Few of us have much sympathy for the devil, but many more, it seems, can muster some kind of feelings for his wife. A series of upsetting interactions between Donald Trump and his First Lady, caught on video during inauguration festivities, has spawned a wave of speculation about the health of their union, along with the hashtag #FreeMelania. “Free Melania” also showed up on signs at women’s marches around the world, along with cracks like “Melania, Blink Twice If You Need Help.” Viral posts contrasted Trump’s treatment of Melania with Barack Obama’s treatment of Michelle, or with Barack and Michelle’s treatment of Melania. A picture showing the Obamas gently guiding Melania, who appears abandoned and forlorn, as Trump stalks on ahead, garnered comments like “I can’t stop thinking about this” and “I’ll never forget this photo.”
Most of the “Free Melania” jokers are not actually proposing to liberate her from her gilded cage. But watching her false smiles and stone-faced misery at the side of a glowering man touches something in us, something that’s endured the same mistreatment and contempt. During the campaign, many women said that Trump — his shouting, his physical menacing of Hillary Clinton, his self-congratulation for committing sexual assault, his gaslighting — reminded them of abusive parents, partners, and bosses. Most women have someone in our past who made us feel how Melania looks.
But this wave of sisterly fellow-feeling is misplaced. Melania doesn’t want your help, and anyway, she doesn’t deserve it. But someone else might.
We know Trump is narcissistic, spiteful, and low on compassion, but we don’t know how or whether he visits this on Melania, and we don’t know that she experiences it as abuse. She could just have Resting Tragic Face. And though the choices of a woman in an abusive relationship are always constrained — by calculated financial dependence on the abuser, by fear on behalf of her children, by the threat of revenge — Melania hasn’t just declined, or been unable, to leave. She’s also promoted her husband’s twisted attacks on Barack Obama’s legitimacy, defended his “grab them by the pussy” remarks, and blamed a reporter for inciting her own anti-Semitic harassment. She may or may not be abused, but if she is, she would be colluding with her abuser. You may find that understandable; victims do a lot to stay alive. But its implications, at this level of influence and power, make it unconscionable.
Meanwhile, Trump — the man Melania supported, willingly or no, all the way to the White House, albeit from ten steps behind — proposes to eliminate the Office on Violence Against Women, which administers grant programs intended to reduce domestic abuse and sexual assault and improve treatment of victims. OVW’s proposed 2017 budget is $489 million — a mere 0.01 percent of the federal budget. Like many of Trump’s proposed cuts, this one is not pragmatic but ideological. It saves almost nothing, but it sends a message: Violence against women is not something we care about.
OVW grant programs address violence from multiple angles: improving police response, training judges and court staff to understand domestic-violence issues, providing transitional housing, working with traumatized children and youth, even engaging men as allies. They cover a number of specific threatened groups: college students, high-school students, Native tribes, the disabled, the elderly. If something in your past makes your heart bleed for Melania, a wildly wealthy and powerful woman, it’s a virtual guarantee that there’s someone benefiting from an OVW grant who looks a hell of a lot more like you.
Compassion for Melania is misplaced, but it isn’t wrong. If you’ve been hurt, or you’ve seen others hurt, of course it strikes you to your core when you see your pain on another’s face. That speaks well for your humanity, and our humanity is something we’ll have to cleave to strongly in the coming years. But when you see your pain on Melania’s face specifically, it’s not because she’s the person who most needs your help, or most wants it, or could most benefit. It’s because her face is so visible. It’s because she’s thrust in front of you, while many who are assuredly victims are pushed away.
We don’t know how Donald treats his wife and we probably never will. But we do know that he is endangering the millions of women who experience intimate-partner violence every year. When you watch that familiar shadow cross Melania’s brow, imagine them instead: all the people you know who are struggling in secret, all the people you’ll never know.
We’ll never save the Trump-colluding millionairess who may or may not need our help. But we can help the ones who do, because nobody else is going to. Consider this: The minuscule OVW budget amounts to $1.50 per American. Every time you’re touched by Melania’s plight, donate a buck and a half to organizations that support the people who truly need you, the people in whom you’d see yourself if you ever got a chance to see them. The people Melania would probably grind under her Louboutin if she had to, or wanted to, or just wasn’t paying attention.
Compassion — even misplaced compassion that attaches itself to the most visible target instead of the most useful one — is something to cherish; it’s what separates us from the cruel bigots in power. But compassion correctly aimed and fired is a weapon. Don’t just feel for Melania. Do something for all the people she would help destroy.