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Melania Trump’s ‘disappearance’ and the appeal of fantasy in the Trump era

On hopeful conspiracies, White House chaos, and the mystery of the missing First Lady.

U.S. First Lady Melania Trump on the Truman Balcony of the White House at the arrival ceremony for President Macron, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, April 24, 2018. CREDIT: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images
U.S. First Lady Melania Trump on the Truman Balcony of the White House at the arrival ceremony for President Macron, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, April 24, 2018. CREDIT: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Melania Trump is dead — at least according to Twitter.

The First Lady hasn’t been seen in public for 22 days now. Last month, she had a procedure at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center “to treat a benign kidney condition,” and hasn’t made a public appearance since.

Her seeming disappearance has sparked conspiracies: Maybe she’s cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Maybe she’s moved out of the White House and back to New York. Maybe she’s hiding evidence of a rocky, abusive relationship with her husband.

Maybe she’s writing a tell-all book while… living with the Obamas?

Earlier this week, as Politico reported, a spokeswoman for the First Lady declined to comment on when the public could expect to see Melania next. Friday morning, the flames of mystery were further stoked when CNN reported that Melania would not be traveling with her husband to Camp David over the weekend.

It’s worth noting that in the time between these two stories, CNBC reporter Eamon Javers reportedly saw Melania walking with her aides in the West Wing.

“Not that this will deter the conspiracy theorists, but…” he tweeted on Wednesday.

Conspiracy theories are, at their core, an effort to make sense of a confusing, dark world. Yes, Occam’s razor teaches us that the simplest explanation is typically the most likely, but sometimes the simplest explanation can look wan in comparison with the elaborate fantasia promulgated by conspiracy-mongerers like Alex Jones, who — among other strange ideas — gave out that mass-murderer Dylann Roof was a mind-controlled zombie, as opposed to simply being a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist with easy access to guns.

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Jones certainly knows what he’s doing. He’s attracted a following of people who want to believe — find it easier to believe — the fantasy over the simple truth.

The theories about the First Lady’s health and happiness and home aren’t even close to as serious or dangerous as those Jones has made his name propagating, but they come from the same craving to believe a fantasy. In the case of Melania and her mysterious disappearance, it boils down to an extant public desire for someone close to the president to realize how dangerous he is. Melania, the theory goes, could be the one to take him down. A divorce, a testimony under oath, a move out of the White House, it could all expose him.

There is an argument, though, that all this theorizing can only backfire. There’s no real proof that the First Lady is anything other than just fine.

In fact, in a tweet sent on Wednesday, Melania used the swirling conspiracies to prop up her husband’s favorite cause — that the media is out to get him and those around him: “I see the media is working overtime speculating where I am & what I’m doing.”

Or…did she do that? That tweet was also quickly absorbed into the fabric of the conspiracy theory, as it was very quickly noted that the phrase “working overtime” was a go-to idiom found in many of President Trump’s own tweets.

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If Melania is alive and well and walking around the West Wing — and again, she most likely is — why not pop her head out for the cameras? Maybe she just doesn’t want to, or maybe she, like her husband, is thriving off the speculative chaos.

The theories about Melania’s disappearance are hardly the first time those fighting Trump and his agenda have read some kind of hidden significance into his wife’s behavior. The First Lady has repeatedly swatted her husband’s hand away when he’s reached toward her, inflaming rumors and inspiring resistance types. First Ladies, they’re just like us!

A rumor that made the rounds last fall — that Melania had a body double — got so widespread that Snopes unironically published a fact-check of theory, writing, “The evidence provided… is flimsy at best. In fact, it appears that the conspiracy theorists pushing this rumor purposefully used a blurry (and possibly distorted) video of Melania Trump in order to make this claim seem more plausible.”

Again, it all comes back to Occam’s razor, which tells us that the First Lady’s spokesperson is telling the truth: She’s just recovering from her recent kidney procedure. Like Snopes says, the evidence provided to the contrary is flimsy at best.

It’s hardly surprising to see conspiratorial whispers attach themselves to the Trump White House — after all, Trump’s entire political persona is swaddled in conspiracy. Lest we forget, he promoted birtherism, and since taking office he’s argued the FBI embedded a spy in his campaign, and that thousands of votes were cast against him illegally. There is a sense that, perhaps, Trump has earned this blowback.

But you can hardly fault anyone for wanting the theories — especially the ones that end with Trump’s impeachment or even just his embarrassment — to be true. Hundreds of immigrant children are being separated from their parents at the border. U.S.-backed forces have been accused of human rights abuses in El Salvador. Corporations donating to Trump’s racist Super PAC are getting enormous returns on their investments. Prosecutors hid an enormous amount of evidence in the trial of the J20 inauguration protesters.

And that’s just what happened this week.