In 2001, Laura Bush famously departed from her husband’s stance on abortion by saying she thought Roe v. Wade should stand. The first lady was contradicting her president spouse on an issue of great import, and at the time, I thought it was a gutsy move that could have a positive impact on GOP abortion politics. I knew it was a calculated political act intended to soothe the concerns of Bush voters with more moderate views on abortion, but I also hoped the first lady’s statement would encourage more pro-choice Republicans to speak up and pressure their party officials out of their most extreme plans to restrict abortion. If the Republican first lady could openly support abortion rights, I thought, perhaps the Republican Party could better support pro-choice GOP candidates, too.
Maybe I was less cynical then, or wrong—or maybe times have changed. In the past week, both Melania and Ivanka Trump have burnished their reputations as the smarter, better Trumps by contradicting the president’s views in public. The first lady’s spokeswoman made a statement in support of LeBron James on Saturday, several hours after Donald Trump implied in a tweet that the basketball star, who is set to open a groundbreaking public school for at-risk students in his Ohio hometown, is stupid. And Ivanka, in a Thursday conversation with Mike Allen of Axios, said that journalists are not the “enemy of the people” her father claims they are and that she is “very vehemently against family separation,” referring to the zero-tolerance immigration policy her father’s administration masterminded.
These statements can be read two ways. The first aligns with the liberal fantasy of Melania as a captive #resistance fighter—see: the obsession with an Inauguration Day GIF of her smile turning into a frown the second Donald looks away—and the center-right fantasy of Ivanka as a steady, compassionate hand helping to guide an out-of-control presidency. From this perspective, Melania and Ivanka are nearly as frustrated with Donald’s cruelty and lack of decorum as his detractors. Whenever they decide to speak out against him, it is with great bravery, a strategic deployment of political capital to change his mind or the minds of his followers.
The second interpretation and, to my mind, the correct one, is that these statements from the women closest to Donald Trump are deliberate decoys meant to soften the president’s image, conferring him humanity by association. Melania has occasionally used her platform in this way, but it has been Ivanka’s entire raison d’être in the Trump cinematic universe. Throughout Donald’s campaign and presidency, she has lent legitimacy to his most punishing policies through her tacit approval, tempering his misogyny with her hollow empowerment rhetoric and convincing journalists that she’s secretly working behind the scenes on behalf of common decency. By making public statements that gently criticize her father, and by leaking through anonymous sources that she disagrees with him, all while continuing to stand by him in every way that matters, Ivanka has helped clear the way for her father’s agenda by showing his conservative skeptics how to question but support their president, how to appear humane while never really turning on the man doing those inhumane things.
The strategy of dispatching a female family member to stage a public disagreement has historically been popular with Republican politicians. Gerald Ford, who supported a constitutional amendment invalidating Roe v. Wade, joked that Betty Ford cost him 20 million votes when she went on 60 Minutes in 1975 to praise the Supreme Court ruling as a “great, great decision.” And before Laura, Barbara Bush criticized the GOP during George H.W. Bush’s second presidential campaign for enshrining a “fundamental individual right to life” for “the unborn child” in its party platform. The strategy neatly aligns with the right-wing model of a heterosexual partnership: The big tough man makes big tough decisions from a place of rational judgment and patriarchal authority, while the woman respectfully registers a slightly different opinion, borne of feminine emotion. He is free to take or leave her suggestion, which carries no meaningful weight or influence. If he does modify his stance to lean toward hers, he can claim that his hypermasculine immunity to empathy—a quality Republicans fetishize in their leaders—blinded him to the nuances of an issue that needed a female touch.
Back when Laura Bush did this for George W., my confidence that a first lady making a marginally pro-choice statement was good for the country was rooted in the gap between the intent of these statements and their potential effects. The intent is always political, directed at voters with an eye toward the next election. But the effects, however unintended, still seemed like they could reach policy. Whether by shifting public opinion or emboldening centrist Republicans, the Bush first ladies might have helped protect abortion rights in some small but meaningful way.
The Trump administration has clarified the fallacy at the heart of this train of logic. Public opinion doesn’t affect what Trump does—what Trump does affects Republican public opinion. Note, for instance, how Republican support for both Russia and Vladimir Putin has doubled since before Donald Trump began his presidential campaign, while support among Democrats has remained low and steady. The many allegations that Trump has committed sexual assault, and his boastful admissions of same, have likewise contributed to a sea change in the standards of moral judgment among white Christians. Seventy-two percent of white evangelical survey respondents said they’d support “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life” in October 2016, up from 30 percent in 2011.
Under these circumstances, a Trump family member who publicly criticizes the president does far more to ease the consciences of people who will always support Donald Trump than to nudge voters or the GOP toward any policy change. Ivanka’s criticism of the administration’s child detention centers gave Trump an easy way to justify his nominal walk-back of the policy—“his daughter Ivanka encouraged him to end this”—without giving up his tough-on-immigrants stance, and it offered absolution to people who felt guilty when they heard children sobbing for their parents but would never turn against Trump. When 90 percent of the members of a president’s party support him at the height of his family separation crisis, an increase over the weeks before the effects of the policy came out in the news, no placid public disavowal from a family member will make a difference.
Besides that, reports of Ivanka and Melania contravening the Trump party line have been wildly overstated. After Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Rosalynn Carter condemned the family separation policy, some news outlets reported that “all five living first ladies” had spoken out against the president, lumping in Melania’s statement that she “hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform.”* But her statement was an almost identical reiteration of Donald Trump’s own statements on the policy, which he blamed on “these horrible laws” Democrats supposedly refuse to change. “The president himself said he doesn’t like this process. We’re not the ones responsible for creating this problem,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at the time. Both Melania and Donald could concede that it sucked to see children jailed without their parents, but neither would acknowledge that the president was the one doing it.
Melania’s statement in support of LeBron James on Saturday sounded just as oblivious, feigning ignorance of the reason why anyone was talking about James’ intelligence in the first place. “It looks like LeBron James is working to do good things on behalf of our next generation and just as she always has, the First Lady encourages everyone to have an open dialogue about issues facing children today,” her spokeswoman said, conveniently omitting any mention of the president’s jab. Ivanka’s criticism of the family separation policy—“These are not easy issues, these are incredibly difficult issues, and like the rest of the country, I experience them in a very emotional way”—similarly removed the administration from the equation. It wasn’t so much a statement of belief as a lesson to Trump supporters on how to defend the indefensible: Don’t take messaging cues from Donald Trump, a boorish bully. Instead, mimic Ivanka, and act as if an inevitable yet random tragedy has befallen a group of people through no fault of anyone at all.
Correction, Aug. 6, 2018: This piece originally misspelled Rosalynn Carter’s first name.
Read more from Slate:
• Did Trump Just Admit to an Impeachable Offense?
• CNN’s Brian Stelter Airs Clip of Caller Threatening to Shoot Him and Don Lemon
• Stephen Colbert Is Not Especially Sympathetic to Ivanka’s “Feels” About Child Separation
• Observe Melania Trump Trying to Look Like She’s Ever Been in a Garden Before and Despair
Support our journalism
Help us continue covering the news and issues important to you—and get ad-free podcasts and bonus segments, members-only content, and other great benefits.Join Slate Plus