Over the last few years, much of the conversation around Melania Trump has hinged on her foreignness—both in the literal sense, and in the ways she breaks from White House traditions: She’s a former lingerie model, the first first lady in more than two centuries to be born outside of the U.S., and the only one whose native language isn’t English. News outlets have balked at her gauche sense of home decor and the insensitivity with which she approaches fashion, which could as easily just be viewed as a willful, deliberate insistence on trolling the American public.
But if there’s one American tradition Melania Trump does uphold, it’s been this: a performative devotion to children that envisions a very specific child. That envelops and supports and protects a Barron Trump, but not a Felipe Alonzo-Gomez or, for that matter, a Tamir Rice.
On Monday, the first lady was dragged by her perfectly tweezed eyebrows on Twitter after she tweeted about “Be Best,” her signature anti-bullying initiative.
“Delighted to be working alongside so many people both inside and outside of government to better the lives of children everywhere,” Melania wrote, triggering a tsunami of incredulous responses.
One reply, retweeted hundreds of times since it was posted, juxtaposed a picture of Melania pushing a golden stroller, a young Barron Trump in her arms, next to a photo of undocumented children sleeping on the floor of a detention center.
“How many toothbrushes, soap, and blankets can you buy if you sell a pair of Louboutins? Be Best!” wrote another.
It was a blunt articulation of the violent exclusions of American motherhood—of white American motherhood, to be precise—that has, throughout its history, actively mobilized against black, brown, queer and low-income children; that has treated these children as property, proxies, or outright threats; punishing them for daring to go to integrated schools, for daring to ask for their families, for daring to be children. If Melania can fashion herself as some sort of child advocate or champion and believe the visage, it’s because of one foundational truth: Melania Trump, like too many white American mothers, doesn’t view the Felipe Alonzo-Gomezes or Tamir Rices or the Central Park Five as worthy of protection.
They’re not even seen as children.
We are now at a point in our public discourse where we are debating, with complete earnestness, whether to call American facilities detention centers or concentration camps. Numerous children have died in American custody, and many more have gone without basic necessities: sleep, toothbrushes, soap, blankets, daily nutrients, the family members they came here with—the Trump administration recently arguing that some of these basic needs “may not be required.” And so, it was easy and inevitable to hold up Melania’s characteristic insensitivity and willful ignorance—“I don’t really care, do you?”—and deride her for it.
But in this regard, Melania is much in line with the sort of behavior even her most liberal white detractors practice. She is not an aberration, but an American archetype.
America has a long tradition of exploiting and dehumanizing its children. During chattel slavery, enslaved black children were raped, made to work, and sold as property. Native children were forced into boarding schools, the express purpose of which was to kill their cultural identity. The poorest of America’s children worked hard, dangerous jobs like coal-mining into the last century. When black Americans attempted to integrate the nation’s schools, white suburban housewives took to the streets to spit at and curse the children and young adults daring to enter white Southern classrooms. In the North, they mobilized against bussing. Just as recently as 2018, a story about white parents from New York’s posh Upper West Side erupting in anger at a proposed integration plan went viral.
Childhood in America today exists as it always has: in tiers, in large part because this country has absolved itself, on the local and national level, of its collective responsibility for America’s children. The nation’s wealthiest can purchase the best for their kids, and they do: healthy meals, top-quality child care, expensive tutoring, and entry into top schools. Meanwhile, children without means are denied school lunches, drink contaminated water, and are as likely to be treated as potential criminals within America’s schools as they are at its ports of entry. And this country being what it is, it is entirely possible for these two kinds of childhoods to exist in the exact same place. Fort Independence Houses in the Bronx, which had lead levels so high a jury believed it impacted one young girl’s development, is just a 30-minute drive from Trump’s luxury condominiums in Manhattan—and sits just eight minutes away from the Bronx High School of Science, one of the city’s elite public schools.
Still, privileged parents continue to defend the borders that keep their kids playing, learning, and developing in one version of American childhood—a version where a good upbringing infallibly creates good outcomes (if good grades aren’t available, good money will do)—and leave the hunger, the pollution, the gun violence, the dilapidated schools, the fear, the trauma, and the anger to everyone else.
Hypocrisy is an American tradition. I suspect for many people, there is no small delight in picking on Melania, a woman whose public vapidness allows her to be a blank slate for all our best and worst projections. There is also no easy place to put all the dread this current news cycle dredges up: Children continue to die under U.S. care, and with Congress and the White House at an impasse about how to resolve the humanitarian crisis at and within our nation’s borders, there is no end in sight. It’s numbing and shameful; so we try, however we can, to shame the people responsible, to try to exorcise our helplessness by letting terrible people know how terrible they are. The first lady still operates in our public consciousness as a performance of American womanhood, and all the values and responsibilities we associate with it. This makes Melania as good a target as any.
But if we’re talking about the value of a child’s life in this country, it’s worth remembering one thing—childhood is not a right in America, it is a privilege. As such, this country’s love for its children has always been conditional. It has always depended on who the child is. And we have always, always been better at performing care than providing it.
In this regard, Melania is right at home.