“Troll, then gaslight: what Melania’s jacket tells us about the tactics of Trumpism”

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Moya Crockett
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First we’re told the jacket is meaningless. Then we’re told she’s sending a message. Whatever her motives, Melania’s fashion choices fit into a wider story about the nature of the Trump administration. 

By now, you’ll have heard about Melania Trump’s jacket. During a trip to Texas to visit a migrant child detention centre on Thursday (21 June), the first lady of the United States wore a khaki Zara jacket with the words “I really don’t care do u?” emblazoned across the back in graffiti-style letters.

There is much to be said about the conflicting explanations for and theories about this jacket. But first, let’s take it on face value, and acknowledge that – given the context – it seems like the cruellest of trolls. The first lady was visiting a place where Central American children who have been separated from their parents are being held. Her visit came after weeks of mounting outrage over the policy – enforced by her husband’s administration – of prosecuting all adults caught illegally crossing the US-Mexican border, and detaining their children in the custody of the Health and Human Services Department.

The first lady’s jacket caused such a stir because its snarky, hard-hearted, unconcerned message perfectly mirrored the attitude that the Trump administration and many of its supporters have taken towards the crisis at the border. Until Wednesday (20 June), when President Trump signed an executive order ending the practice of separating migrant families (a practice instigated by his own attorney general), many of his officials and hangers-on responded to criticism of the policy with frightening indifference or aggressive mockery. 

Melania Trump gets into a car following her visit to Texas 

On Tuesday (19 June), for example, Trump’s homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen refused to engage in questions about the moral implications of the government’s approach at a press conference. Later that day, Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, sparked widespread outrage when he appeared to mock the plight of a Mexican girl with Down’s syndrome who had been removed from her mother’s care. This is trolling, pure and simple, a strategy that has been deployed by Trump for years.

The message sent by Nielsen and Lewandowski was clear: compassion does not factor into the Trump administration’s decisions, especially when those decisions affect poor brown people. They weren’t wearing “I really don’t care do u” jackets, but they might as well have been. 

Against this backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that so many people responded to Melania’s jacket with visceral revulsion. It confirmed what we all already knew. 

Corey Lewandowski (right) with Trump at a rally in April 2018 

According to the first lady’s spokesperson, however, the jacket was not an act of trolling, but a completely neutral, meaningless, message-free item of clothing – despite the fact it literally bears a message on it. 

“It’s a jacket,” Stephanie Grisham told CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta. “There was no hidden message. After today’s important visit to Texas, I hope the media isn’t going to choose to focus on her wardrobe.”

Grisham doubled down on this defence in a tweet, writing: “If media would spend their time & energy on [the first lady’s] actions & efforts to help kids – rather than speculate & focus on her wardrobe – we could get so much accomplished on behalf of children.”

Did you get that? If you find yourself focusing on Melania’s jacket - if you feel disgusted or incredulous or mystified as to why she would choose to communicate callous indifference through her clothes – then you’re being superficial. You’re quibbling about fashion choices when you should be paying attention to the real story, which is that Melania bothered visiting the detention centre at all.

Just as the world tried to wrap its collective head around this argument, Donald Trump himself stepped into the fray with a counter-narrative. According to the president, his wife was, in fact, trying to send a message with her jacket – but not the one we all assumed. No: her insult was directed at his old foe, the mainstream press.

“‘I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?’ written on the back of Melania’s jacket, refers to the Fake News Media,” Trump wrote. “Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!”

Are you exhausted yet? Are you struggling to see how the jacket could simultaneously be an apolitical, insignificant item of clothing (Grisham’s story) and a deliberate two fingers up to the media (Trump’s story)? 

Do you feel bemused as to why, even if one of Grisham or Trump’s contradictory explanations is true, nobody in the first lady’s camp stopped to consider how the jacket might be interpreted when worn in Texas? 

Do you find it hard to believe that we’re even having this conversation about a president’s wife in 2018?

The deliberate creation of a sense of unreality and confusion is a key example of gaslighting behaviour. And since he came to power, Trump and his administration have been widely accused of trying to gaslight the American public – if not the world. In the era of Trump, facts have little value, stories can be changed at whim with no real repercussions, and everything is chaos. 

Melania Trump’s jacket seen on Zara’s website in 2016 

The gaslighting analogy has become even clearer since the introduction of the family separation policy. Kirstjen Nielsen lied on Twitter about whether the policy even existed. The White House offered multiple conflicting reasons for why the policy had been introduced. Attorney general Jeff Sessions insisted the administration “never really intended” to divide families just days after defending his own “zero tolerance” approach. Trump himself signed an executive order he claimed would “end” family separation, despite it being his administration’s policy in the first place. 

To that long list, we can now add Melania’s godforsaken jacket. The obvious conclusion – that she wore a jacket saying she doesn’t care, therefore she doesn’t care – will be denied, twisted, thrown back in our faces and used as ammunition against us. That, at least, is certain.

Grisham is correct to say that there are more important things to focus on than the first lady’s outfit choices. But when those outfit choices are so aggressively offensive and worn on the world stage at a time when babies have been ripped away from their mothers while they breastfed, parents have taken their own lives after being separated from their families, and children are being kept in cages along the border, it’s right that we call them out. 

You might not care, Melania – but we do.

Images: Getty Images / Zara