Art for The Harem Speaks.
The Baffler
Rafia Zakaria,  August 28

The Harem Speaks

Making American women servile again

The Baffler
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As this week’s Republican TV production draws to an end, the president’s seraglio has spoken. One after another, the women from Trump’s harem took the stage at the Republican National Convention. Coiffed and made-up and thin and (mostly) blonde, they looked upward to their dear leader and sang his praises. Like in any presidential harem, they were of a vast variety: daughters, a daughter-in-law, a press secretary, senior advisers, and of course, the queen of the harem, the First Lady.

No other metaphor really captures the worshipful servility of the women Trump chose to sing of Himself and peddle his lies at the convention. Taken separately, their offerings to their lord and master were nothing new; taken together they represented a production that could only have been put together by a sequestered lot bidden to serve a single powerful old man. One of the women of lesser status who spoke was Kayleigh McEnany. Clad half in virginal white and half in businesslike black, she sang one of the first songs during what was supposed to be the night of “Heroes,” oddly featuring Mike Pence. Offering up her vulnerability, she presented Trump as a champion of the sick, especially those afflicted with what the insurance companies like to call “pre-existing conditions.” She, too, she confessed, had one of these conditions. Identified as a carrier of the BRCA gene mutation, she had had to have a preventative double mastectomy and breast reconstructive surgery. Days after Kayleigh woke up from the procedure, the man she loves best was on the phone. “I was blown away,” Kayleigh recalled gaspingly, “here was the leader of the free world caring about me.

It would have been a poignant moment, if it had not been laced with a lie. McEnany undoubtedly went through the ordeal, but the claim that her president has been fighting on behalf of patients like her, patients who used to be at risk of being excluded from health insurance, is patently false. In Trump’s territory, facts do not go well with fealty, but here was a case of intentional deception. Even as McEnany, the blooming new mother so enraptured with her boss, spoke those words, Trump administration officials have been in court fighting to cut protections for patients with pre-existing conditions like hers. The Trump administration has also joined Republican Attorneys General attempting to strike down Obamacare, without offering anything in its stead.

Worshipping a strong and powerful man does not mean that you’re not a strong woman. To prove this point, we heard from Lara Trump, the wife of Eric Trump and thus daughter-in-law of the Kublai Khan in the White House. Before young Lara became a Trump, her parents taught her to “dream big” which she did, marrying Eric Trump and his father’s millions. It was an inspirational message directed no doubt at the many young and ambitious American girls who may have been watching the show.

Before young Lara became a Trump, her parents taught her to “dream big” which she did, marrying Eric Trump and his father’s millions.

Like most of the ladies who spoke, Lara Trump offered her homage to the suffragists whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated this week. This makes sense: it is so fortunate for the Trump campaign that white women were granted the right to vote—they favored Trump in 2016, after all. (Black women effectively didn’t get the vote until 1965 and the Trump campaign seems less than excited about it even today.) Courting the white suburban #tradwife figures large into their scheme: women who can be proud of the suffragettes and their own right to vote in a comfortable place without long lines, while dreaming big and marrying rich men. “Under President Trump’s leadership women’s unemployment hit the lowest level since World War II. 4.3 million new jobs have been created for women—in 2019 alone, women took over 70 percent of [the] new jobs” declared Lara from the podium, and in the style of intrigue and deception that is the way of the Trump harem, she deftly left out that the job loss since the pandemic far exceeds 4.3 million.

Lara Trump, the haloed already-daughter-in-law, presented a contrast with the woman who is still auditioning for the role. Poor Kimberly Guilfoyle, the new woman in Donald Trump Jr.’s life, overshot her target; in trying to be a strong woman she ended up being just a loud woman, missing the memo that neither are welcome in the vaunted inner circle. “Ladies and gentlemen, leaders and fighters for freedom and liberty and the American dream, the best is yet to come” poor Guilfoyle yelled into the void, sounding as unhinged and crazed as most of us have felt through the length of the Trump presidency. Compared to the others, blunted by years of quiet submission, her seemingly coke-fueled tirade was almost a refreshing change.

There is no tale of a harem past or present that does not feature competing queens. In this particular one, we know (and a new book promises to tell us more about) Melania Trump, the wife of the president, and Ivanka Trump, the daughter, are in rival power centers. Ivanka, has long been the darling child, accompanying her father to events like the G20, where despite the snubs she got from world leaders, she postured and pretended and likely partied on taxpayer dollars.

One wonders what coins were tossed to determine how the roles of the First Lady and the First Daughter would be divided up between Trump’s most favored women. Perhaps there was a contest, bake-off, or even a beauty pageant complete with Trump’s most favorite bit—the swimsuit contest. Donald Trump does love them so. The controversial venue of Melania Trump’s speech, held at a shaved and shorn up Rose Garden, should be considered in light of these internecine intrigues. If Ivanka Trump gets to sing Daddy’s praises in the South Lawn, Melania put on a faux-military battle-ready number in the Rose Garden. Her conciliatory missive about making up and protesting peacefully was set off nicely by what happened in Kenosha, Wisconsin, about an hour after her speech—when an armed Trump supporter mowed down two men protesting police brutality.

A harem, we know from history and literature, is a complicated place; intrigue and deception are recurring themes, and back-stabbing and currying for favor are the order of the day. So it is with the women of Donald Trump, their vigorous jockeying for place reflecting their faith and hope placed in the single man. There is a wider comment here about the sorts of women that are drawn to the Trump brand; rich women who want to feel validated about being handmaidens to Trump-like men, and poor women who yearn to be freed from the dread and drudgeries of their punishing jobs. The middle-of-the-road sorts, in the cookie-cutter houses that circle American suburbs could be persuaded—perhaps—by a Kayleigh or a Kellyanne, or by the testimony of Tiffany Trump (the lesser daughter) about her troubles getting a job after law school.

In nearly all other matters, reviving the theme of seraglio and harem would be impolite, but those terms do not apply in the Trump multi-verse, where the president has casually wished Jeffrey Epstein’s enabler Ghislaine Maxwell well. Trump’s women may speak the language of freedom and suffrage and dreaming big, but they are complicit and actively engaged in insuring the continued presidency of a man who likes to grab women “by the pussy” and who tells elected female U.S. Congresswomen to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.” The goal of Trump’s harem is like the goal of Trump himself, the continued amassing of misbegotten wealth—coupled with disdain for the outside, non-compliant women, who do not wish to live in thrall of a man who has turned the White House into his personal pleasure dome.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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