The prospect that their little-noticed little country might provide America’s next first lady is delighting, dividing, but mostly disgusting America’s 200,000 Slovenians because of whom they’ll have to vote for to get her into the White House.
The mountainous former Yugoslav republic is the provenance of the decidedly alpine Melania Trump, née Knavs. Mrs. Trump is a former fashion model from a little valley hamlet who has been married to Republican candidate Donald J. Trump since 2005. Should the Donald win the Republican nomination in July and prevail nationwide in November, his third wife will become the first presidential spouse since the 1820s to be born outside the United States.
“What do you think of the possibility that the United States could have a Slovenian first lady?” a Maclean’s reporter asked Slovenians who gathered recently in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington for the Easter blessing of their breads and painted eggs. (Caution: Slovenians easily can be confused with Slovakians, who also are Roman Catholics, and with residents of Slavonia, a tiny region of Croatia.)
“Are you sure she’s Slovenian?” replied a young woman named Suzanna Dawyot, gazing at a photograph of the prospective White House hostess curled unclad on a furry rug. “Because most Slovenian women aren’t very attractive.”
Dawyot, who is far from repugnant herself, noted that her grandfather’s best friend used to photograph the winner of the annual Miss Slovenia pageant. “I would look at the pictures and say, ‘How did she win?’ ” the Slovenian miss recalled.
“What do you think of the possibility that the United States could have a Slovenian first lady?” Maclean’s asked a woman named Meta Žebot, an editor of economic publications.
“Agggaggghhaghh,” Žebot replied, sticking two fingers in her mouth. “It depends on who the Slovenian first lady comes with,” the editor said, after withdrawing her digits. “Not if she comes with Trump!”
Melania Trump, who rarely, if ever, speaks in public and who consents to an interview about as often as Slovenia wins the World Cup, has been a helpless pawn in the unseemly catfight between her (first) husband and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz over which man’s bride is less repulsive. This began just before the Utah caucuses, when backers of Cruz used that same photograph of the former Miss Knavs posing naked as an appeal to the sympathies of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “Meet Melania Trump,” read the accompanying text. “Your next first lady. Or you could support Ted Cruz.” Trump responded by tweeting a pic of a scowling Heidi next to a sultry shot of Melania, with the text, “The images are worth a thousand words.”
While few males would find Heidi Suzanne Nelson Cruz—a former National Security Council economist and Goldman Sachs wealth manager—to be unappealing, it is a safe bet that most heterosexual dudes would consider Melania Trump exceedingly appealing.
(Not that the current first lady is unattractive. Last month, President Barack Obama told an interviewer that his teenage daughters are fortunate to have “a tall, gorgeous mom who has some curves that their father appreciates.” Michelle Obama has been a fervent supporter of ﬁtness and nutritional objectives for her nation’s porky, unathletic children. Melania Trump, on the other hand, looks like she never eats at all.)
Having an attractive first lady has not been a priority here. The most venerated presidential wife of the past two centuries, Eleanor Roosevelt, never would have won a Miss America pageant —or a Miss Slovenia contest, for that matter—but her achievements as a defender of women’s rights, human rights and civil rights rivalled those of her husband Franklin.
Melania Trump is no Eleanor Roosevelt in more ways than one. As a professional model in Europe and the U.S., her portfolio was as slim as her profile until she met the Donald at a Manhattan party. Today, she is a U.S. citizen and the face and figure of a line of cosmetics that includes Caviar Complexe C6 with Lipid Matrix Receptor, an “anti-aging moisturizer” made from cultured French sturgeon eggs that she purportedly rubs on her 10-year-old son, Barron James Trump, nightly—though this anecdote, like many other chapters of her life story, smells a little fishy.
