When Melania Trump speaks out against bullying, people listen. As first lady, she wields considerable influence and naturally commands an audience.
But there’s another reason why her public statements about harassment go viral. His name is Donald Trump.
On Wednesday, the first lady spoke passionately about how “morally responsible adults” should lead by example so children can learn to be empathetic and kind. The seven-minute address, delivered at a United Nations luncheon, contained all the watchwords bullying prevention advocates want to hear from famous public figures.
What the speech didn’t acknowledge was the president’s own behavior. Trump spoke as if her husband didn’t recently retweet a doctored GIF of his golf swing slamming a ball into Hillary Clinton’s back, knocking her over. She pretended as though he hadn’t nicknamed the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un “rocket man” as an insult the day before. And never mind the president’s “both sides” approach to protests of white supremacy and nationalism in Charlottesville last month — that couldn’t seem to pierce Trump’s alternate reality, either.
Instead, the first lady championed the Golden Rule. She spoke of empathy and kindness. Focusing on the vital importance of adult leadership, she implored everyone to “teach children to be good stewards of the world they will inherit.”
“No child should ever feel hungry, stalked, frightened, terrorized, bullied, isolated or afraid, with nowhere to turn,” she said. “We need to step up, come together, and ensure that our children’s future is bright.”
Ever since Melania Trump said last November that she’d focus on cyberbullying as first lady, people have pointed out the contrast between her intentions and the president’s actions. But Trump’s speech at the U.N. offered the first real glimpse of how she might fashion herself into an advocate who speaks out against meanness and cruelty.
The speech communicated “bedrock principles” of how adults can model the right values to children, says Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, a nonprofit organization that advocates for LGBT students and organizes school-based campaigns to prevent bullying.
“The most powerful lever for change at her disposal is her ability to convince the president himself that he must lead by example.”
Byard, who frequently criticizes the Trump administration on social media, says the first lady could become an essential spokesperson against bullying, but perhaps not in the way she imagines.
“The most powerful lever for change at her disposal is her ability to convince the president himself that he must lead by example,” she says.
It’s possible that the first lady has already tried this tactic — and failed. Maybe she’s taken this public stance as a way of repudiating her husband’s behavior. That seems less likely, however, given her past comments justifying the president’s behavior if it’s in response to a perceived attack.
When the president went after Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski this summer, gruesomely alleging that she’d had plastic surgery as an insult, the first lady’s spokeswoman issued an alarming statement: “As the First Lady has stated publicly in the past, when her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder.”
That doesn’t sound like someone committed to fighting violence in all its forms or, frankly, like someone who stood before an audience at the U.N. and said, “We must remember that [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.”
That accountability must apply to the president of the United States if the first lady wants her message taken seriously by adults and children alike.
Melania Trump condemning bullying is akin to Pat Nixon condemning the Watergate burglary.
— Tony Schwartz (@tonyschwartz) September 20, 2017
It’s also hard to ask civil society to do more to create positive examples and prevent bullying if the president can’t moderate his own behavior, says Byard. When his actions and statements belittle and demean others, provoke violence, and target people based on personal characteristics, it creates “an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty” that children see and may even reproduce in their own classrooms.
“If we don’t attach accountability and responsibility to the language, we allow it to be debased.”
Byard says that students and adults around the country are already defending norms of civility that have eroded under Trump’s watch. The first lady may not want to or feel like she can acknowledge that reality, but pretending it doesn’t exist actually cheapens her message.
“The use of that language incurs responsibility,” says Byard, referring to Trump’s emphasis on leading by example. “If we don’t attach accountability and responsibility to the language, we allow it to be debased.”
Unless the first lady purposely wants to create a dissonance between words and their meaning so strong that it borders on Orwellian, she might reconsider speaking publicly about bullying until her husband can stop behaving like a bully
“The first lady has the opportunity to be an incredibly powerful force for change if she can figure out to get the first family to lead by example…” says Byard. “That would be an important way for her to live up to the true meaning of the creed she’s now articulated.”
Until that happens, Trump’s hollow words do little more than pay lip service to something that could actually change a child’s life.