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The “Fake Melania” conspiracy theory, explained

The idea of Melania Trump having a body double appeals because people have already created a narrative about the first lady.

Trump Tours Secret Service Training Facility Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In a world where white supremacists use a cartoon frog to help convey their hateful beliefs, the president is obsessed with TV ratings and feuding with the NFL, and perceived threats of international nuclear warfare happen on Twitter, is it that far-fetched to believe that the first lady of the United States, Melania Trump, has a body double who takes her place at official Trump administration events?

No, say certain factions of the internet.

During a press event at a US Secret Service training facility on Wednesday, President Donald Trump spoke to reporters with his wife Melania (“Melania” to truthers) by his side. The televised spot caught the eye of a man named Joe Vargas, who tweeted that the “Melania Trump” who appeared at the event was not the real first lady, but an imposter lookalike:

Vargas’s tweets set certain parts of the internet ablaze.

The idea that a sunglasses-wearing changeling was masquerading as the first lady of the United States instantly made complete sense to many conspiracy theorists and people with a deep distrust for the government — think the types of folks who insist that the Earth is flat, or that molten jet fuel isn’t hot enough to melt steel beams. Vargas’s initial tweet was retweeted over 60,000 times.

Meanwhile, on the less earnest and more sarcastic end of the spectrum, there were myriad jokes and chortles as people dismissed the idea that Melania Trump had a body double but still found a way to turn “Melania” into their own jokes and fanfiction.

The resulting fascination with Melania versus “Melania” gave us that rare moment where absolute silliness collides with strange reality, resulting in an entertaining internet adventure. But it also added yet another chapter to the ongoing narrative that’s frequently been applied the first lady of the United States: one that revolves around the idea of her being an unwilling participant in her marriage and the current administration. It’s a theory that may say more about what we’re willing to project on Melania Trump than anything she’s ever done.

Relax, it’s totally (probably) Melania Trump

Vargas’s conspiracy theory about “Melania” gained traction almost immediately, and it’s not that difficult to see why. For one thing, it was prime fodder for our internet culture, which is always at the ready to turn anything and everything into a joke.

You don’t have to believe in “Melania” to appreciate the theory and joke about it. But that doesn’t really explain earnest “Melania” truthers.

Vargas’s initial tweet does.

Vargas refers to the Trump administration as “they,” an entity trying to trick the media, a.k.a. “them,” and by extension, the American people, a.k.a. “us.” This triangular relationship between the government, the media, and what both are telling the public has always existed: Conspiracy theorists view the mainstream media as an untrustworthy mouthpiece, spreading whatever information various government officials — regardless of their political party — want to spread, and often obscuring the truth.

Add to that many Americans’ current distrust of the media, and the growing belief that media organizations are spreading “fake news,” and it’s not really a surprise that conspiracy theorists and outlets that position themselves as truth-tellers have become more prominent.

We don’t know the intricacies about Vargas’s political beliefs. But based solely on his “Melania” tweets, it seems he’s less anti-Trump or anti-GOP than he is convinced that the government is lying. His “Melania” theory ultimately picked up so much steam online that the White House actually denied the Melania impostor story in a statement to CNN.

"Once again, we find ourselves consumed with a ridiculous non-story when we could be talking about the work the first lady is doing on behalf of children, including the opioid crisis that is gripping our nation," East Wing communications director Stephanie Grisham told the network.

But as is the case with any good conspiracy theory, no official statement denying the plausibility will ever be enough.

The “Melania” story is really about Melania Trump’s ongoing narrative as first lady

The idea of someone impersonating the first lady to fool the American people relies on the idea that the real first lady is off doing something else and abdicating her duties. This aligns with the narrative that is often applied to Melania Trump, especially by observers on the left.

Since Donald Trump was elected, people have subscribed to the belief that, at best, Melania Trump didn’t ever want to be first lady, and at worst openly loathes her husband. In a sense, it’s a different kind of conspiracy theory, one that someone could believe in while still scoffing at the idea that Melania employs a body double.

“Melania Trump hates holding her husband’s hand,” Huffpost reported earlier this year.

“What signal is Melania sending?” a CNN opinion piece asked in May, after news cameras caught what appeared to be Melania swatting away the president’s hand in Rome.

The Independent has interviewed etiquette experts about the couple’s body language and whether Donald Trump’s “walking distance” from Melania was “disrespectful.”

And there are multiple YouTube uploads that depict what some people feel is a fraying relationship, or imply that the Trumps’ marriage is on the rocks.

It all plays into a kind of benevolent sexism that’s often applied to women who are part of the Trump administration. The common narrative that currently surrounds many of the women in the administration, including Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and his campaign communications guru-turned-counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, suggests they should be held accountable for the decisions the president makes in the spheres that those women have spoken publicly about (e.g., Conway’s defenses of the president on television or Ivanka being held accountable for the president’s policies regarding women’s rights and health care).

But that wasn’t always the case.

Around the time of the election and for a few months after it, the women of Trump’s administration were often treated like voices of reason that he never listened to. Many a Saturday Night Live sketch painted Conway, Ivanka Trump, and Melania Trump as reluctant bystanders who involuntarily got dragged into something they wanted nothing to do with.

While that “reluctant bystander” assessment has fallen away from Ivanka Trump and Conway as Trump’s presidency continues, it has persisted for Melania.

The “Melania” theory is a natural extension of that: It paints Melania as either unwilling to be part of the administration or as someone who hates her husband so much that she’s found a body double to stand in as the first lady while she ostensibly does whatever else she’d rather be doing than representing the country.

If the Trump presidency ended today, a large part of Melania’s legacy as first lady would hinge on how lots of people believed that she didn’t want the job.

That leaves us with the question of what to make of a conspiracy theory like “Melania,” which further casts Melania Trump as America’s first damsel in distress. For some people, “Melania” is another reason never to trust anything the government says or does. For others, Melania’s imagined suffering is a testament to whatever they may think of the president. And though many people could stand to make more of an effort to recognize Melania’s agency and autonomy, subscribing to the idea of Melania’s body double defiance seems to be the preferred path, even though it says much more about us than Melania herself.

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