically, Trump needed the appearance of a stable marriage to balance the numerous and widely reported allegations of his assaults and affairs, made more memorable by his infamous boast over “grabbing women by the pussy” (the claim that launched thousands of pink knit hats). Jordan also reports that Trump’s aides feel he is calmer and more sensible when Melania is around. Still, Melania took her time, and Jordan tells us why: she knew Trump needed her in order to succeed as president and was using her new power to renegotiate her prenup.

As patriarchs have done for thousands of years, Trump took a much younger wife to boost his own status but was not planning to give her son an equal share in his businesses and estate, favoring his older children from earlier marriages. Normally, in this sort of archaic arrangement, the wife has little bargaining power. In Anthony Trollope’s 1862 novel Orley Farm, Lady Mason, a young second wife, discovers that her dying husband has left her baby out of his will, favoring, as Donald Trump did, his older children by an earlier marriage. Lady Mason forges the will and must pay the price decades later. Trump’s bizarre election to the US presidency gave Melania the power to negotiate her way out of such a situation, but without it, she and Barron would have been no better off than our nineteenth-century Trollope heroine and her son.

Jordan’s book advances our understanding of the presidential couple and their world. Sadly, however, Jordan’s book suffers from a clichéd Western view of the first lady’s home country Slovenia (part of the former Yugoslavia) and thus fails to even ask the most important question about Melania: Why did a person born and raised in socialist Yugoslavia, which was a standout in gender equality, grow up to choose a life at the luxurious but abject intersection of hypercapitalism and feudalism?

Melania’s Origin Story

Melania Trump was born Melanija Knavs, in Sevnica, a small town in Slovenia. Jordan appears to have learned about this period in Eastern European history from dated Cold War propaganda of the crudest, most right-wing variety: she constantly stresses that socialist Yugoslavia under Tito — the most liberal and decentralized of the Eastern European regimes, where ordinary people could freely travel abroad — was a dictatorship, and she dwells on the country’s supposed social conformity. She frequently describes the buildings as “gray,” though at the time, the country was more known for its sunny beach resorts that drew throngs of Western tourists — while its avant-garde modernist architecture was notable enough to have been the subject of a recent MOMA retrospective exhibit (Concrete Utopia).

You’d never know from reading this book that Yugoslavia was a richly complicated society attempting a socialism independent of the Soviet Union. As in some other communist countries, women in socialist Yugoslavia enjoyed a degree of gender equality that eluded their Western counterparts. Maternity leave and childcare allowed women to fully participate in the labor force. The anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee, whose book Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism I reviewed in Jacobin, observes that Yugoslavia was one of the socialist countries where “personal relationships could be freed from market influences. Women didn’t have to marry for money.”

The first lady benefited, briefly, from growing up in such a society. She was interested in architecture, and she was ambitious and well educated enough to be admitted to a competitive architecture program. She was also interested in fashion because her town, though otherwise small and obscure, was a major hub of Yugoslavian apparel production, and her mother worked as a designer in a garment factory there. As teenagers, the future first lady and her friends used to travel with Melanjia’s mother to model new products in fashion shows, which they enjoyed very much. Her mother also had a sharp personal sense of style, nourished by her role in the local garment industry.

But the society that nurtured young Melania’s interests had already begun to unravel with the Tito’s death in 1980, when she was ten. At nineteen, she dropped out of architecture school and left the country for Milan to make her fortune as a model, and eventually moved to New York, where her modeling career took off. There, her personal brand was boosted by dating a controversial buffoon who would later become president. Jordan notes that it is difficult to find people in Milan’s fashion industry who will talk about working with her. One industry insider offers a reason: “For agents, you want to say, ‘I can make you a supermodel,’ not ‘I can make you the wife of a rich man.’ It’s better in the industry to be known as ‘I can make you Cindy Crawford’ rather than the wife of Berlusconi or Trump.” Jordan reports that Melania was deliberate, calculating, and persistent in her pursuit of Donald Trump — and, of course, ultimately successful.

There may be some shame about this in Milan, but Melania is hardly alone. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, many women who had expected to live a life of relative independence from men found themselves working hard at finding a wealthy husband. Ghodsee notes research showing that women in post-Soviet countries began to view sex and romance far more instrumentally than before — even learning how to land a rich man in “gold digger academies.” In these new capitalist societies, learning how to find a rich husband was a better investment than a university education.

Melania never graduated from architecture school, but she certainly deserves an honorary degree in gold digging. Her story is emblematic of some of the truly unpleasant aspects of capitalism that came back to her native region with a vengeance.