A whole lot of people — like Chelsea Clinton, Lady Gaga, and Anderson Cooper — are bagging on Melania Trump for her pledge to make online bullying her pet policy issue as First Lady. How can the wife of the nation's online bully-in-chief announce, with a straight face, that: "Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough, especially to children and teenagers"?
The election was filled with nonstop Twitter abuse from Donald Trump, and it certainly hasn't stopped now — it just carries more weight. When he went after a union leader at Carrier for speaking out about the bogus "deal" he engineered, that union leader got death threats. His attacks on Boeing over an Air Force One contract netted him a $1 million contribution to his inauguration fund.
Seeing a president-elect go after a private citizen on a very public platform is troubling, and seeing him leverage social media for political gain is also extremely disturbing. Like many men of his ilk, Trump gains power through abuse — whether he's screaming at aspiring business tycoons on The Apprentice or perpetuating a dangerous lie about a sitting president's place of birth to solidify support for himself.
Trump's history of abusive behavior led many to condemn Melania Trump for hypocrisy when she announced — in one of her few public appearances — that she was concerned about the climate online, especially for children. She didn't seem that concerned about adults, remarking that: "As adults many of us are able to handle mean words, even lies." One supposes that line had to be added to prevent the podium from catching fire in a spontaneous reaction to the sheer absurdity — or maybe she really does believe it, or perhaps more disturbingly, maybe she has internalized it as a way of coping with what is happening to her.
Because her comments, and Melania Trump herself, deserve a closer look. Sure, it's easy to mock her for apparently being so out of touch with her husband's online behavior, but in truth, what she said may reflect the fact that's actually very aware of her husband's online behavior. Perhaps her remarks were a dig at the way he acts on Twitter, but perhaps they were evidence of something more disturbing: When a shy, retiring woman speaks out and the first words out of her lips are about a dangerously abusive culture, that sounds a little bit like a woman asking for help.
It should be clear that Melania Trump is not her husband's keeper, nor is any woman responsible for her husband. She is a grown up adult woman, and he is a grown up adult man — a man with deeply entrenched learned behaviors that are repulsive and disturbing, but still an independent person with free will. He makes a choice to behave the way he does, and she is not responsible for it. It is condescending and sexist to act like woman should somehow keep their husbands in check with their nurturing, advising personalities.
But it should also be clear that something troubling is going on in the Trump family dynamic. Numerous woman have stepped forward to accuse Trump of sexual harassment and sexual assault — his ex-wife Ivana even testified about a brutal physical assault and rape during their divorce proceedings, though she later recanted (and Trump denies the allegations).
This isn't just about he said-she said. We've also seen Trump's behavior towards women, as when he attacked Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe, on, of course, Twitter, or bragged on tape about grabbing women by their pussies. (To be clear, we are not talking about cats.) We've also witnessed the disturbingly lewd comments about his own daughter, Ivanka.
Then, of course, there's his relentlessly sexist treatment of Secretary Hillary Clinton during the election — verbal abuse in pretty much every media venue, threats to lock her up, calling her names. When he stalked her around the stage at the town hall debate, numerous commenters noted that his body language carried overtones of physical abuse. He wasn't just following her to pay attention, he was menacing her to threaten her, and the hackles of many intimate partner violence survivors went up at the sight.
That was paired with smarmy attempts at making himself seem like a nice guy — pointedly using her title during the opening statements of a debate, for example, and speaking of her in nice, conciliatory terms during his victory speech on election night. This, too, is highly characteristic of abuse. Abusers are experts at gaslighting — Trump has a doctorate in it — and they are also experts at turning around on a dime to make themselves seem nicey-nice in the honeymoon phase. "I brought you flowers, baby," Trump says.
Trump clearly regards women as his property, something to do what he likes with, trading them in when they're worn out. When allegation after allegation cropped up during the election, many said that surely this one would be the end, the nail in the coffin, the thing that tanked his campaign. What perhaps they didn't understand was that for many of those who support Trump, this kind of behavior is normalized and desirable — far from proving his unsuitability, it proves his virility and unwillingness to bow to PC culture. For those who might hesitate at supporting a man in the wake of such allegations, there's always the assurance that they're the invention of a conspiracy between Crooked Hillary and the disgusting media.
I view Melania's comments in light of what I see of the public face of Trump. Someone who is this casually and boldly abusive in public is likely just the same in private, if not more so. She often looks like a woman who is afraid. Her decision to remain in New York for the time being is rationalized as a desire to see out the school year, but I wonder if it is also a welcome break for her from a man she may well be afraid of, a man she likely fears even more now that he's about to become the most powerful person in the world.
As the media normalizes Trump, smoothing over the violations of his campaign, failing to scrutinize members of his transition team and his cabinet nominees, naming him a "Man of the Year," it emboldens him and solidifies his sense of righteousness. And it could be disempowering Melania. When she says she wants to fight online abuse, maybe there's something between the lines there that we should be listening to.