BERWYN, Pennsylvania – There are a few obvious, expected differences between a Donald Trump rally (of which there have been hundreds) and a Melania Trump rally (of which there has been one). When Donald Trump comes onstage, it’s in his standard ill-fitted suit, to the rousing patriotic sounds of “Proud to Be An American.” When Melania comes out, as she did Thursday afternoon, in a fashion-forward blouse and a high-waisted pencil skirt, it’s to the 1969 psychedelic free-love anthem “Age of Aquarius.”
Trump’s rallies generally take place where his most vocal and visible supporters live — in working-class towns, suburbs, and regions. Melania’s rally took place in the affluent suburbs of Philadelphia, where Trump needs to win over the voters who’ve been repelled by his demeanor and behavior. Trump’s rallies are replete with shirts that declare “Trump That Bitch,” “Lock Her Up,” and “Hillary Sucks but Not Like Monica.” At Melania’s rally, very few attendees even wore Trump shirts, and sales at the T-shirt vendors outside the indoor arena were slow to nonexistent. Some women were there in their tennis clothes; others, in stylish casual wear, with their daughters, still in their school uniforms of plaid kilts and V-neck sweaters.
Until recently, Trump has meandered through his stump speech, tossing out non sequiturs, calling out to people in the crowd, decrying the media and making fun of his accusers. Melania, however, was on message and perfectly measured for the duration of her speech, which centered on her own upbringing and her hopes, as the future first lady, to combat online bullying. The crowd was small, subdued, and respectful — a perfect match for the speech, which was short, apolitical, and without a whiff of controversy.
The Melania rally was an example of conservative political performance as it was before Donald Trump: a little wooden, a little staid, yet very safe. She smiled when telling broad parables about her childhood, all the while looking vaguely uncomfortable to be there: politics, in other words, as usual. For years, this sort of safety and blandness helped whitewash, or at least mute, some of the most controversial and conservative aims of the Republican Party: the work to overturn Roe v. Wade, to prevent marriage equality, to ignore climate science.
Trump has stripped away the veneer of the GOP and steered the ship northeast toward authoritarianism. He doesn’t cow to party leadership; he’s nearly impossible to wrangle; he communicates directly with both his fans (through Twitter) and reporters (through call-ins), refusing the usual PR tactics that mold and blunt politicians’ rough edges. As such, he’s shown that anti-immigration legislation, for example, is often undergirded with xenophobia and racism, or that aims to curtail access to women’s health belie larger understandings of men’s authority over women’s bodies.
Some of these ideas were there all along; Trump just took off the gilded exterior, made them bigger, bolder, and more incendiary. It’s not just that PC culture is too sensitive, it’s that reports of assault are the product of lying women and a liberal media conspiracy. It’s not just trying to quietly enforce voter ID laws, it’s telling supporters to go intimidate voters at the polls.
Many supporters are attracted to Trump’s blunt rhetoric, his bad manners, his refusal to play politics as usual: When people say “he tells it like it is,” “he’ll drain the swamp,” “he’s an outsider,” they’re saying he’s not a politician. But Melania is absolutely a politician’s wife. Her reticence to be in the spotlight is just the ethos of the traditional conservative political wife taken to its furthest extension: seen (most importantly) and only rarely heard (almost exclusively about issues that pertain to the family). When, during her time as first lady, Hillary Clinton tried to push through health care reforms, she drew extreme criticism — which is part of the reason why the politician's wife, on both sides, has remained far more helpmate than workmate.
Yesterday, Melania "helped" by working to convince her suburban audience that they — wealthy, classy, conservatives — were voting for a sophisticated conservative just like them. A politician, not a racist; a man who’d do right by their tax dollars, not a misogynist. As Melania spoke about the fact that her husband had “always wanted to make America great again,” it’s crucial to remember that the vast majority of this crowd — which included just a handful of people of color — have had it great for a very long time, and still have it great. And that the most destructive and discriminatory of Trump’s policies will not affect them.
Which is why it’s easy to dull the cognitive dissonance when she declared that her primary goal, as first lady, will be to work to combat online bullying — despite the fact that her husband has incited and retweeted an unprecedented flood of online abuse directed toward women, Jews, people of color, and anyone who disagrees with him. And it's why an auditorium of voters can nod along when she laments that “our culture has gotten too mean and too rough, especially to children and teenagers,” despite the fact that she herself shrugged off the anti-semitic trolls that attacked Julia Ioffe — the GQ journalist who profiled her — and that Trump was currently being sued in civil court for allegedly raping a 13-year-old girl.
