The Republic Crumbles, Melania Wears a White Hat

Eliot Blondet/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images

United States President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump welcome President Emmanuel Macron and Mrs. Brigitte Macron of France for a state visit at The White House

When the news becomes too much, the fashion and manners of the powerful provide a diversion. Enter Melania Trump. Enter the hat.

For the first meeting of the president and first lady with the first couple of France, Melania wore a statement-making, broad-brimmed white hat. It was an unusual sight; in the modern age, the wearing of outfit-matching hats is viewed as quaint. The newspapers couldn’t get enough of it, searching for clues as to its meaning.

But really, it’s not that deep, people. As befits her husband’s managerial style, Melania’s hat provided a mad distraction from the chaos surrounding his administration, not to mention the accelerating pace of the groundwork underway for the construction of an authoritarian state.

News outlets were no doubt grateful for something elegant and surprising to adorn their front pages or lead their broadcasts. Because under Trump, the news is ugly pretty much all of the time. And much of that ugliness is the kind of thing done to prime a population to accede to a coming crackdown.

For instance, it’s been a very busy month for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bureau at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Raids across the country altered the make-up of big-city neighborhoods and small rural towns. In Tennessee, ICE raided a meatpacking plant, rounding up 97 undocumented immigrants. The following day, 530 children were absent from school in Hamblen County, which has a large Latinix community, according to The New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer.

Trump supporters are cheering, of course. They don’t see how the apparatus now strengthened for the round-up of workers can be set upon any category of people, including themselves. Their Great White Father wound never do such things to them, they believe. But those brown people who are changing American culture, well, you know, they deserve it.

And Melania wore a white hat. 

Meanwhile, Jeff Sessions, Trump’s beleaguered attorney general, is well along the path to revoking any shred of civil rights afforded Americans while engaging with law enforcement. From the start, Sessions sent a message when he said he would loosen Justice Department oversight of police departments known as violators of the rights of citizens, especially black and brown citizens.

Americans inside law enforcement and out heard the message. In Sacramento, Stephon Clark was gunned down in his grandmother’s backyard earlier this month by police officers who suspected him of breaking a car window. Two black men were arrested in Philadelphia for refusing to buy something while waiting there for a friend. On April 22, Chikesia Clemons,a black woman was thrown to the floor of a Waffle House in Alabama for disputing the restaurant’s demand that she pay for a plastic spoon. That same day, a black man, James Shaw Jr., heroically wrested an assault rifle from a white man who had already killed four people of color in a Waffle House in Tennessee. The white man had ties to the far-right “sovereign citizen” movement.

The president has yet to mention the incident, or to hail Shaw as a hero. Might upset the base, you see.

How ‘bout that white hat on Melania?

The intimation of the media by the Trump administration—and the co-option of Trump and key large right-wing outlets—barely cause a ripple anymore. Yet this story is not simply about mean tweets. 

In early April, we learned that the Department of Homeland Security is building a database of journalists. From Bloomberg Government:

DHS wants to track more than 290,000 global news sources, including online, print, broadcast, cable, and radio, as well as trade and industry publications, local, national and international outlets, and social media, according to the documents. 

According to the request for proposals, Bloomberg reports, “Services shall provide media comparison tools, design and rebranding tools, communication tools, and the ability to identify top media influencers.” The ideological bent of each publication will be identified, and the public activities of top influencers monitored.

DHS is reviewing those proposals just as the path seems to be clearing for Sinclair Broadcast Group to acquire most of the local television stations currently owned by Tribune Media. Just yesterday, Sinclair offered to sell off just enough stations to get them under the threshold for a monopoly. It appears as if the stations will be sold to Cunningham, which is owned by the mother of Sinclair CEO David Smith. Just keepin’ it in the family.

If Sinclair’s name rings a bell for you, it’s probably because their local television stations had their newscasters repeat the same message one day about how virtually all news but that which they presented is “fake.” They also mandate that all the stations carry commentary by former White House aide and Trump surrogate Boris Epshteyn with no identification of his Trumpian history.

And how about that Sean Hannity? Not only is the president’s top advisor a Fox News host who takes home $36 million a year; the news host/top adviser is doing business with the president’s besmirched personal lawyer, as well as an investor who’s been caught defrauding banks.

And now comes word that the chief of security for Scott Pruitt, who heads the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), moonlighted for Trump’s other big media friend, David Pecker of American Media, the publisher of National Enquirer. That’s the tabloid alleged to have paid tens of thousands of dollars for scandalous stories about Trump from purported players in these scandals, only to kill the stories. Pasquale Perrotta, Pruitt’s current security chief, worked in a different position in the EPA during the 2016 presidential while working for Pecker.

Our media landscape is changing in ways that smack of authoritarianism and corruption. But don’t look too closely. Did you get a load of that hat on Melania?

Writing on The New York Times fashion beat, Vanessa Friedman observed the many comparisons being made on social media between Melania’s hat, and those worn by Olivia Pope, Kerry Washington’s character on the television show, Scandal:

The “Scandal” comparison may be the most instructive, if not the most amusing. When Olivia wore her white hat, which matched her white coats, it was always to demonstrate she was really one of “the good guys.” … Could it be the same for Mrs. Trump?

Perhaps. But I think The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan hit the mark when she wrote:

That hat was a force field that kept folks, the wrong folks, from getting too close.

There’s more than one way to build a wall, it seems.

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