Throughout the inauguration hoopla on Friday, the newly installed president was flanked by his family. Trump glowered in his dark suit and peculiarly long red tie, taking the oath, speechifying, signing documents. Beside him all the while, Melania glimmered like a comely aquatic alien in her powder blue Ralph Lauren coat. The children were there too: Ivanka and Tiffany streamlined in suffragette-white, Don Jr. and Eric with identically slicked-back hair, Barron looking older than his 10 years. They seemed to be going for sleek, unperturbed glamour. They were American aristocrats, impeccably groomed and confident.
The ceremony of the pens felt all the more surreal for the additional youngsters that kept climbing out of the woodwork of the U.S. Capitol’s President’s Room.* An elfin granddaughter wrapped up like a gift in a huge crimson bow perched at Trump’s elbow. “These beautiful children keep bumping me, but that’s OK,” he muttered. (I waited for him to change his tune: Actually I was only kidding, you can get the girl child out of here.) A cute blond boy pulled a face and wailed, “I want to go home!” “It’s so nice to see kids in the White House,” Fox News swooned.
The president’s family has always been an important part of his image. Any leader of the free world seems different—gentler, more relatable—around his wife and children. Laura Bush lent her dignity and seriousness to Dubya. Lady Bird Johnson famously tamed Lyndon’s temper. For a bellicose chief like Trump, showing some capacity for domestic softness is political common sense.
But the character of this administration gives the traditional pageantry of the first family a troubled new valence. In his inaugural address, Trump fumed that Washington had “defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own,” buttering up allies while “the wealth, strength, and confidence” of the United States “dissipated over the horizon.” “It’s going to be only America first,” he said, in one of the most shocking articulations of U.S. nationalism since 1941. The president’s instincts are tribal; his political vision a familial one writ large. People of color, Muslims, immigrants, and the LGTBQ community fear that the America he exalts doesn’t include them. When Trump surrounds himself with his rich white relatives, it can feel as though he’s doing more than just modulating his persona. He can seem like he’s prescribing a civic ideal.
Ironically, the Obamas were the ones who appeared to have jumped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. They were graceful, poised, gorgeous, scandal-free. They were also a spectacularly standard modern nuclear family: Michelle was a working mother. She and Barack had two daughters (just 0.4 children away from the national average!). They were each other’s first spouses, and they were both American citizens born in the United States. To be elected with black skin, perhaps, they could not have been otherwise.
Now we’ve got Trump: thrice wed, a philanderer, with a Slovenian supermodel on his arm, and various loved and unloved scions scattered across New York City.
Under different circumstances, I can imagine celebrating the ascent of a blended family, one that accurately reflects the fluid domestic arrangements of modern life, to the White House. Why shouldn’t we have a divorced president? Why shouldn’t he or she have married someone from another land, someone who may or may not have worked illegally when she or he first came to the United States?
The problem with the Trump dynasty isn’t its “unconventional” structure. It is the actual reality of how these people appear to relate to each other and to us. It is the sense you get, watching POTUS sign his Cabinet nominations, that his only interest in his grandkids is whether they’re attractive and whether they’re in his way. It is his heartbreaking habit of forgetting Tiffany. (Listening to the younger daughter’s “sad, vague” Republican National Convention speech, Ruth Graham heard “a young woman eager for the attention and approval of a father she barely knows.”)
Meanwhile, Trump keeps making creepy sex jokes about Ivanka’s “very nice figure.” He told Howard Stern of Melania in 2005, “She’s a great beauty, but she’s a great beauty inside, which is almost as important,” before hinting that he’d abandon her if she lost her alluring curves. Don Jr., meanwhile, may have overcome his college “reputation of getting into drunken, do-you-have-any-idea-who-I-am? fights,” but neither he nor his brother Eric seem to have qualms about their ethically cloudy stewardship of the family business. The brothers, who’ve nicknamed themselves “the brutes,” are no strangers to social media gaffes—whether tweeting about murderous Syrian refugees or complaining when “eco-nuts” take issue with the animals they kill for sport. While the Obamas’ love story has inspired movie treatments and heady photo essays, and Barack is, by all accounts, a firm, nurturing, hands-on dad, the Trumps simply don’t live up to their high-gloss image as their predecessors did.
This matters not just because presidential character matters but because our willingness to grant them that image anyway—to look at their immaculate hair and snappy getups and see decency and leadership—reveals something about how privilege operates in this country. During the document signing, three generations of flaxen-dyed entitlement gathered around a desk where names like Jeff Sessions and Rick Perry, both known for championing relatively narrow American populations, were proposed to administer rights and services to all. It was democracy de facto, not democracy de jure: a vision of American power as what it’s sometimes been, not as what it should be.
In short, the full blinding force of whiteness filled the President’s Room on Friday. We can take its measure by calculating the gap between the stately fantasy the Trumps presented and who they really are. The internet, though, did latch onto one silver lining from the inauguration—one point of authenticity stabbing through the illusion. When Melania Trump arrived at the White House with her husband and presented Michelle Obama with a box from Tiffany’s, the cameras captured a brief moment in which the outgoing first lady cast around with grim, unmistakable impatience for what to do with the gift. She finally delicately handed it off to Barack, her body language the adult equivalent of Trump’s grandson whimpering “I want to go home.”
Melania’s blue ensemble apparently evoked the outfit Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration in 1961; a Ralph Lauren spokeswoman described it as an “iconic American style.” The dress was truly lovely, and Mrs. Trump looked great in it—not just for herself, but as a living credit to her husband, the man who’d discovered that Camelot was for sale.
*Correction, Jan. 23, 2017: This piece originally misidentified the room in which the signing ceremony took place. It was the U.S. Capitol’s President’s Room, not the Oval Office. (Return.)