Shortly after Melania Trump promised that her husband would “bring us back... to the greatest economy and the strongest country ever known” and exited the podium in the newly remodeled Rose Garden, the accolades began rolling in for what the media quickly labeled a transformative speech. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Jake Tapper applauded the empathy in her Tuesday night address at the Republican National Convention, particularly the sympathy she expressed for those affected by covid-19, embodied by “prayers ... for those who are ill or suffering.” These remarks, according to an overly eager press corps, formed an expression that was in notable contrast to other convention speakers, who barely paused to notice the 178,000 dead Americans. The most basic utterances of human empathy became radically subversive speech, with Blitzer and Tapper hinting at one point that Melania Trump might be undermining the very man she had spent the last 20 minutes or so praising. The First Lady, as CNN later wrote, showed “touching compassion.”
Of course, Melania Trump did not undermine her husband nor his administration—she is always on his side and, last night, dressed in a military-inspired Alexander McQueen jacket, she looked like a footsoldier in the apocalypse-like wars convention speakers repeatedly described on Monday night. Despite the outfit, she utilized some of the most enduring fictions about her; namely, that she’s not like the rest of the Trumps. Melania, as Tapper and Blitzer reminded viewers, is different: She doesn’t yell about the corrupt media or snicker about triggering libs. On a night when Eric Trump directly addressed his father, saying he was “damned proud to be on the frontlines of this fight” with him, and Tiffany Trump relentlessly attacked the media, Melania simply acknowledged the existence of human life outside of the immediate Trump family. If Melania looked compassionate, then it was simply because the rest of her family are monstrous caricatures.
In a sprawling speech that briskly touched on everything from women’s empowerment to her own personal immigration story, race, and the dangers of social media, Melania positioned herself as “a very independent woman” and a compassionate mother. She spoke directly to those who had lost a loved one to coronavirus, promising that “Donald will not rest until he has done all he can to take care of everyone impacted by this terrible pandemic.” She spoke too about the 19th Amendment, marveling at the “impact of women’s voices in our nation’s story.” Melania also recounted the many trips she’d taken as First Lady, noting that helping children was important.
If the speech was largely nothing, then it suited Melania Trump’s persona as First Lady. Just like her initiative Be Best, she has little public substance. But that’s the point, her empty platitudes are their own form of substance. The setting did quite a bit of work from her, campaigning from the White House, standing in front of an enthusiastic audience not wearing masks as the camera cut to her husband, squinting and sweating. It was a persistent reminder that despite her mention of the coronavirus pandemic she, like her husband, was unwilling to do anything about it.
Context is always the great determiner of Melania since her vagueness is highly cultivated. As she directly addressed mothers, it was hard not to think of the dire, paranoid image of the American suburbs, one that the Trump campaign has been painstakingly creating in the lead up the convention. Donald Trump’s America is perennially a nation in decline, a nation under attack just like its wrongly persecuted president and his admirers. When Melania addressed mothers, calling them “warriors,” she was conjuring up the beleaguered white suburban mother persecuted by Obama-era policies, a figment conjured up by an increasingly racist Trump campaign.
“In my husband, you have a president who will not stop fighting for you and your families,” she said. She noted, as is required of any member of the Trump family, that he fights in spite of unfair opposition, particularly the “unprecedented attacks from the media.” In Melania’s estimation, “Donald is a husband who supports me in all that I do,” and a president who supports women broadly. But if that address to a specific kind of mother wasn’t explicit enough, Melania drew a further contrast between herself and Michelle Obama (who she heavily plagiarized during her 2016 convention speech).
“I do not want to use this precious time attacking the other side because as we saw last week, that kind of talk only serves to divide the country further,” Melania said, no doubt referencing Obama’s memorable speech at the Democratic National Convention. She proceeded to call for unity, including racial unity, in an almost farcical moment.
But Melania was serious, as she moved her eyes back and forth between three teleprompters, pausing with studied feeling. She was there to do the traditional work of the First Lady, to humanize her husband, to present him as a just a man instead of one of the most powerful people in the world. And she was successful because Melania’s fiction—that superficial narrative that she is different—is so deeply ingrained, that a few well-placed words acknowledging an entire city of dead people is what passes for empathy in the Trump family. If Melania Trump seemed anything approaching sympathetic, standing in a remodeled Rose Garden, wearing haute couture, it was only because of the obscene parade of cruelty that had preceded her.