Sympathy for Melania?

Usually, the wronged spouse gets an outpouring of support from a gossip-hungry public. For a Trump, it's different

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published March 27, 2018 7:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Saul Loeb)
(Getty/Saul Loeb)

The recent news cycle has not been kind to Donald Trump’s marriage, no matter what the state of that union had been before Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal spilled their guts on their alleged dalliances with the President of the United States. Even a whiff of celebrity infidelity is usually enough to create a sizable pile-on of public support for the cheated-upon spouse, but over the last two weeks headlines have been conspicuously silent on that front. In the wake of each woman’s televised interview, attention has not exactly pulled away from Melania — we know she stayed behind in Mar-a-Lago as per “tradition” for Spring Break last weekend; she is said to be “focusing on being a mom,” — but noticeably absent has been vocal outrage on her behalf.

Whatever you think about Melania Trump — about her motives for marrying Donald, her public performance as FLOTUS, her intensely ironic campaign against cyberbullying — one has to conclude this is likely a deeply humiliating period for her, and it’s tradition, at least, to express some solidarity with a person experiencing public humiliation over someone else’s actions. After all, the president has humiliated us, the American people, many times over; it’s not exactly the same as a personal betrayal, but we’re not entirely foreign to the feeling.

But the chatter on the matter seems largely focused on whether or not Daniels and McDougal are credible, and on the legalities of the measures Trump’s associates might have taken to keep them from talking, and even on whether or not this story is important at all. This morning, I looked around for stories centered on support for Melania, and found instead in my search results a litany of public issues the first lady has issued her own support for, all standard issue for the job: women, Americans fighting the opioid crisis, students protesting for gun control. I looked for stories centered on sympathy for Melania, and found a number dating back to the Inauguration, when #FreeMelania trended after several videos and still images made her out to be as utterly miserable on that January day as we were. The counter-takes — do not feel sorry for Melania! — were strident and swift, and since then, that sentiment seems to have stuck.

Over on the religious right, the sex scandals may be eroding some enthusiasm for Trump himself. Support among white evangelical women has dropped about 13 points from about a year ago, according to Pew Research Center data published by The Washington Post, which still leaves his approval rating among that group robust at 60 percent. And according to the New York Times, there’s a concern on the right that the sex scandals could be alienating moderate Republican women, too. But alienation from Trump has not so far resulted in a visible groundswell of support for his scorned spouse, which is an interesting departure from the usual playbook.

For many, especially those politically opposed to Donald Trump, possible reasons behind the lack of care for Melania are obvious and rooted in her complicity with her husband’s corrupt and destructive administration, starting with her refusal to disavow and leave him immediately when sexual misconduct allegations began rolling in and continuing through her public defense of his pussy-grabbing comments and her public support for his malignant presidency. It’s hard not to feel like just by publicly condoning the guy, Melania betrayed us first. At a time when many people, including racial minorities, LGBTQ folks and immigrants, are fighting for their right to exist, sympathy for those sleeping across the hall from the enemy can be scarce, with good reason.

Anecdotally, the most common reaction I hear is some version of “she knew what she was getting into.” Supposing that’s true — that a shameless philanderer doesn’t change his stripes, and may not even promise to — we also know for Melania it’s only half true. Unlike most political spouses, Melania likely had no idea that a future with Donald Trump would include the microscope of the presidency and the level of public scrutiny and subsequent humiliation that could bring. Hell, on that front, Donald didn’t know what he was getting into, either. We can speculate that they may have had a bargain — keep affairs discreet, out of their social circle and the tabloids — but any possible such arrangement would have effectively dissolved like an unsigned NDA on Inauguration Day.

Underneath it all is the assumption, with a weary shrug, that Melania's marriage was more a mercenary act than a romance, which renders it a pathetic sham, without any honor to besmirch.

And that's the other side to “she knew what she was getting into.” The phrase enjoys a close kinship to “you made your (wholly separate) bed, now lie in it,” which is also a thing people say when someone is being punished. Of all of the reprehensible things Donald Trump has done in the open — the Muslim travel and transgender military bans, sympathizing with neo-Nazis, birtherism, the Central Park Five, boasting about grabbing women’s genitals without their consent — there is now evidence that he might finally be punished by his supporters for what he’s allegedly done in private. But don't mistake that alienation for support for the women in the story. To the kind of American who finds sex work or sex-adjacent work of all stripes, from provocative photos to porn films, disgusting and shameful — and that's a bipartisan condition, by the way — the Karen McDougals and Stormy Danielses of the world are inherently suspicious women, if not downright disposable. She takes her clothes off for a living, goes that disturbing line of rape-culture thinking that contributes to a number of terrible policies and attitudes toward women, she knew what she was getting into. What the lack of enthusiastic counter-support for his wife might indicate is that to those willing to take that line of thinking to the next level, maybe Melania — the foreign-born model with the risqué portfolio and much-younger third-wife status — is more of a Karen or a Stormy than an innocently wronged wife.

Melania may not want anyone's support; she is by all accounts a private person, even appearing to try her damndest to Bartleby her way out of an active first lady role, and this intensely mortifying situation would make even the most extroverted celebrity wife retreat into seclusion. And yet, she is married a very powerful man who has assembled a ruthless machine around him to protect his interests. If she had left him in the first quarter of 2017, she’d be a heroine. Now, she risks facing an apathetic-to-hostile public if she decides to divorce her famously vindictive husband. I will admit it's hard for me to muster genuine sympathy for Melania Trump, because of her public support for her husband. But I'd like to make room for the idea that just because I believe she knew what she was getting into, that doesn't means she automatically deserves whatever she gets.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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