On Tuesday night, speaking in a packed Rose Garden, where people weren’t wearing masks and were seated far closer than six feet apart, Melania Trump wanted Americans to know that they “are not alone.” As part of the second night of the Republican National Convention, the First Lady’s speech acknowledged how “the invisible enemy, COVID-19, swept across our beautiful country and impacted all of us.” She said, “My deepest sympathy goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one and my prayers are with those who are ill or suffering. I know many people are anxious and some feel helpless. I want you to know you are not alone.”
Melania was the first speaker at the RNC to express sympathy and condolences to the families of those who have died of the coronavirus pandemic, and to express gratitude to the healthcare workers and other essential workers who have, as she said, “stepped up in these difficult times.” These sentiments come after almost 180,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus — a number higher than that of any other country. Many people think this inordinately high death toll is directly linked to the Trump administration’s negligence and refusal to take any of the measures — such as a national lockdown, a mask mandate, or widespread testing — that would have saved lives and prevented the disease from spreading so rapidly. Eight months after the first reported case, 1,000 Americans are still dying every day.
For this performance, many pundits heaped praise on Melania. Fortune published the headline, “The moment Melania Trump became ‘mourner-in-chief’,” commenting that she “struck an empathetic tone that few public figures have bothered to muster, even in this moment of mass grief,” adding that “Trump recognized the pandemic for what it is — a human tragedy — rather than using it as an opportunity to score political points.” CNN gushed about the address, too. Anchor Wolf Blitzer called it a “moving speech,” praising it for its supposed lack of partisanship.
Some, like New York Times reporter Elaina Plott, believe that Melania’s speech was comforting enough to “stick” with center-right, suburban (read: white) women who are looking for excuses to vote for Trump. But any admiration of the speech’s “bipartisanship,” on the part of pundits or voters, glosses over the part where she said her husband “will not rest until he has done all he can to take care of everyone impacted by this terrible pandemic,” emphasizing his imagined role as “pandemic savior.” Her speech would have been comforting if it were true. Instead, it ignores the lack of real bipartisan cooperation that could have led to life-saving measures. To top it off, the very fact that she spoke from the Rose Garden is a potential violation of the Hatch Act, which forbids federal employees from engaging in political activity while on the job.
All the fawning also ignores the fact that Melania has been largely MIA during the pandemic, occasionally emerging to impart the sage wisdom that we should wear masks (while her husband blatantly didn’t, for a long time) or to announce the renovation of the Rose Garden. We hear precious little from her when, with her huge platform, she could have started a major, apolitical national conversation on wearing masks, social distancing, and other ways to stay safe amid the pandemic. She could have been recognizing the hardships of essential workers all along, in ways more meaningful than a throwaway line in an RNC speech. But that would have required her to step away from the party platform, which is basically, “Let’s sweep it all under the rug.”
As tempting as it might be to find something illuminating amid the relentless farce of the RNC, this speech further shows that Melania is not the “trapped” wife waiting in captivity for the right moment to escape her fate, sporadically sending us bat signals that undermine Trump. No, she has made the conscious choice to support a person and an administration that are actively hurting Americans, and she has done nothing to earn effusive praise. When the administration spreads lies and conspiracy theories about the virus and uses the CDC as a political tool, Melania shouldn’t get a pat on the back for saying, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Simply acknowledging the widespread, all-encompassing tragedy of the pandemic is not enough after months of death and economic devastation. It should be a given.