A recent poll revealed that the approval rating of Melania Trump, has soared 17 points, to 54%,since Donald Trump took office. Perhaps it’s the accessibly fallible side she exposed when she tweeted a remembrance of Pearl Harbor with the wrong date. Maybe it’s the playfully cheeky choice she made with her White House Christmas décor: a long hallway populated by Tim Burton-esque white skeletons of trees, uplit to provide maximum ceiling drama. Or perhaps she just seems charming by contrast with her husband, the person who enjoys the lowest approval rating of any modern president this early in his presidency. Next to the Walking Don’t, Melania becomes a Do. Maybe that’s why she rarely holds First Hands.
It’s easy to approve of Melania Trump. It’s easy to approve of women who don’t say too much.
While La FLOTUS appears to be riding high in comparison to POTUS, it’s worth noting that she doesn’t approach the heights of approbation reached by First Lady Laura Bush at the same time her husband hit his low: Mrs. Bush won a 76% approval rating while (the retrospectively avuncular and benign) George W. Bush plummeted to 22%. While Melania’s standing at 54% thumbs-up doesn’t point to overwhelming support, it does confirm she’s won over some folks on the left. Of all the Trumps, Democrats seem to tolerate the Trump who carries the name but not the DNA.
It’s fitting that the American people are basically split on their feelings about Melania. She’s a circumspect, soignée woman about whom questions arise: is she style or substance? Is her silence classy or complicit? Is she PDA-averse or is she repulsed by her husband? Is she loyal or self-serving?
Back in November 2016, Mrs. Trump announced that her platform as First Lady would be taking on cyberbullying, because “Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough. We have to find a better way to talk to each other, to disagree with each other, to respect each other…. We must find better ways to honor and support the basic goodness of our children, especially in social media.”
It would be almost a year before she made her first public appearance officially tied to this issue, telling an audience of Michigan kids, “I think it’s important that we choose kindness and compassion.” Unassailable words, unanchored to any policy agenda or explicit program or even a bullet-pointed list of ways parents and children can create a more respectful culture. Perhaps Melania is exercising some savvy genius by simply allowing her husband’s relentlessly baleful and aggressively petty attacks to do the speaking for her, by way of telegraphing exactly how not to behave. Ever. As a child, as an adult, as a leader of the free world, as a human.
It is a curious irony that the reticent Mrs. Trump floats on positive approval ratings at the end of a year which has heard a clamorous chorus of women’s voices demanding justice for the mistreatment they’ve suffered at the literal hands of bad men. The First Lady is fluent in five languages but has remained deafeningly mute in all of them when it comes to supporting the #MeToo movement, or recognizing any specific accusations against any prominent man, including those from Roy Moore’s accusers, even when her stepdaughter Ivanka Trump supported them. And she’s delivered no recent comments on the 19 women who have spoken out against the President (in 2016, she proclaimed those women liars, hewing to her husband’s account). Last year, after footage was released of then-candidate Trump profanely bragging on camera about violently assaulting women, Mrs. Trump excused him, declaring he was “egged on” into “boy talk.”
Late in Donald Trump’s presidential run, Melania gave an interview in which she described her family life: “We have the same conversations with my son that many of you have with your sons and daughters and nieces and nephews, grandchildren and godchildren.” I wonder. Due to behavior of allegedly predatory men like her child’s father, I have had several conversations with my 5-year-old son this year in which I have had to introduce into his vocabulary a new sparkle word: “consent.” (Lessons of 2017 abound; I came home one day to find our caregiver trying to teach our boy about the Electoral College, using construction paper, magic markers and scissors. It was futile.)
President Trump is effluent with his words — he vomits them, forgets them, denies them. Since his wife so rarely speaks publicly, hers ought to carry weight. At the UN last fall, Mrs. Trump declared, “We must remember that they [children] are watching and listening, so we must never miss an opportunity to teach life’s many ethical lessons along the way. As adults, we are not merely responsible, we are accountable. I hope you will join me in committing ourselves to teaching the next generation to lead by and honor the golden rule…which is…my focus as first lady.”
The best way for the First Lady to be responsible and accountable, to teach children an ethical lesson, would be to decry the most prominent bully in the world: her husband. That would send a message to children that recklessly narcissistic and cruel behavior is intolerable. That we shouldn’t lie and demean. That men should not assault women. That everyone deserves respect.
Or Melania Trump could just walk out of the White House forever, saying everything and still not uttering a word. I’d approve.