Over the weekend, the Washington Post published an article entitled “Finally. Someone who thinks like me.” The author had clearly spent quite a bit of time with Melanie Austin, a 52-year-old woman who lives in rural Pennsylvania. The Post article is an exploration of why Melanie is a Trump supporter and how Melanie thinks about and analyzes the political and social issues being debated in the election.
Except. The article veered a few times into a tone that subtly mocked Melanie and otherwise presented information in a manner that was designed to point out her ridiculous a la Mean Girls.
Here’s the thing. I have family members who are Trump supporters; I have former clients who are Trump supporters. While I struggle to understand their rationale, I try my best not to fall into mocking, demonizing or dismissing them. The caveat is that when folks start spouting the racist, xenophobic or sexist rationales that some Trump folks do, then the benefit of the doubt that I want to give them is lost and engaging them gets much trickier.
Thus, Melanie’s a tricky subject in this rubric. Melanie articulates some racist, homophobic nonsense based on fringe conspiracy theory webpages (e.g. that Obama is a gay Muslim who is not American and who kidnapped his children). I’m not sure how I would engage with her if I met her in person.
But I do recognize her. About half-way through the article, we learn that Melanie worked as a crew dispatcher and engineer at the railroad for over twenty years. It’s presented in an understated way, but it is clear that Melanie went through hell in her workplace:
She was usually the only woman on a crew, but she prided herself on being tough, so when she heard that some higher-up had called a colleague and asked, “What’s Austin wearing today, her green miniskirt?” Melanie laughed it off. She ignored the boss who she said left a Penthouse magazine on her desk. But then came the sexually explicit graffiti about her in the train toilets, and a male colleague’s calling her “psycho bitch” over the radio, and another male colleague’s flying her underwear like a flag off the train — all of which became part of a sexual-harassment lawsuit Melanie filed against the railroads. In 2002, a jury awarded her $450,000 in damages, a verdict overturned by a federal judge who did not question the facts of the case but decided that the matter had been handled appropriately. “The jury gave me my one moment in the sun as far as justice was concerned,” Melanie said. “But the politicians are never going to let a little girl slap two Class I railroads, and they didn’t.” That was the moment when she began to see so clearly how the world worked, she said, and it wasn’t just about the judge. It was about a whole corrupt political system…
I know from the past nine years of representing women who have suffered sexual harassment that these anecdotes don’t begin to capture the daily indignities, the slights and exclusions, the death by a thousand cuts. And I know that even after the immediate trauma subsides, there can be long-lasting emotional, mental and physical effects. In fact, in some cases, victims of sexual harassment in the workplace suffer from PTSD as a result.
All of which is to say, whatever else might be motivating her enthusiasm for Trump (including some of the real financial struggles her community is experiencing), Melanie is also a victim of sexual harassment and a system that doesn’t do nearly enough for women like her. She is someone who, after suffering through years of abuse, after having employers act like her victimization and she as a person didn’t matter, saw the powerful tell her that the jury didn’t matter, her winning didn’t matter, her experiences didn’t matter. That’s enough to make anyone begin questioning “the official story,” whatever it may be, and more inclined to believe even the worst, most seemingly-outlandish conspiracy theories.