America’s Abusive Boyfriend: Why Melania Matters

I know we are all reeling from the constant barrage of outrages coming from the White House and the fully GOP congress. And, like many of you, I have been wrestling with trying to understand the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of Trump’s actions. While certainly the similarities to Hitler’s rise and eventual remodeling of the Reich into his own fascist sandbox are clear and chilling, I think it is a mistake to assume Trump has that much savvy. It may not make much difference in the final analysis, of course, but I think that there is something very different happening in Washington now than in Germany then.
They key to what I think is happening is Melania. Not for herself, of course, she has so little presence as an individual as to almost be a cardboard cutout. But that, is of course, part of what I mean. Laurie Penny’s excellent piece, ‘We should be kind to America’s First Victim — Melania Trump’ though penned in December, makes some incredibly apt points about what we can read about Trump and his character from the interactions between him and his wife.
We already know Trump holds a dim and objectifying view of women. Melania almost never speaks, and the smile that never reaches her eyes is the same one we turn on someone we loathe, but fear to anger even more (you know the one I mean; it’s the smile you give your friend who gets rough and aggressive when he drinks, or the guy who catcalls you on a lonely street). She responds to him as she is expected to, and her visage shifts the moment he looks away. She holds herself stiffly and distantly, with that plastic smile never slipping. He, in turn, behaves as though she is an accessory: time and time again we have seen it. He doesn’t care how she gets from the car to the steps, as long as she shows up and looks perfect. He doesn’t even seem to care that she is there, merely that if she were not it would reflect poorly on him. He thinks no more of her than of his cufflinks.
We all know this couple. He is controlling, domineering, very full of himself, but deeply insecure. She, for whatever reason, is attracted by his seeming strength, protectiveness, and power. At first, he seems like a hero to her, and by the time she realizes who he really is, she’s in too deep. He’s already cut her off from her friends and her support system, already convinced her that she will fail without his help. And when he strikes out at her, with words or fists or draconian limits to her individuality, she rationalizes it: he’s worried about me, he wants to protect me, he knows what’s best. She knows, deep down, that he is an abuser, but she can’t summon the courage to walk away, for a whole host of reasons that he manipulates every chance he gets. You’ve been picturing someone you know as you’ve been reading, haven’t you?
The thing is, abusers never think they are abusers. The believe they are strong, They think that’s how proper, strong men keep their women in line. When they see a more ‘equal’ couple, or a woman with strong opinions, they consider him weak, and her out of line.
What does this have to do with Trump? Everything. We are too busy assuming he has an agenda, that he is founding a fascist dictatorship in flagrant contempt for the rule of law, democracy, and the constitution. We assume he has some sinister vision for the nation, and every move is a step on the way to realizing that vision. But Trump is neither that subtle nor that clever. He is a buffoon, a mobster dressed up because he can, not because he cares (ever notice how poorly his suits fit? He wears them like he wears powers; awkwardly, brashly, like a street thug suddenly rich).
He isn’t suppressing the press and science and communication because he’s a fascist, or because he has thought far enough ahead to consider why he needs them silenced. He’s doing it because he thinks that’s how a president, a ‘real’ president, is supposed to act. He believes ‘they should show him respect?’ He sounds like a damn Corleone. He isn’t defying the law and democracy and the constitution because he has a vision of a new world he wants to found. He is simply, in his mind, being a strong leader. This is why he thinks Obama was weak, and Putin is admirable. Obama couldn’t keep his country in line, but Trump will show this unruly woman, er, nation, who’s boss. Every bit of his language on the campaign trail and since his election have echoed that of an abuser. Don’t take my word for it, look at the resources listed below.
I find it telling that one of the first things Trump did was defund domestic violence programs. It struck me immediately as an odd thing for him to have focused on so quickly. It was never a talking point, unlike so many other things he has denounced, and it has never been a top of mind issue even for the worst of the budget hawks. But I suspect, consciously or not, the existence of programs to help victims of domestic violence triggers him. For abusers, there is no such thing as abuse. If a man abuses, the woman pushed him to it.
While considering matters from this perspective does not offer any comfort in light of the draconian policies he’s enacted, understanding that Trump is simply being Trump may make it easier to remove him, and easier to survive him. We, as a nation, need to find the will to dump our new and abusive boyfriend. Acknowledging that he is, indeed, abusive, may be the critical first step.