Though Melania Trump isn’t running for President, and though claiming to have earned a degree that one did not earn seems like a drop in the bucket given all of the other absurdities of the Trump campaign, today’s news that she falsely claimed to have earned an undergraduate degree in architecture and design from University of Ljubljana (Slovenia) matters. It matters quite a bit.
Of course, while this revelation is troubling, it is no longer shocking. Almost everything and everyone in the orbit of the Trump campaign has been under a cloud of unreliability. (The Trump brand has been selling educational experiences that don’t really exist – why not claim to have had an educational experience that didn’t really exist?) Voters simply can’t count on anything coming out of the Trump camp, which seems willing to say or do whatever it takes to elect Donald Trump. If the campaign stays true to its M.O., there will soon be an announcement that Melania Trump never claimed or didn’t mean to claim to have that degree in the first place. A certain segment of voters seems willing to ignore this pattern of deceit and dissembling (and they also overlook the fact that this behavior suggests Trump’s commitments to voters are utterly unreliable) in order to elect someone who will represent non-elites.
It is precisely this claim to represent non-elites – never a particularly believable claim, coming from someone who owns a mini-fleet of aircraft – that makes Melania Trump’s fake degree so galling. Donald Trump has spoken of the employment challenges faced even by those with college degrees – people who earned, paid for, and still owe money on the kinds of degrees that Melania Trump simply faked. Many people have cobbled together credits from various institutions, giving up sleep or time with friends and family to eventually complete the kind of degree that Melania Trump simply claimed for herself.
More importantly, many of us know, and some of us are very close to, people who did not earn college degrees and fought uphill battles in the labor market. We know people who couldn’t fake, or, better yet, wouldn’t consider faking, a college degree in order to bypass the real hardship of facing an employment marketplace that uses that degree to discriminate in hiring, compensation, downsizing decisions, and more. The benefits of a college degree to employees and employers alike are real. Recent research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce proved (again!) the advantages of a college education, both in terms of employment and earnings, and by logical extension, the disadvantages of not having such a degree. Yet some have worked extra hard to gain credibility, stability, and career success despite the lack of a degree. Others have, despite hard work, faced employment instability, less upward mobility, poorer compensation, periods of unemployment, and other hardships because they did not have access to, could not complete, or chose not to pursue higher education. It is offensive that Melania Trump would simply claim to possess what others have endured hardship without.
Melania Trump’s path to wealth doesn’t seem to have required the degree that she claimed to have – she didn’t need the undergraduate architecture degree to get the mini-fleet of gold-lettered aircraft – but she certainly trafficked in the credibility that the fake degree brought. Why else would she list it on her web site, except to establish by deceit and in a matter of keystrokes what others either work hard to posses or face an uphill battle without. While many Trump supporters fall into the former category, possessing college-level degrees, many do not. As Anthony P. Carnevale notes, Trump supporters “tend to be in specific industries, high school educated and remembering that in the 1970s they were the dominant workforce. This is a new world.” The world they once knew has been slipping away, and no one has seemed willing to stand with them or speak for them as they are sidelined by changing economic and cultural realities. The Trump camp came along and claimed to do just those things. But when it came to admitting that she did not possess a college degree, Melania Trump couldn’t do it. Her actions in this case are all too typical. It’s just the kind of masquerade that by now we should have come to expect. But it’s more than that. It speaks of the Trump campaign’s utter unreliability when it comes to standing with their constituency and their thinly veiled disdain for those they claim to represent.
Some of Trump’s supporters are, understandably, out to show the world that a lack of elite credentials doesn’t equate to credulity. It’s time to prove it by refusing to be fooled any longer by an unreliable candidate, campaign, and camp that harbor a secret disdain for their constituency.