Melania is less effective in her attempts to deodorize Trump’s campaign than her stepdaughter, Ivanka. Even though she’s a model, Melania's polish is less impressive (she was only trained to sell her looks, not a brand), her celebrity less refined. The women I spoke to at the rally gushed about Ivanka’s fashion, her Instagram, her poise, her accomplishments, her speaking ability: As one student from St. Joseph’s told me, “I wish Ivanka was running for president!”
Ivanka’s charisma is such that she could singlehandedly charm a whole sea of women into forgetting the inconvenient truths of her father’s understanding of (the vast majority of) women as property or props. A teenage girl, out of school for the day, told me she wanted to be a broadcast journalist — and was preparing by studying tapes of Ivanka. As to why she’s not on the campaign trail on her father’s behalf more often, the only answer seems to be anxiety over the future of her brand. And Ivanka, like her father, is nothing if not invested in herself.
Melania, by contrast, is an unknown: She's got the beauty, and the frozen smile, and the speechwriters, yet she remains a cipher. “I don't know much about her, a nurse from Delaware County told me, “save that she's #WifeGoals.” Another woman liked the fact that she spoke “what is it, seven languages?” Bernadette, a student at St. John’s University, said that she’s a “wonderful woman,” and since Trump married her, “of course he’s respectful to women.”
For most of Thursday afternoon, Melania — or, rather, the promise of Melania, and then the brief, fleeting presence of her — kept the tenor of the event firmly tuned to positive. She didn't even say Clinton’s name. For the first 90 minutes, the only chant heard in the arena was that of “U-S-A” — and only a few times, briefly.
That hold, weak as it was, couldn’t mask the darker, Trumpian elements of what was supposed to be a very non-Trumpian rally. Those were revealed in the brief, weak chants of “Lock her up” that took place as the crowd began to get bored between speakers, and in the woman in a leather jacket with a piece of notebook paper taped to the back declaring, “NOT BRAINWASHED BY CNN.” When she forcefully told me that “90% of journalists come from liberal colleges," raising her voice to declare that "they do not. Understand. The conservative agenda,” the crowd around her backed away and murmured, asking me if I was okay. This wasn't their way.
Or maybe it was. One 20-something woman who didn’t want her name used told me the reason the suburbs were voting for Trump and the city was voting for Clinton “should be obvious”: “One’s class, the other’s not.” And Kristen, a bubbly woman who lives in Wayne, said that “I just don’t understand how my college-educated friends aren’t voting for Trump” before declaring “a bunch of this stuff coming from accusers, and the people who complain about the way he talks, I’m like, Get a life.”
Two fraternity members started a conversation by declaring how excited they were to be away from the PC-addled spaces of UPenn and say they supported Trump without being attacked, and ended it by talking about how absurd it was that a friend of theirs, who’d sent an email to a group of “the hottest freshman girls,” inviting them to wear something tight to his fraternity’s party, had found himself at the center of a campuswide protest and national news story. “It’s like, character assassination — and this guy, he wants to get a job!” one of them said. “You can’t say anything anymore.” People on campus call Trump supporters racists, but these two were firm in their belief that they’re not: “Hillary Clinton treats minorities like voting blocs,” one said. “That’s racist.”
Melania’s speech went quickly, culminating with appropriate applause from the several hundred in attendance. Everyone streamed out in orderly fashion, returning to their SUVs, asking policemen the best way to get back on the highway. Trump himself spent the day at three different rallies, keeping on message, avoiding gaffes, and keeping his worst self away from Twitter — which made it all the easier for Melania to put cover-up on the black eyes the campaign's created, to pretend that no punches had ever been thrown.
But some ideas are so potent, so noxious, that no amount of deflection or deodorizing can make them go away — even when presented in the glossiest of packages.
Just before the rally began, a pair of fiftysomething women were laughing on the edges — one, Wendy, had just come from a tennis match, and was wearing a white visor and a tennis skirt, with her hair in a high ponytail. She lived just down the street, and was thrilled to be here, as “all the people around here are Indians, and voting for Hillary.” She admired Melania for staying home and taking care of her child, she told me — unlike Hillary, who’d said she was too good to stay at home and bake “cookies, or cupcakes, or whatever.”
“Hillary looks like she eats too many cupcakes herself, even if she won't bake them,” Wendy continued, laughing. “I always say she looks like Chairman Mao.”
“That's not very nice!” her friend replied.
“Well,” Wendy responded, “I'm not a very nice person.”