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First Lady Melania Trump closed out the night with a long speech that was notable for its demonstration of basic human compassion and decency — recognizing that there is still a pandemic going on and that it continues to kill Americans, while other speakers simply referred to Covid-19 in the past tense. “At least claimed to care about the suffering of others” is a startlingly low bar, and yet Melania Trump was one of the few convention speakers who managed to clear it.
The rest of the turn toward the soft and the gentle largely came from other women in Trump’s orbit. A brief vignette about the women of the Trump administration highlighted the mothers who have served as press secretary (three in four years, plus Sean Spicer), as well as Ronna McDaniel, the self-described “housewife” who runs the Republican National Committee. The women’s empowerment, independence and maternal status were all front and center. And their message was clear: Trump cares about women. Or, at the very least, you can now vote for Trump and have some defense when people call you sexist.
In the Trump administration’s telling, his presidency has been excellent for women: It has “empowered” us, made us more money and put us in high-level positions. But these claims are far from the truth. The First Lady, who years ago parroted the racist claim that Barack Obama might not be a US citizen, used her convention dais to repeat her husband’s flat-out lie that he had appointed a historic number of women to positions of power — a line that the administration has been pushing for years, when in fact Trump has appointed fewer women than any president in recent history .
The convention put a feminist veneer over a party that has long been hostile to the rights of women, and a President who stands accused of sexual harassment (which he denies), has bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, calls women he dislikes all manner of derogatory names and has boasted about refusing to so much as change a diaper because raising children is women’s work.
Even the RNC’s own segments about women were telling, as women were often presented as mothers first — all three of Trump’s female press secretaries were defined by their parental status, and Melania Trump referred to “mothers and parents” instead of “mothers and fathers.” This stereotype that the convention played on — that motherhood is a woman’s highest calling — is the same one that helps to keep women out of power and, too often, professionally and personally reliant on mediocre men like Trump.
As the carefully produced show put up imagery of suffragists marching for the vote, a right that was secured for women 100 years ago, a savvy viewer would hopefully realize that today’s Republican Party — a conservative, anti-feminist party — is the heir to those who fought against them. The GOP even gave us proof in the form of Abby Johnson, a speaker at the RNC who is an anti-abortion advocate — and who tweeted in May her belief that if a married woman disagrees with her husband on who to vote for, she should defer to his political choice.
It was quite a show. The Republican Party seems to understand that liberal ideas — racial justice, women’s rights, health care access, diversity, welcoming immigrants — are actually pretty popular in the United States. But in practice they are also often antagonistic to these same ideals; GOP leaders functionally undercut them at every turn.
They and their voters understand that these are good values to have, and so they want to give the appearance of embracing them without actually having to live them. In the same way, the President who leads chants of “build the wall” used the White House to conduct a televised naturalization ceremony — offensive enough in its egregious use of The People’s’ House for partisan campaign purposes, but telling in that this administration wants credit for doing the right thing for immigrants while actually causing them considerable harm.
The same President who has impeded women’s most basic rights around the globe and is often a crass misogynist in his personal and public life also falsely claims to have done more for women than just about any other president in history. He relies on his wife and the tiny number of senior women in his administration to perform the fantasy for the public.
It is propaganda in the truest sense. It’s incoherent and inconsistent. But it also may be exactly what voters want to hear to soothe whatever bits of a conscience they have left.