Like a lot of feminists who hoped against hope for Hillary Clinton’s election, there was one thing I looked forward to with special, unqualified joy: The traditional model of the first family was going to be turned on its head at last. Goodbye to the impossibly perfect exemplar of patriarchy we’ve come to expect, if not demand. No more benevolent and hardworking dad who still somehow makes time. No more selfless mom with the over-scrutinized clothes and hair and civic-minded projects. No more well-scrubbed children and adorable dogs and high-jinks-prone cats. America’s archetypal family unit was going to be organized around a powerful woman with a grown-ass daughter and an annoying, retired husband puttering around and causing mischief. If not a smashing of the patriarchy, it would have made a dent.
What we got instead was an even more radical restructuring of the first family than Hillary herself could have envisioned. As Father-in-Chief, Donald Trump hasn’t simply introduced some twenty-first-century version of The Brady Bunch, with a herd of kids from three different mothers all thrown together in a big new house, complete with maid service. He has scrapped any normal notion of the family unit, organizing his personal life around those who advance the same principles that drive the companies that bear his name—taking what you want, doing as you please, and living off other people’s money. We’ve traded the Bushes, the Clintons, and the Obamas for First Family LLC. And in the process, we’ve lost something of genuine value to the country, the world, and ourselves.
However archaic, the institution of the first family carries real cultural and political force. America looks to the White House for some sense of itself, for a reflection of what most of us aim to have in our lives: a unit of mutual affection and mutual responsibility, a place of comfort and normalcy in a chaotic and frightening world. The tools of Madison Avenue were long ago applied to the shaping of the first family brand; it’s always been a focus-grouped projection of the country’s idea of its best self. We define our national selves, in part, by the cultural conversations that the first family stirs, the image it projects. The rest of the world also looks to the president and his family for a gauge of what America stands for: They’re the ambassadors of Brand America.
The Trump family brand mirrors America at its worst—a version in which capitalism deforms all relationships, twisting everyone and everything to serve its basest needs. This is a family only in the Mafia sense of the word, ruled by a ruthless and imperious Don who offers protection in return for fealty. Trump’s children are more than mere relatives: They are executive vice presidents, the capo bastones of an organized racket. In the organizational chart, there’s no box labeled First Lady. Mother, wife, provider of counsel and comfort—these maternal roles have no place in the family business. Melania, Marla, and Ivana have their gracious livings secured, mob-style, by their silence and invisibility.
We’ve come a long way, in a short time, from the days when we argued over whether First Lady Hillary should be baking cookies or running things, or pondered late at night how Laura Bush could be a pro-choice ex-librarian and still play the gracious hostess for a husband who was so clearly her inferior. Despite myself, I long for the days when first families lived together in a place called the White House, expressed discernible tastes in music and culture, and gave every appearance of serving the country, rather than the other way around.
With the advent of First Family LLC, there is a gaping hole in American culture where the president and his family used to be, in all their outdated glory. Even a patriarchy-smasher can feel their absence. The old model, at least, was built around recognizable human needs, even if those needs were distorted or limited by the structure imposed on them. Once, we assumed, there was love in the White House. Now there is only power and greed. Those who cannot produce—who do not serve an immediate, utilitarian function—are no longer welcome there. We feel what this tells the world about America. And maybe, we are forced to concede, the rest of the world was right about us all along.
The arrival of a first family in Washington has always served as an opportunity to redefine American culture. Some families are avatars of a rising region or a cultural trend—the Bushes were both, with their transplanted Texas-ness come to D.C. The Obamas were harbingers of history. The Carters walked into the White House from the Deep South, while the Reagans gave conservatism a Hollywood glow. The Clintons brought Bubba-ness. There was a lot to talk about.
First families have always made a stab, in their own way, at promoting the best of Americana. By the end of the Obamas’ second month in the White House, they had celebrated Stevie Wonder with an East Room concert; early in their first year, the George W. Bushes honored jazz great Lionel Hampton at a star-studded show. The Nixons were always showcasing country singers and Lawrence Welk and Up With People, those icons of the “silent majority.”
As I write, there are no such events on the White House schedule—not one. The closest we’ve come to a cultural moment since the Trump clan took over was the West Wing visit by that classic-rock trio Ted Nugent, Kid Rock, and Sarah Palin. They took photos with the boss and mocked Hillary Clinton’s portrait. There is no music in Trumplandia.
And there is barely a first lady. Reportedly reluctant to take up the role, Melania stayed in New York for Barron’s spring semester in prep school, avoiding the kind of spotlight that could deflect attention from her publicity-crazed husband. Her public appearances as first lady have been few, almost as though that’s the way President Trump likes it. If anything, her absence has served to underscore her husband’s misogyny and inhumanity.
The marginalization of the first lady’s role strikes a blow against female power. This might sound strange, given that the traditional role of the first lady has always been to stay in her place. “Good” first ladies don’t overstep; they attach themselves to worthy causes that stem from the kinds of things a mom would do: tell you to eat your vegetables, read a book, stay away from drugs, get up from the computer and move. These are viewed as less important than the manly things the president does, in no small part because they are woman things.
But even a first lady who minds her p’s and q’s can wield an awesome wand of soft power. Think Jacqueline Kennedy perched atop an elephant in India, charming Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, or taking Paris by storm. A first lady who does not mince her steps, by contrast, can challenge the world from a rarefied platform. Think Eleanor Roosevelt hosting civil rights leaders in the White House. Or Hillary Clinton going to Beijing to declare, “Women’s rights are human rights.” Or Michelle Obama challenging America’s tropes about race in ways both subtle (taking her White House portrait in front of a Thomas Jefferson painting) and direct (saying she’d lived eight years in a house “built by slaves”). Another kind of first lady can elevate a significant concern through the language of aesthetics, as Lady Bird Johnson did with her crusade to “beautify” America, a gently effective way to raise environmental consciousness.
Above all, first ladies have been arbiters of culture in Washington and beyond. The music they celebrate, the historical moments they commemorate, the art they elevate—all help shape both the form and substance of our national identity. A first lady is what organizational experts call a “power center,” however hampered she may be by the gendered nature of her role. But for Trump, apparently, even that much power is too much to grant a woman. Perhaps Melania’s recent move into the White House with Barron will add a familial touch to the enterprise. But I doubt it. Barron is almost always photographed wearing a suit, a little Trump Organization executive-in-training. (The only photographic evidence we’ve seen so far of Barron looking like a regular kid is a picture of him disembarking from Marine One on June 11 to take up residence in his new home, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “The Expert.”)
If you believe, as I do, that the Trump administration amounts to one big project of plunder, it makes perfect sense that the president would fill the boxes on his First Family LLC organizational chart with only those relatives he trusts to shepherd his interests and play all the angles: Ivanka, Don Junior, Eric, and, by affinity of spirit, Jared Kushner. These are the family members who share the president’s confidence, who reveal his notion of the exemplary family—an autocratic CEO served by loyal deputies who are the fruit of his loins, as well as one brought in through the bond of matrimony with the CEO’s favorite loin-fruit.
This degenerate idea of family makes me miss the old-school first family—that relic of the bad old days before the notion of equality between the sexes was even a thing. Compared with the new archetype of the first family as a soulless LLC led by a pussy-grabber-in-chief, I’ll take the softer bigotry of the old sexism. I know how to wage war against the bad parts of it. And now, thanks to Trump, I know how to appreciate the hidden virtues of the old model. At least it was familiar, in every meaning of the word.
Originally published in the July 2017 print issue of New Republic, this article has been updated online to reflect recent news events.