It goes without saying, and yet it must be said: Donald and Melania Trump are notapower couple. A couple is not a power duo merely by virtue of living in the White House. A true power couple is something else: a single unit, more powerful than the sum of its parts; a team, erotically bound up in each other’s success and failure. Co-advisers, coequals, co-parents, co-presidents, they live in two worlds: the one they are remaking in their own image and the intimate one they share.
A power couple does work in the White House — but it’s neither the first nor the First. Once merely a New York real estate and high society pairing, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have brokered their way into dual White House roles, the “de facto first couple” and “ultimate Jewish power couple.” Meanwhile, another ambitious duo is on their heels. The self-titled “Donberly Bunch,” former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle’s partnership with Don Jr. has been repeatedlydescribed as the classic “power couple.” It’s not her first such union, though. Guilfoyle’s previous political relationship was on the left, a marriage to then San Francisco mayor (now California gubernatorial hopeful) Gavin Newsom, who has been compared to Jack Kennedy.
A power couple does work in the White House — but it’s neither the first nor the First.
So, who are their historical predecessors, and what can they learn from them? For one, gender dynamics affected even the most equitable power couplings: Like Ivanka, the queens were often nominally senior — in succession, but not marriage; while a queen’s consort could never be king, many turned the role into a powerful one. But where power couples go, whispers follow: of open marriages, lesbianism, power struggles, and betrayal. As a brief history of power couples shows us, whether they stand on the right or left side of politics, the right or wrong side of history, they ultimately stand for one thing: themselves.
Julius Caesar and Cleopatra VII (48 BC–44 BC)
Now that Caesar has made me wise, it is no use my liking or disliking; I do what must be done, and have no time to attend myself. That is not happiness, but it is greatness.
— Cleopatra, as written by George Bernard Shaw in Caesar and Cleopatra
Though Antony and Cleopatra’s is the affair that history reveres, the Egyptian queen and Roman dictator were the first — and, arguably, the more effectual coalition. Romantic or strategic, few can deny their potency.
Warring Egyptian royal family members often courted the favor of Rome, but Cleopatra VII took this a step further. Exiled by her brother, husband, and co-regent, the young queen was brought into Caesar’s chambers in a bed sack — or so the legend goes — and used her famous charm, comparable to his, to win his support. Caesar installed Cleo on the throne and, she claims, an heir in her womb. Though she was young enough to be his daughter, their attraction was real, according to Plutarch — like many men who love powerful women, Caesar was drawn to Cleopatra’s boldness.
Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra VII (41 BC–30 BC)
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have Immortal longings in me.
— Cleopatra, as written by William Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra
Mythologized by Shakespeare, and again by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, the Hollywood “power couple” who portrayed them, the lore of Antony and Cleopatra’s passion looms large. But there’s no doubt that their relationship was a mutually beneficial one.
With Rome divided between Caesar’s protégé (Antony) and heir (Octavian), Antony sought Cleopatra’s powerful support, as she had Caesar’s. Their alliance was expedient — he had armies, she gold.
But power lust soon grew into real lust: The couple lived extravagantly, giving one another territories and children, as they waged war on Octavian for control of the republic. Some see Cleopatra’s suicide following Antony’s as the ultimate act of love, but it was just as likely a sign of defeat: the end of her ambitious run at world domination.
Macbeth and Gruoch (1033–1057)
This I have thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightsts not lose the dues of rejoicing, by being ignorant of what greatness is promised thee.
— Lady Macbeth, as written by Shakespeare in Macbeth
The next power-hungry couple mythologized by Shakespeare were mischaracterized. The real Macbeths, a high-born couple who lived five centuries before Shakespeare’s time, took part in the standard medieval maneuverings. A relative of the late Malcolm II, Macbeth was overlooked for the throne, which he subsequently took from King Duncan in battle — his wife, Gruoch, also had personal beef with Malcolm. But Macbeth was a stable king who ruled peacefully for 17 years.
The Bonapartes: Napoleon and Joséphine (1795–1809)
I win battles, but Joséphine wins me hearts.
As historian Kate Williams noted in her Joséphine biography, Ambition and Desire, the ambitious socialite was the perfect consort for the young general: He had the military might, she the social status,along with connections and charm that helped win the short and short-tempered general popular support among the fraternizing French.
A Jackie Kennedy precursor, Joséphine was an influential tastemaker, a fashion icon, and a fabulous hostess, adding luster to the couple’s public image. At their divorce ceremony, Napoleon insisted she retain the rank and title of Her Imperial Majesty Empress Joséphine.
