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We should be kind to America's First Victim — Melania Trump

The wife of the bully-in-chief speaking out against online harassment could be seen as a desperate, veiled cry for help.

My heart goes out to Melania Trump. Admittedly, my heart goes out a lot of places I'd rather it didn't, often in the middle of the night in naughty clothes. This time, though, I mean it. Married to the world's most powerful sociopath, mocked and humiliated by left and right alike, a salon-styled lightning rod for all of America's weird feelings about women, foreigners and politicians, you’ve got to wonder who Melania, born Melanija Knavs in rural Slovenia, can really trust.

Certainly not the liberal press. In a rare instance of actually saying words in public, the future first lady made a speech in a Maryland courthouse where she is pursuing a libel suit against a local blogger and a British tabloid newspaper. In the heavy accent that many believe kept her off a campaign trail ringing with dogwhistle xenophobia, Melania restated in the vaguest terms her stand against cyber-bullying, launched days before the election, when she lamented, apparently with no irony, that “Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough.”

It's easy to mock this position, and progressives have duly done so. After all, the wife of the bully-in-chief speaking out against online harassment is not unlike Mary Todd Lincoln coming out against sideburns, or Eva Braun starting an inter-faith community centre. But what if something else is going on? What if this, in a veiled, desperate way, is a cry for help?

I'm not the first to notice this — SE Smith writes at XoJane that: “When a shy, retiring woman speaks out and the first words out of her lips are about a dangerously abusive culture, that sounds a little bit like a woman asking for help.” When Melania speaks, more than any of Trump’s adoring female entourage, she looks like someone with a gun discreetly pointed at her back, with her necklines so high her clothes seem to be trying to strangle her and that rictus smile that never reaches her eyes.

That smile is strangely familiar. It took me a long time to work out why, until I saw it on my own face in a shop window, a few seconds after an encounter with a gentleman in the street who took time out of his busy day for a stroll-by appreciation of my backside. It's the smile you give to street harassers and drunk strangers who corner you at parties when you've lost your friends. It's the smile you give someone who you're afraid of, someone who might hurt you if you make them feel bad. The lines of that smile are etched into Melania's face under the makeup, and now she's training it on the world. I would have a crumb of respect for Trump if he were married to someone equally ruthless and conniving — a Claire Underwood figure, perhaps, a Lady Macbeth for the digital age who we’d all love to hate. That’s not how Trump wants his women. Trump will not be talked back to. His women do what he says, or else. His women must not get old, put on weight, or step out of line. What will happen to Melania if she starts to show her age?

Imagine being in her position. Imagine being married to that man, having to live with him, back him up, soothe his ego, deal with his tantrums. Her marriage will be under relentless scrutiny for the rest of her life, just as her body has been since she did her first catwalk at the age of five, but if anyone raises the alarm, we'll be told it's music and ordered to dance. Do we think that the ham-faced, race-baiting, woman-hating monster about to waltz into the White House respects his third wife as a person? This is a man who slut-shames and humiliates any woman who stands in his way, who is on record boasting about “grabbing women by the pussy”, whose first divorce was granted on grounds of “cruel and inhuman treatment”. In the gauntlet of horrific appointments to the new cabinet — an oil magnate and alleged friend of Russia as Secretary of State, a hero of the alt right movement as Chief Strategist, and Cruella De Vil presumably overseeing Animal Welfare — Trump’s history of violent misogyny seems to have slipped from view. But we must not forget it. 

No,  Mrs Trump is not the most unfortunate woman in America right now. She will be unaffected by many of the more venal policies of her husband’s cronies, and as the mother of an ex boyfriend once told me, if you must cry, it's nice to be able to cry in the back of a Porsche. But there are all sorts of cages you can keep a woman in — ask the wife of any Saudi Prince — and this, now, is what American girls are being taught to aspire to. Costlier chains. Shinier bars.

It’s not that the third Mrs Trump never had any choices. Those who dismiss her as a trophy wife miss the point: of course she knew the deal she was making. She has worked harder than most men could ever understand to get to this position, growing up in poverty in the former Yugoslavia, using the only tools of escape available to her in an unequal world that still pays top dollar for its sexist aesthetic. No, it's not a choice I'd make, but I grew up at a different time, in a different place, and while I can't respect or admire the path Melania has taken, I can certainly sympathise. This is a woman who has played the Master’s game expertly, and who now has to live in the Master’s house, raising his child, doling out platitudes about abuse as her husband sets about gaslighting the entire world. You might see that as karma. I see it as tragedy. Treating Melania as a real human being, rather than an empty symbol, is one more way of opposing everything her husband stands for.

It will reportedly cost the city of New York a million dollars a day to provide security for the next First Lady, who will live in the Trump Tower with her son, Barron, until he finishes school next year, yet another sentence which makes me wonder if I'm writing a political column or a teen vampire romance. New Yorkers are taking exception to this, in part because the extortionate security bill is plainly unnecessary: Melania Trump was kidnapped long ago. She is now the walking, very occasionally talking, embodiment of the Stockholm Syndrome suffered by a growing cadre of the American political class.  It’s an ugly thing to watch.

Attacking any woman in order to hurt her husband is lazy sexism, and doing it by way of her figure or fashion choices is lazier and more sexist still. This puts me and any other writer with feminist principles at a disadvantage, because at first glance there’s nothing else to Melania: over the years, she has been systematically stripped of all personality signifiers whatsoever beyond her body and what she puts on it. This is how Trump wants his women: as “pieces of ass”, to use a favourite phrase. She drifts in the Donald's wake like a fibreglass mannequin, a woman commentators regularly declare “a mystery”, despite the fact that her background, private life and, indeed, most of her body are available to inspect at the click of a button.

None of which, incidentally, speaks less of her. It is galling to watch left-wing men, in particular, muster to fling mud at a woman who clearly has, in her own way, very few choices, and is very publicly starring in the reality-television adaptation of American Psycho. We should be better than this.  

I am frightened for Melania Trump. This is a person who cannot put a foot wrong, ever. This is a person whose nude photos and immigration status are the subject of ridicule by those who should know better, because of what these facts supposedly say about her husband. Patriarchy is not a game any woman can win, and Melania is playing it on nightmare mode, in the version where you have to sleep with the end-level boss. The man she is married to has a thug’s understanding of consent and every intention of screwing the world, violently if necessary. How we treat his First Victim sets the tone for the fight to come. Be kind.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.