“Melania has never been the brightest student,” note Slovenian journalists Bojan Požar and Igor Omerza in an unauthorized biography entitled Melania Trump, The Inside Story, From a Slovenian Communist Village to the White House. “She never studied at Oxford, the Sorbonne or Harvard; she has never been a supermodel, even less a top athlete, recognized scientist, or an extremely successful businesswoman; nonetheless, today, right before her 46th birthday, she is by far the richest Slovenian of all time.”
(Cynics allege that the 24-year age difference between the Trumps suggests a marriage of convenience, not passion, and cite Donald’s confession, in a book entitled Surviving at the Top, that, “For me, you see, the important thing is the getting . . . not the having.” Such skeptics forget that you can’t spell Slovenia without L-O-V-E.)
What is indisputable is that Melanija Knavs—or Knauss, as she Germanized her name at one point—did appear in the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated in 2000, and that once, during a televised tour of the Trumps’ three-storey, gold-plated New York hovel, a contestant on The Apprentice told her that she had been pretty darn lucky for a small-town girl from the 154th-largest country in the world. “And he’s not lucky?” she snapped back.
Beyond this retort, and the occasional demurral of any political feelings of her own, “She almost never speaks,” noted Meta Žebot at the blessing of the breads in Washington. “If she was really Slovenian, you couldn’t shut her up.” (Melania’s hermitage was scheduled to be shattered on the eve of last week’s Wisconsin primary. “She’s coming down here to campaign,” her husband announced, an event so extraordinary that it caused People magazine to scream, “Stumpin’ Trumps!”)
Verbosity is not the only thread that binds the Slovenian populace and its North American diaspora. There also must be counted a passion for pickled cabbage, fatty sausages, the cake known as potika and slivovka plum liqueur. But the most celebrated trait of all is a rampant virtuosity that most often finds expression in the accordion, as played by such noted sons and grandsons of Slovenia as Walter Ostanek (“Canada’s Polka King”) and the late Frankie Yankovic (“America’s Polka King.”)
The father of Micky Dolenz, the drummer and lead singer of the Monkees half a century ago, was a Slovenian movie star. Weird Al Yankovic, the parodist, describes his ancestry as generically “Yugoslavian,” though his acolytes insist that he, too, is a son of the Slovenes (he’s not related to Frankie).
“A true Slovenian is someone who drinks slivovka while eating potika while dancing the polka to an accordion band,” Suzanna Dawyot explained at the Basilica.
“I can play, but I only know 12 Slovenian songs,” a man named Chris Bohince confessed. “How many Slovenian songs are there?” Maclean’s wondered. “Stacks,” Bohince replied. “We are a very musical people.”
Over in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s unpronounceable capital, enthusiasm for a Trump-Knavs administration is no warmer than it was at the National Shrine. Gregor Trebušak, editor-in-chief and anchorman of the nightly television news program Svet (“World”), told Maclean’s that only 10 per cent of respondents to a recent survey said that they would vote for Trump, given the chance.
“Even our right-wing political party says that Donald Trump is too conservative for them,” Trebušak reported. Melania Trump, he explained, has done little to celebrate her Slovenian roots in recent years, refusing interviews in her native tongue, disclaiming her father’s membership in the Communist Party, and airlifting her entire immediate family to New York City.
“But she is the richest Slovenian in history,” Trebušak was told. “If [former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz] Tito was still alive,” he said, “probably he would be richer.”
“Until this campaign, nobody cared about Melania Trump,” said Trebušak, adding the wishful, but probably futile hope, that “if Trump gets elected, maybe his first state visit will be not to Canada or Mexico, but to Slovenia.”
In the meanwhile, the Slovenes must make do with other news, such as the recent headline in the Slovenia Times that said “Slavko Avsenik remembered as musical genius, hard worker, warm being.” The late Avsenik was, of course, an accordion player. At some point, for the Slovenians—and, perhaps, for the Donald as well—it all comes back to the squeezebox.
“Can Melania Trump play the accordion?” Trebušak was asked in the Slovenian capital. “I don’t think so,” the anchorman replied. “But I can.”