Queen Victoria and Albert, Prince Consort (1840–1861)
The difficulty in filling my place with the proper dignity is that I am only the husband, not the master in the house.
Another “senior” partner in a political couple, 20-year-old Queen Victoria chose her German cousin Albert for love. Like powerful women of the modern day Republican Party, Victoria’s role as sovereign was complicated by her gender and motherhood. A woman who outranked her husband was seen as against the natural order: Though she included “love, honor, and obey” in her vows, his coat of arms were displayed as inferior to hers, and mocking jokes were made about who wore the britsch — not unlike another pant-favoring power wife. The power imbalance complicated their relationship, with Albert feeling constrained and emasculated as consort, but as a 17th-century husband, he was the senior partner in the relationship in all but title.
The Roosevelts: Franklin and Eleanor (1902–1945)
Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.
— Eleanor Roosevelt
These fifth cousins, once removed, married in 1905, despite his mother’s objections. After Franklin began an affair with her 22-year-old social secretary, Eleanor offered him a divorce, but the family felt it would damage his political aspirations. Their once-real marriage carried on as a marriage of convenience, and after being confined to a wheelchair, Franklin grew dependent on Eleanor, and she became a key part of his image in running for president, appealing to women, African-Americans, and the working class.
Franklin continued to have affairs, while his platonic wife is often suspected of being a covert lesbian. She’s far from the only power wife suspected of being a secret lesbian, but in her case, it may have been true. One thing is certain: Neither would be the legendary figures they remain today had they not stayed “a couple.”
The Ceaușescus: Nicolae and Elena (1939–1989)
If you want to kill us, kill us together. We have the right to die together. Together, together… together.
— Elena Ceaușescu, at the conclusion of the Ceaușescus’ trial
Peasant-born Nicolae, the would-be president of the Socialist Republic of Romania, and peasant-born Elena, the would-be deputy prime minister, met through the Romanian Communist Party and became an inseparable team. She was his chief adviser and a highly influential party member, and together they formed a personality cult.It was meeting Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, during a 1971 state visit to China that inspired the first lady to climb the political ladder herself, and by 1980, Elena was first deputy prime minister in his totalitarian regime.
During the Romanian Revolution, the couple was executed side by side — two days after their 42nd wedding anniversary. In a video from the trial, Elena insists they die together.
The Clintons: Bill and Hillary Rodham (1971–Present)
I heard it again in the 2016 campaign: that “we must have an arrangement” (we do, it’s called a marriage).
—Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened
Among the least implausible of the wacky Clinton conspiracies is the suggestion they had a secret pact: “eights years for him, eight years for her.” There’s no evidence of a pact, but there’s plenty of evidence that Bill and Hillary’s union is a true partnership, grounded in mutual love and respect.
Often compared to the Roosevelts, even by Hillary herself, the former senator and secretary of state was an asset to her husband. They offered themselves as a “two-for-one,” and though Bill was forced to walk back the suggestion that he might give his wife a cabinet position, Hillary played an active role in his presidency, remaining one of his most trusted advisers. In 2016, Carl Bernstein again called it their “co-presidency,” suggesting another was on the way. When the time came to reciprocate, Bill was among Hillary’s greatest cheerleaders, his loving endorsement at the 2016 Democratic National Convention softening her image, just as she had repeatedly repaired his.
The Trump-Kushners: Ivanka and Jared (2007–Present)
President Trump’s unpaid adviser and senior adviser — his daughter and son-in-law, respectively — are no doubt, first and foremost, advisers to one another. It’s not clear where Ivanka’s loyalties lie or whose team she is on beyond her own. But if anyone has insight into her inner life, it’s Jared; her team is his own.
The real estate royalty met at a business lunch in 2007. Ivanka changed her religion for Jared but not her last name, though that may come down to brand recognition over feminism — Ivanka still plays the part of traditional wife and mother, even learning to cook following their engagement. Jared wouldn’t be serving in the White House if not for his partner, but arguably nor would she. She was the feminine face of the campaign, while he was the faceless man, wielding shadowy and potentially illegal influence behind the scenes. According to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, the pair also have a “pact”: “If sometime in the future the opportunity arose, she’d be the one to run for president.”
Everyone in Trumpland has their own set of attorneys, so sharing lawyers must be the ultimate sign of trust, and, according to Vanity Fair, Jared and Ivanka consult with their own attorneys about the Russia investigation. Their relationship appears to be a genuinely loving one — so loving, in fact, that many assume that, when it all goes down in flames, “Jarvanka” will betray others to save themselves.