First Lady Melania Trump summoned this dilemma when she rebuked Stanford law professor, Pamela Karlan, for including her son, Barron Trump, in a not-so-subtle jab at Donald Trump at an impeachment inquiry hearing: “A minor child deserves privacy and should be kept out of politics,” Melania Trump tweeted. “Pamela Karlan, you should be ashamed of your very angry and obviously biased public pandering, and using a child to do it.”
This exchange has sent wavelengths throughout the media, a surprisingly assertive statement given by someone that many are apt to compare to Michelle Obama, who was a notably activist-oriented First Lady (people even criticize Melania’s icy decorations for Christmas, which contrast with Michelle’s warmer-toned approach). Most importantly, Melania’s words illuminate a dimension of politics that has rarely been explored until now, but speaks volumes about the state of politics: The using children to make political arguments.
Indeed, even after Melania’s tweet spread like wildfire, several right-leaning folks seem to contradict themselves by also weaponizing Barron Trump. They use Karlan’s words as proof that the left can be generalized to petty, low-brow minds that can’t produce legitimate arguments. Truly, it was a palm-smack moment for me when I saw that the troubling message of this incident flew by so many people’s heads, whether they be Democratic or Republican. The world of politics is a vicious hunting-ground, with slings of accusations and shields of deflection. A child, no matter if he is the progeny of a ridiculed president, has no business being in the crossfire. Yet, why did this seem like an inevitability?
Each election, political campaigns are becoming increasingly candidate-centered. Brought on by the expansion of the electorate (the 15th amendment allowed black men to vote, the 19th amendment facilitated women’s suffrage and the 26th amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18), candidates are now tasked with attracting an enormous mass of voters, diverse in background and ideology.
The rise of the media has exponentially accelerated this process, allowing a direct channel through which candidates may advertise themselves through the public, and the public can easily communicate with them. Now, it’s getting personal, even intimate. Now, presidential candidates may tweet about their day or share pictures of them holding a dog, garnering an outpouring of adulation — all without a single mention of their stances on controversial issues.
Personality has taken the center stage when it comes to politics, and news outlets only facilitate this. The two polarizing ones, CNN and Fox News, frequently use sensationalism to exaggerate their coverage, using provocative diction in headlines without providing any real substance. CNN jumps at any chance to mock Trump’s tweets and blow them out of proportion, relegating relevant news to the back burner. Fox news salivates for any opportunity to prove that liberals are, in fact, hypersensitive buffoons with no sensibility. And we, as the audience, encourage this type of reporting by gleefully consuming their content, surrounding ourselves with information that confirm our biases. This superficiality is cyclical in nature. The emphasis on personality is ever-strengthening as the 2020 election fast approaches, and as, one-by one, democratic candidates suspend their campaigns.
No doubt, there is merit in character — a president should have the proper decorum befitting his station as chief commander. He should be held to high standards by the people, who entrust in him to fulfill his duty and represent them fairly. The way he carries himself and interacts with others can be a major predictor of his public policy. However, there is a difference between character and personality: Character connotes a person’s values, but personality is just a meager collection of traits. Rather than inspecting the true values of politicians, we tend to choose a single moment or a single trait that defines his or her identity, and we dismiss the aspects that truly matter: their party platforms, their specified goals for the future and their plans for action.
Pamela Karlan’s glib during the impeachment inquiry hearing is the epitome of the artificiality that has pervaded the election process. Attacks should be substantial and relevant, not witty or snappish. We need true, unadulterated communication between parties that isn’t laden with fluff and insults. We need to re-orient our focus away from combating the other side without providing better alternatives. We need to stop purposely seeking flaws and missteps from figures we detest, persevering in our beliefs, purely for the sake of proving the other side wrong. And personality should always come second to public policy.
Photo Courtesy of Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo