White House

Melania Trump Has a Bully-in-Chief Problem

The First Lady is targeting bullies around the world. Except the one in the White House.

Mixed messages.

Photographer: Don Emmert/AFP -- Getty Images

"Nothing could be more urgent nor worthy a cause than preparing future generations for the adulthood with true moral clarity and responsibility."
-- Melania Trump, September 20, 2017

The First Lady spoke on Wednesday at a United Nations luncheon in New York. Since she rarely gives public speeches -- and since it was the UN -- it instantly turned into a thing.

It’s never entirely clear how she feels about speaking at major events such as this: Does she relish the public aspects of being First Lady or loathe them? It may be a bit of both, but Wednesday’s address certainly reaffirmed themes she’s outlined before during the political rise of House Trump: the need to model exemplary behavior for children, the degradation of bullying, and the added and potentially ubiquitous perils of bullying on social media.

Campaigning in Pennsylvania several days before her husband won the presidential election last year, she described the moral cleansing Donald Trump would bring to the world.

"He pledges to restore integrity for Washington, and respect for America abroad," she said. "Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough, especially to children and teenagers…We have to find a better way to talk to each other, to disagree with each other, to respect each other. We must find better ways to honor and support the basic goodness of our children, especially in social media."

At the UN on Wednesday, she supplemented her anti-bullying message with a reference to one of the most central lessons of the Bible. "I hope you will join me in recommitting ourselves to teaching the next generation to live by and honor the Golden Rule," she said. "It remains our generation's moral imperative to take responsibility for what our children learn. We must turn our focus right now to the message and content they are exposed to on a daily basis through social media -- the bullying."

Looming over her appeal, however, was her husband’s own social media feeds. It’s easy pickings to surf through the president’s Twitter feed for things that run contrary to the First Lady’s call for civic comportment and respectful, constructive dialogue. It’s also worth noting that Donald Trump’s firehose of abuse isn’t just locker room talk. He has carved out some very specific categories that he likes to revisit, serially, as he engages in drive-by hits.

For example, he likes to ritually slam his detractors on holidays, those solemn times of peace and good will towards all:

He reserves special bile for celebrities, the media and competitors:

He really likes to zap other politicians and went out of his way to assail his predecessor in the White House:

For some reason -- maybe we’ll never know -- he always leaves time for free-form shellacking aimed at the general losership:

If the president was, as his wife claims to be, enamored of and devoted to the Golden Rule, it stands to reason that this bill of particulars would be at least a bit shorter. But his social media screeds show little sign of tempering by the Golden Rule (Matthew, 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”). Quite the opposite, actually.

The tolerance, generosity and empathy mandated by the Golden Rule isn’t specific to the Bible or Christianity, and many religions and cultures embrace versions of it. But Anglicans interpreted it and branded it as the Golden Rule a few centuries ago, and it’s been a common moral reference point for Christians ever since.

Trump didn’t grow up surrounded by this kind of thinking. The son of a hard-driving, self-made entrepreneur and an immigrant mother who ran a tight household, he was more heavily immersed in his father’s transactional approach to matters large and small, and he adopted his parent’s devotion to the self-help and self-realization mantras offered by Norman Vincent Peale at Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church. Trump’s first marriage took place at Marble Collegiate and he was a devotee of Peale’s “prosperity gospel,” which emphasized, along with self-fulfillment, the accumulation of wealth.

More recently, Trump gravitated towards Paula White-Cain, the senior pastor of the New Destiny Christian Center in Orlando, Florida. White, who was among Trump’s Evangelical advisers during the 2016 campaign, echoes Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar in espousing a version of Peale’s prosperity gospel known as “prosperity theology.” The newer version holds that personal wealth and good health are reflections of God’s will, and that religious devotion and good works offer paths to riches.

The Golden Rule might be lurking in there somewhere, but most of this thinking is ultimately directed inward, and not toward a broader community. By early 2017, Trump -- coming off of a campaign in which he courted Evangelicals and frequently stumbled while trying to demonstrate a familiarity with the Bible -- was telling interviewers he was someone who prayed regularly. But he appears to spend far more time on the golf course than in church.

Trump certainly adheres to a version of the Golden Rule, but it’s much more akin to an old business and comic strip definition than the one Melania invoked to condemn bullies: “Whoever has the gold, makes the rules.”

The First Lady, who married Trump 12 years ago, is likely well aware of the obvious ways that her anti-bullying campaign contrasts with his behavior. Her role in Trumplandia requires her to unload propaganda occasionally by putting a bright pink glow on her religious prescriptions for a troubled and complex world. She shouldn’t kid herself that this will amount to much else. Bullies usually ignore advice like hers. If she has any doubts about that, all she has to do is look closely at @realdonaldtrump.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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