April 25, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
The Politics of Pitying the First Lady
Is Melancholia Trump beyond compassion?
I don’t know much about Melania Trump, and I know less about the official duties and obligations of First Ladies, generally. In this, I presume I’m more or less a typical American who pays more attention to the president than his spouse and family.
But I do have eyes, and my eyes can see that Melania Trump is the most miserable First Lady to inhabit the White House in my lifetime. Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama—they were all peerless and flawed in their own ways, but none, as far as I can tell, exuded the gloom that Trump does.
Melania is a fine first name. A better one would be Melancholia.
This may be the result of digital media. Voters can see more of public figures than they ever did when I came of age in the 1980s. Television was then the most widely experienced medium, and that remains the case for a lot of the country. But social media and its awesome power to slice and dice reality into endless bits for the purpose of endless consumption allows us to see public figures in ways we never did before.
Even so, there’s something operatic about Melancholia Trump’s despair, something anyone can see, no matter, or in spite of, the medium through which we see it.
Consider this clip. The president, next to his wife, tries to hold her hand, pinking her hand with his pinkie, a little tap, another tap, then another, but Melancholia is having none of it, standing stock still, an iron Slovenian expression on her face, all right angles, as if willing her spouse away. Finally, she gives in, embraces the president’s hand before he turns and appears to voice gratitude, but it’s hard to tell.At that, a pang of pity. I noted my feeling on Twitter. I said, yes, Melancholia shilled for her husband. Yes, she went so far as to question, as her lesser half did for many years, the reality and legitimacy of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, and only a fool would forgive her for that absent a genuine apology.
But you’d think, by the reaction I got on Twitter, that Melancholia Trump is a woman beyond compassion, that her sins disqualify her from my distant act of fleeting human kindness. You’d think the many rounds of humiliation, the serial revelations about the dirty old man’s sexual past, that that, in and of itself, would be a kind of punishment.
“The birther comments are unforgivable and until she apologizes to President Obama and his family, she can continue to endure the humiliation.”
“She as much of a racist as he is. And who knows what else since she doesn’t give interviews about anything substantive. She chose him. Let her be judged by that.”
“No one put a gun to her head and made her marry that son of a bitch. If you marry for money, you work every day of your life. Zero sympathy.”
I understand the grievance.
Why should we feel sympathy for Melancholia Trump when the current president and his sycophants spent eight years belittling the former president and his wife? The First Lady is as flawed as they come. She modeled in the US without official work documentation even as the president purges the land of “illegals.” And I don’t recall any Republican expressing sympathy for the nearly perfect Michelle Obama.
I get it, but I think this grievance can become a prison of its own making. It’s an emotional cage, one that entraps the mind instead of liberating it. You could argue that we are experiencing an era in which even sympathy is being politicized, but it’s the opposite. We are not politicizing sympathy enough. One’s ability to feel simple human emotion should never be infringed by the moral depravity of others.
I’m willing to hear counterarguments, but before I do, consider this.
Time and again, Melancholia Trump has hinted that she’s not the person we believe she is, even if we have good reason to believe it. I don’t want to make too much of this, but it’s a fact that of the five people she follows on Twitter, one is Barack Obama. It’s a fact that she plagiarized Michelle Obama (a kind of flattery in Trump World, I suppose). It’s a fact that she speaks out, during the rare moments she’s in the public eye, against bullying and violence, against the strong preying on the weak.
It’s not debatable that President Donald Trump is a vast moral black hole, but the same cannot be said of Melancholia Trump. And then consider the hat.
But you could also argue that she’s crying out for help.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.