I click on the viral video of Melania Trump swatting her husband’s hand away on a red carpet in Tel Aviv. I watch, again and again, as he extends his hand to where his wife is walking--several steps behind him and so far off to the side that she’s not actually on the red carpet--to see her slap him away. It happens fast, but several sites have helpfully slowed the tape or provided close-ups so you can witness the rejection with no ambiguity. There’s so much body language to parse in this one moment, both hers and his. He turns his body but not his face toward Melania; it’s a half-hearted attempt to include her, perhaps because he senses that Israeli premier Netanyahu and his wife, just beside him, are walking together. She seems to be trying to keep her distance, and surely could have simply ignored the proffered hand or pretended she didn’t see it. Why, in fact, couldn’t she just pretend to like him and take his hand, the way she usually dissembles whenever the cameras are rolling? She knew, surely, that they were in public, yet whatever disgust or anger his gesture provoked was so strong she couldn’t bring herself to fake it, not this time.
Why can’t I tear my eyes away? Why did I compulsively watch the video of her face falling at the inauguration? Defenders of the President and the First Family will say this was just a private spat, a meaningless moment, something minor that his attackers have seized upon unfairly. But it runs much deeper than that, right back to the beginning of Trump’s campaign for President. In fact, it runs all the way back to mythological times.
Most of us know some basics about the Trojan War. Beautiful Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, the Trojan Horse--maybe even some stories about Achilles and Hector or Agamemnon and Iphigenia if you were a true mythology nerd. But the character I most identify with these days is one you may remember less well: poor, doomed Cassandra. She was a Trojan princess with an amazing gift, the ability the see the future. Unfortunately, Apollo, the God who blessed her with prophetic vision in an attempt to seduce her, cruelly added a caveat when she repelled his unwanted advances: that no one would believe her. So as the Trojans went to war over the kidnapping of a Greek king’s wife, Cassandra was the only one who knew how it would end for her people: not just badly, but catastrophically. She could see, as clear as day, that the Trojan walls would crumble, how her mother, brothers and father would die in ignominious and bloody ways, that everything part of her world would be destroyed. She told everyone all this, but was branded a crazy liar, a hysterical woman.
Cassandra is my spirit animal these days. She represents all of us who clearly anticipated the disaster that awaited if Donald Trump prevailed in his quixotic campaign. This has nothing to do with being a “sore loser,” as everyone from Vladimir Putin to Mitch McConnell has claimed, because we Cassandras have actually been saying this ever since Trump first became a candidate. We said it after he lit a fire under racists and bigots and xenophobes across the country and emboldened them to commit hate crimes in ever greater numbers. We said it when the vile Access Hollywood tape was released. We said it when he blustered and fumbled through all three debates, demonstrating unambiguously how truly inarticulate, uneducated and arrogant he is. We screamed and yelled it into the news vacuum that persists in swathes of the country, thanks to Fox News and Breitbart and Info Wars. We were saying it even when everyone was certain he would lose. This all culminated, of course, in the night of November 8th, when the wailing and hair-tearing reached an unprecedented level. In my neighborhood the next day, people were literally weeping on the street.
This is why even tiny moments like Melania’s hand-swat or the video of her face at the inauguration feel like victories. Because it’s these are moments of unvarnished truth amidst the sickening diet of lies we’ve been force fed for the past year. It’s a moment, caught on tape, when a true human emotion emerges to confirm what we’ve been saying all along. This is a fake marriage, this is a phony and bad man, this is a person despised even by his own supposedly devoted wife. Sure, she’ll go on TV after he’s been recorded talking about sexually assaulting women and say “This is not the Donald I know,” but when he tries to hold her hand? Cassandra the cursed seer is vindicated at last.
It is the one of the worst feelings in the world to understand that you alone know the truth, but no one will believe you. It’s not merely frustrating but enraging. Cassandra was a terrible downer--people went out of their way to avoid her, and even her family cast her out. Who wants to be around someone who incessantly predicts your doom and the downfall of your entire civilization? So depressing.
This Cassandra-like feeling of beating our heads pointlessly against a wall of lies, deception and corrupt interests isn’t going to go away anytime soon, I’m afraid. And things did not end well for poor Cassandra: when Troy fell, she was brutally raped by the Greek warrior Ajax in Athena’s temple, to which she had fled for safety. While some of the Greeks believed Ajax should be punished for despoiling the temple, his stature as a famous warrior protected him (white male privilege, classical edition). Cassandra was then given to the Greek King Agamemnon as a slave, only to be murdered at his side by his faithless wife and her lover when they returned home. Yet she was avenged in the end: because the Greeks failed to punish Ajax for the rape in the temple (and it was despoiling the temple that upset them, not that of the princess), the Gods cursed their fleet. Many never reached home; some, like Agamemnon, found death or ruin upon their return; others, such as Odysseus, faced journeys of unprecedented harshness and duration. The victory against Troy was ultimately a hollow one, and all because of Cassandra, who posthumously received the justice that eluded her in life.
America: many of us are telling you this is going to end badly. We’ve been telling you for a very long time, but you call us hysterical or insane, and try to tell us we are overreacting. Please don’t gamble the future of our nation for the sake of your tribalism, party loyalty, apathy or ignorance. Cassandra survived the war, but only for a moment, and her nation did not. Let’s not all go down in flames because we turn a willfully blind eye to the truth. A hand-swat may be a meaningless gesture on its own, but when you add up all the moments and gestures that escape the spin machine, the truth is right there in front of us. All of us.