Trumpstagram is Slate’s pop-up blog that close-reads Instagram accounts in the Trump orbit.
It’s not uncommon for people to make separate Instagram accounts dedicated to their dogs—who doesn’t want to look at pictures of cute pups? There’s Jiffpom, the mogul of online pets, boasting close to 9 million followers, and then there’s Doug the Pug, who hangs out with people like T-Pain, the Jonas brothers, and the Walmart yodeling kid, and has 3.5 million followers of his own. In comparison, Ambassador Bentley, the stately, chocolate-brown labradoodle who only has a measly 2,000 followers, doesn’t seem too remarkable.
But he’s not just any normal Instagram pup whose owners are vying for internet fame (nor is he actually an ambassador to any sort of dog council). Bentley belongs to one of the most powerful women in our government, and the face of the country’s foreign diplomacy, real U.N. ambassador, and former governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley.
The fact that Haley would make an Instagram account, presumably run by herself and her family, for her labradoodle in February 2017, a month after being confirmed as ambassador, and continue to maintain it throughout her tenure at the U.N. underscores exactly what makes Nikki Haley so interesting and frustrating as a public figure. She’s an extremely charming and politically savvy woman—the first woman and person of color to hold the governor’s office in South Carolina, a trailblazer in her own right—who also happens to be serving a critical role in an administration that is changing American foreign policy dramatically. Her double Instagrams—her own and her dog’s—deliver consistently cheerful messaging that obviates the impact of her political actions but also largely just raise the question: Where does Nikki Haley find the time?
On Bentley’s most recent post, from two weeks ago, where he’s looking especially handsome, the first comment is from Haley, who comments on almost all of his posts. “Bent! I love this pic of you,” she wrote. As ambassador, Haley (not Bentley), is probably the only one in recent memory to be a household name, partially owed to her time as South Carolina’s governor. And she’s one of only a handful of Trump’s Cabinet members that maintains a personal Instagram account, hers by far being more personal than her colleagues’. In one recent post, she details all the food her daughter ate to celebrate her 20th birthday. “She started her morning with a Strawberry Cheesecake Cinnamon Roll and ended her day with pasta and chocolate cake!” wrote Haley. “#HappyBirthdayRena #ICantBelieveWeHaveA20YearOld #CinnamonRollDeli #IlGiorgino #CaloriesDontCountAt20.” And she posts pictures of all the weddings she goes to, which is a lot, at least three in the past two months.
Her Instagram paints a picture of a woman whose political ambitions are as important to her public image as her family and personal life. For every post about her family and friends, there are clips of her from the floor of the U.N. discussing policy and diplomacy. But the starkness of the two can be jarring. Her feed can be like watching a game of ping-pong. In one post she’s sharing a smooch with Bentley or celebrating her parent’s anniversary, and the next is a clip of her on the floor the U.N. strong-arming anyone who’s critical of the decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The same day she announced that the U.S. would be leaving the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, she posted a picture to express how excited she was for her friend’s upcoming wedding.
The starkness of that fractured image that Haley cultivates is most evident in the comment sections of her posts. On one from May, she’s pictured with conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro and her son, Nalin. The caption reads, “Great hanging out with @officialbenshapiro today. A strong conservative voice. I scored major Cool Mom points with Nalin who is a super fan! #CoolMomPoints #BenShapiro” While most of her posts are accompanied by well wishes to her family, on this one many commenters posted Palestinian flag emojis or wrote “Free Palestine” in critique of Haley’s adamant support for the Israeli government and the recent embassy move.
Nevertheless, this seemingly innocent strategy, the very personal, mixed with the highly political, may be her greatest strength. Her Instagram provides a window into how she navigates her position and how she views herself: Despite having a hand in some of the largest developments of the Trump Presidency, namely the implementation of heightened sanctions on North Korea, the decision to leave the U.N. Human Rights Council, and the administration’s persistent support of Israel, she has been able to stay above the fray and maintain a seemingly innocuous image. She’s careful not to make any gaffes or missteps, each of her appearances on the floor of the U.N. closely scripted. She doesn’t comment on any domestic matters outside of her purview. In the past two weeks, while the country has been reacting to the separation of immigrant children from their families, Haley celebrated her son receiving his driver’s license, and went to yet another friend’s wedding.
Is it wrong for a woman with one of the most stressful jobs in the world to maintain a healthy balance with her personal life? Of course not. But as someone with some level of access and influence on the president, and who acts as an arm of his agenda on the world stage, is her squeaky clean image a little upsetting? Absolutely. Bentley seems to be her greatest trick in getting us to believe that she’s just a normal wife and mom, with a normal job and a normal dog.
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