Trumpstagram is Slate’s pop-up blog that close-reads Instagram accounts in the Trump orbit.
For Louise Linton, Instagram began as a site of carefree self-promotion. The 37-year-old wife of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin started her account in 2014 with a series of photos of magazine covers that featured her smooth, barely pouting face. Back then, she was a minor Scottish actress of castle-owning heritage, posing in fancy hats for Scottish publications you’ve never heard of. If the effort looked a little vain or pathetic, no one really cared because, though she purchased fake social media followers to obscure this truth, no one really knew who she was.
That changed in early 2017, when Linton’s husband joined the Trump administration. With his new job came plenty of perks for them both: gratis trips on military planes timed to coincide with the solar eclipse; giant, uncut sheets of money waiting to be handled by buttery leather gloves. But the gig had its drawbacks, too. Through its twice-removed proximity to the president, Linton’s Instagram account took on political import. Suddenly, when she posted a glamorous portrait or photo from a SoulCycle class, people took notice. It didn’t take long for them to despise what they found.
The Instagram post that will live in minor infamy came late last August, when Linton added a photo of herself stepping onto a runway in Kentucky for one of her husband’s business trips. “Great #daytrip to #Kentucky! #nicest #people #beautiful #countryside,” she wrote in the caption, alongside helpful tags that identified her designer garb: #rolandmouret pants, #hermesscarf, #tomford “sunnies,” #valentinorockstudheels. When a woman commented “Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable,” Linton let loose a 165-word retort that landed her at the center of the national news cycle. “Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country?” Linton wrote. “I’m pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day ‘trip’ than you did. Pretty sure the amount we sacrifice per year is a lot more than you’d be willing to sacrifice if the choice was yours.” After drawing criticism for shouting down a private citizen and implying that rich people pay taxes out of the goodness of their hearts, Linton made her account private and deleted the post.
Since then, she has attempted to rehab her image with profiles in Elle, Washington Life, and Washingtonian—and after taking just a week off to deal with the fallout from #hermesscarf-gate, she returned to Instagram to give it another go. No more evidence of her sipping white wine at the Louvre, lounging on an inflatable pool toy, or mugging on red carpets. One PR nightmare was enough to transform Louise Linton, thirsty designer-label enthusiast adorned in diamonds and platinum, into Louise Linton, benevolent diplomat with a heart of gold.
The transformation was immediate. Linton’s first toe back in the Instagram pool was a re-gram of an Atlantic magazine photo of a dog being held in the flood waters of Hurricane Harvey. Her second photo post-#daytrip debacle depicts her posing with a yellow lab, explaining, “I was humbled to participate in the Pets for Vets round table at the White House.”
In the third post, she high-fives a little girl with Down syndrome in Jerusalem. Her fourth finds her visiting with breast-cancer survivors in Riyadh. Two posts later, she’s fondling ill falcons and owls at a Saudi veterinary hospital. Linton is still traveling the globe in expensive garments, but she’s touting a new set of accessories: sympathetic characters that accentuate her generous spirit the way a pair of #tomford glasses might set off her cheekbones.
There’s one important statistic you should know if you’d like to understand the gist of the new Louise Linton’s feed: A full 40 percent of the photos she’s posted since the #rolandmouret mess feature one or more animals. In addition to images of her pet dogs—all rescued Chihuahuas, it seems—Linton likes to post pictures of bears, elephants, and rhinoceroses in various stages of rescue, rehabilitation, captivity, and release. Her captions demonstrate deep emotional investment in these creatures, most of whom she’s presumably never met. “I’ve been following the case of Nosey the elephant for a long time,” reads a typical one. “She’s now doing amazingly in the sanctuary and I can only hope and pray she gets to stay there.” In one photo, Linton poses with famed chimp scholar and activist Jane Goodall. The implied association between the two is hard to miss, which makes it even harder to stifle the “aww, sweetie” that rises in one’s throat when one compares Goodall’s life’s work to the photos of Linton kissing horses and goats.
That’s not to discount Linton’s financial commitment to animal welfare, of which there is plenty of Instagrammed evidence. According to several photos, Linton and Mnuchin can claim actual parenthood over a sizable menagerie. Linton celebrated Thanksgiving on Instagram with a photo of an “adoption” certificate for Bowie, one of 11 turkeys she “adopted” for the occasion. In February, she shared an “uplifting update” about Zawadi, her 3-year-old “adopted rhinoceros.” In this context, obviously, adoption doesn’t mean what it does when applied to a child or Linton’s own dogs: Neither Zawadi nor Bowie are tramping around the Mnuchin–Linton estate in Los Angeles. But Linton’s approach to animal-rights work is telling. Instead of (or possibly in addition to) merely writing a check to Farm Sanctuary or whatever organization bears responsibility for Zawadi, Linton chose the ownership model, which offers perks an un-earmarked donation does not: a certificate, a specific animal with a specific name to broadcast on social media, something to file alongside the stocks and insurance policies and other wholly abstract possessions a wealthy adult accumulates.
Linton truly believes—or perhaps, wants observers to believe she truly believes—that she has a calling to use her elevated position for a greater good, and that the platform that facilitated the ruin of her reputation can also repair it. She encourages her followers to join the Humane Society’s “#Puptivist” movement in one post; in another, she asks them to “raise awareness in order to work together and achieve a lasting resolution” on behalf of starving wild horses. Not all of these followers take her advocacy at face value. In the comments on a photo of two elephants’ faces, the caption for which praised the CEO of an anti-poaching organization for trying to “protect at least 50% of Africa’s elephant by 2020,” users pointed out that Trump lifted the ban on elephant trophy imports, effectively reinstating the incentives for poachers, who can now sell elephant parts to U.S. buyers. “Soooo will you tell Trump you don’t support elephant killing or ….????” one commenter asked.
Linton, having learned that sniping at common folk does no good for her brand, didn’t engage with any of the political comments. In fact, her only response in the comments on the elephant post was the two pink hearts emoji, sent as a reply to a woman who, in a non sequitur, complimented Linton’s wedding photos as “bridal perfection.”
That’s the new Linton in a nutshell: Even when her posts seem unavoidably political, she takes great pains to keep the subject matter neutral. A November meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Israel in Jerusalem, where Linton’s husband would later help open the new U.S. embassy while Israeli forces killed protesters, prompted Linton to post only about the “carefully crafted artisanal fabrics” and “delicious scents of jasmine and spices” she enjoyed. After her visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., Linton remarked that “the building’s architecture was awe-inspiring” and “the contributions and talents of African American artists, poets, musicians and great minds alike have shaped so much of our great country. #ProudAmerican #ILoveThisCountry #Respect.” She made no mention of the other half of the museum—the parts about enslavement, segregation, and racial terror—that could have made the #ProudAmerican and #ILoveThisCountry hashtags seem a little less fitting.
As an actress who’s still nurturing her career between Mnuchin’s business trips—many of her non-animal Instagram posts are from a film or television set—Linton has worked out that the best she can do in an administration her industry hates is to treat it like an acting gig. She looks the part of a political wife in a photo-op at a soup kitchen and while lighting the eternal flame at Yad Vashem, but she’s redacted any claims to political heft (“Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband?”) that could upstage her character’s subdued gestures toward the public good. When you reach a certain level of politics or income, “charity” becomes an imperative, both for tax purposes and for not-looking-evil purposes. And after removing any possibly controversial causes from the docket, orphaned, one-eyed, and endangered animals are what you’ve got left. In the political jungle that nearly spit Linton out before she’d found footing in her #valentinorockstudheels, those creatures might also make the best friends.
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