"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me."
--Pastor Martin Niemöller
The irony of Melania Trump's anti-cyberbullying speech is not limited to the likelihood that her husband would become Patient Zero in any 12-step program she might devise as First Lady.
More significantly, and however inadvertently, she just might have planted the seeds of a deeper and contextual discourse on the sex allegations against candidate Donald Trump and why that issue could affect people across the country--if not the entire planet.
There is a narrative frame here that so far has not been picked up by the media or even the Hillary Clinton campaign. It is one with far reaching consequences and implications for us all--irrespective of gender.
As with the media, the Clinton narrative out on the stump in the last week of the campaign focused on one aspect of the scandalous sex story: the offense felt among women voters over allegations of sexual abuse by Trump. This set against the backdrop of Trump's open mic "Access Hollywood" confessional about engaging in just the kind of conduct alleged by 12 women.
As a tactical matter, the gendered frame might work up Clinton's base of women supporters. Certainly, broadcast and cable news outlets relish in the conflict coverage. Conflict draws viewers. But all of this taken together winds up framing the story narrowly. As a women's issue.
The horserace updates on campaign polling that indicate Trump's diminishing support from women sets it all up. We are told that women are withdrawing their support for Trump in significant percentages because of the sex abuse allegations. Questions posed by TV reporters at political rallies (How do you feel about the sex abuse allegations against Trump? Can you support Trump after the "Access Hollywood" groping video? What does this say about Trump's attitude toward women?), only serve to reinforce the narrative.
That is an unfortunate outcome.
Without question, sex harassment and sexual abuse are serious problems with enduring consequences for the immediate victims. When women are sexualized in the workplace or in any closed environment, the message to them is that they have no value, that they are objects, who are not to be taken seriously in any substantive way. Research shows this can lead to depression in the victims, stress, feelings of worthlessness, diminished motivation, eating disorders, limited freedom of movement, even suicidal tendencies.
What's more, the high level of self-doubt and culturally inspired self-blame can lead to lower reporting rates of sex harassment and sexual abuse. There is a feeling that no one will believe the woman, who, in effect, will be victimized twice as a result. We have seen this consequence play out on the national stage in recent weeks, as the most degrading questions are being raised about Trump's accusers.
The sexist backlash set up by the gendered narrative theme here only adds to the degradation. There is the "he-said-she-said" discrediting of Trump's accusers. There is the "get-over-it-get-another-job" dismissal coming from people like Donald Jr. There is the "who cares?" reaction among supporters who believe sex harassment by a man who would be president does not rise to the level of national security concerns (unless, of course, the president is Bill Clinton). And there is the "boys-will-be-boys" "locker-room" rationalization advanced by Trump's "Stepford" surrogates that does destructive double-duty: invalidating the legitimate grievances of victims, and creating a whole new generation of victimizers. Boys who will be boys, enabled in their oppressive behavior.
Then there is the push among Trump's low-information voters--however unrealistically cynical and laughable it might be--to repeal the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote.
This is the key, in my view, to opening the door to a narrative that neither the Clinton campaign, nor the media have entered.
What has been missing from the saturation coverage of the allegations is some sense of the true nature of sexual abuse. It is not about sexual lust. It is about power.
Once we accept this reality, we then must see the allegations against Trump in a new light. The consideration moves from sexual abuse to abuse of power. So, the question the media should help us consider is whether a person who is inclined to abuse power with women as a businessman is likely to abuse power against so many others as president.
The evidence here, as well as the range of potential abuse--again, from the candidate himself--is quite unsettling.
There is Trump's cavalier reference to use of nuclear power. There is his threat against constitutionally protected freedom of the press. There is the threat to suspend rights on religious grounds and to intimidate ethnic groups and to marginalize racial groups. Of course, there is that boast that he could get away with shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, that threat to jail a political opponent and that expressed admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Flirtations with authoritarianism. Punctuated by Trump's periodic Mussolini pose.
So, while excerpts of Melania's richly ironic cyberbullying speech are blowing up on social media, there is an extension of the irony with grave implications the news media should help the public understand. After all, bullying--the kind Donald Trump is accused of doing even with his Twitter account--is yet another example of abuse of power. An issue to ponder in the final days before the national election is how far that abuse might be taken by a U.S. president acting without restraint. And so far, discipline has not appeared to be Donald Trump's strong suit.
The late German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller recognized too late in the last century the dangers of political apathy and a failure to appreciate our commonality. If we make the same mistake and fail to speak up when others are abused--women, as well as immigrants, LGBT community members, and religious and racial groups--then there just might be no one left to speak up for us when the tables turn. As they will, inevitably.