Every year 3 million people pay $25 each to tour Versailles, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the royal residence of all royal residences. The chateau once accommodated the French king, his court, and government, counting servants, a total of 20,000 people. The formal gardens, stretching over 2,000 acres behind the chateau, remain multitudinous: 50 fountains, 386 statues, 200,000 trees, and 210,000 flowering plants. The place asserted the absolute power of the monarchy albeit not so much through gigantic size as through the control of gigantic size. A precise order seems to govern everything, manicured lawns to the Hall of Mirrors, as if the king were omnipotent and omnipresent.
He was neither. Revolution broke out in 1789 and soon turned Versailles into the symbol of a hated and infernal, rather than divine, system of monarchy. The folly of the doomed regime has its quintessential expression in the last addition to Versailles, Le Hameau, the Disney-before-Disney village, built for Queen Marie Antoinette. She and her friends played “milkmaid” there, wearing exquisite versions of peasant clothes. They had shoes with diamond buckles. Peasants made do with wooden clogs or went barefoot.
In the United States of late 2017 the French morality tale has new significance. First Lady Melania Trump posed in a gingham shirt and jeans for a Thanksgiving photo op. Even if the outfit were from Lands’ End, which it is not, the look is phony, peasant dress à la Versailles. Aviator sunglasses, bomber jacket, and spotless white sneakers on a visit to Houston awash in muddy water after Hurricane Harvey? A $10,000 jacket of fake flowers on a visit to a region of Italy trying to house and feed immigrants from North Africa? Skincare products rich in Russian caviar? Rarely, if ever, clothes by American designers let alone clothes Made in America.
Opponents of the French monarchy tore into the queen’s extravagance. 300 gowns a year + high taxes for everyone except aristocrats + hungry, angry people = a regime locked inside an alternative reality of its own making. France’s social problems were kept out of sight until the crowds broke through and everyone faced the reality of revolution. The king and queen were beheaded. The public rejoiced.
Can’t happen here? Maybe not revolution. But the establishment of a profligate court society? It’s a done deal. The Trump government is run for the benefit of the 1 percent who squander billions on mansions, private jets, and the manipulation of politicians. You don’t even need to read newspapers to witness the transformation of our democracy. Just follow the media.
Pictures of Ivanka Trump, our model “working mother,” like pictures of the French queen playing the same role, never include the nannies, maids, and cooks indispensable to their lives. The First Daughter, aka Botox Barbie, gives speeches in support of working families and women’s entrepreneurship but refuses to discuss the abysmal wages of Asian women producing Ivanka Trump clothing.
The White House should be renamed Versailles on the Potomac. it ushered in the winter holidays with an event featuring the First Lady dressed in white, “like a Christmas angel,” and dancers in white tutus performing a bit of the Nutcracker. LOL Donald haters. The famous ballet originated in Russia. It’s based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Rat King,” And, get this, according to HuffPost, rodents have joined the Trumps in their D.C. residence.
Unintended ironies of the rat king sort are nonstop in enclaves such as Mar-el-Lago, the Winter White House and, oops, a partial replica of Versailles. Cut off from the dynamic interplay of competing realities, the inhabitants think people out there are, like themselves, lacking in imagination and intellect. The White House attempt at ”the magic of Christmas” was so banal it would not have passed muster at the Mall of America. Worse it assumed everyone in America celebrates Christmas. They don’t. In my neighborhood kids learn early that no fat white guy is gonna bring them toys.
So what? Let them eat cake. Whether or not Marie Antoinette did say that in response to an unwelcome reminder of starving peasants, the message is being repeated day in, day out at the White House and in Congress. Stay far away real flesh-and-blood people unless you like sucking up crumbs of white cake. Unless you too confuse a woman and a $120,000 Birkin Bag. A man and a gold toilet. Or, a beautiful face and a botox mask. Push the button under the mask’s chin. Hear a prerecorded voice. “Merry Christmas! Have a piece of cake.” “Merry …”
Gloria Kury is an art historian who retired to Harrisburg. She is the author of When Giorgione Died and taught at Vassar College and Yale University. firstname.lastname@example.org