Magazine | June 26, 2017, Issue

Born Trump

(Roman Genn)
In the White House, Ivanka aspires ─ but to what?

Just barely 21 years old, Ivanka Trump made her first real impression on the world when she was featured in the surprise-hit documentary Born Rich. It was a cult classic of sorts, obsessed over by people of the same age as its subjects, particularly those obsessors who entered media. Some heirs and heiresses in this doc spoke crassly about prenups or enjoying the pettiness that wealth afforded them: “I’m from New York. I can buy your family — piss off!” was a particularly memorable line. But Ivanka Trump was a model of restraint, even filial piety. From the perspective of a father who was a notorious womanizer, who had gone through an ugly divorce and associated the family name with billions of dollars of debt, daughter Ivanka nailed that first line of her public life: “No matter what I hear about my parents, my family, no matter what I read, the fact is that I am absolutely proud to be a Trump . . . and I’m proud of everything they’ve done and ever accomplished.”

Ivanka has played the part of character witness ever since. At the Republican National Convention last summer, she cited Trump’s personal works of generosity and told the world he practiced “wage equality” between the sexes in his business. She never cracks in her role as her father’s great defender. And that is presumably why she, alone among her siblings, is now such a close adviser to the president. She won’t even hint at her private disagreements with her father. “This isn’t about promoting my viewpoints,” she told an inquiring Gayle King when asked to name a time she disagreed with dear old Dad.

So what is the Ivanka viewpoint? What are her politics? People who restrict themselves to the normal terms would say Ivanka is “socially liberal, economically conservative,” which in America is little different from saying she’s a typical rich person. She is not strictly partisan. Like her father, Ivanka donated to Hillary Clinton in 2008 and endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012. But it would be closer to the truth to say that Ivanka’s politics run along a different axis. The left pole of the Ivanka worldview could be described as fashionable. And the right pole would be aspirational. So you could say that Ivanka is fashionable on the environment, but she is aspirational on taxes. Her political solidarity is firmly with the in-crowd on social issues such as LGBTQ rights. But her individualism comes out when the subject turns to economic regulation.

Ivanka was born in 1981 and often describes her childhood as “sheltered,” except for the occasional tabloid cover that told her something that her mom and dad didn’t want her to know. After graduating from Choate, she did a couple of years at Georgetown before she followed her father into the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where she graduated summa cum laude. She has been a fashion model, making the cover of Seventeen magazine at age 15. By age 25 she landed as 83 in the Maxim Hot 100. Just as in Born Rich, she seemed more composed and accomplished than her peers. There are no drink-fueled tabloid stories. She takes the virtue of self-possession as seriously as her teetotaler father does. The same year that Maxim named her one of the 100 hottest women on earth, she was also made the youngest director on the board of a publicly traded company, Trump Entertainment Resorts. Since then she has taken on various roles in the Trump Organization, and even in The Apprentice.

By 2010, Ivanka was trying to build her own business, a fashion brand in jewelry and apparel, aiming to push the Trump name in clothing up to the luxury level, where it is in real estate. But gradually the market realities forced her to recognize that the Ivanka Trump brand in apparel had more selling power the farther downmarket it went, just like her father’s. Instead of selling goods at the highest price points, Ivanka was selling “affordable luxury” items in department stores, the stuff that eventually gets discounted at T.J. Maxx or the shoe retailer DSW. In her recent book, she gave that reality a certain dignity: “My company was not just meeting the lifestyle needs of today’s modern professional woman with versatile, well-designed products; it was celebrating those needs, at a price point she could afford.”

And that’s the other thing, the books. Like her father, Ivanka wants to sell you manuals of success. And just as with her fashion line, her hope is to push them to a slightly more desirable market than her father has reached. Whereas her father’s books might be read by outer-borough real-estate agents, Ivanka wants to sell to the upwardly mobile woman who is already successful but looking for that next promotion, or who feels a need to rationalize her desire for “self-care.”

One notable thing about Women Who Work, her latest, is that Ivanka claims to like it that the boundaries between work life and home life are disappearing. Bring the laptop home and work after the kids are in bed. Have a FaceTime conversation with your kids between afternoon meetings. “For the modern working woman, this lack of compartmentalization between work and home has fostered greater authenticity,” Ivanka writes. The opposite seems more likely the case, as well-edited photos of spontaneous moments with her family become default ads for her lifestyle brand on Instagram.

And perhaps she should think more about boundaries now that she’s in the White House. Campaign adviser Kellyanne Conway got into trouble when she commandeered an appearance on Fox News to say, “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff. . . . This is just [a] wonderful line.” Conway continued: “I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”

Authors of self-help books such as Women Who Work tend to crib from one another. And Ivanka does so generously. She takes from Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s book on having it all, Lean In. Part of a chapter on making the most of your moments with a family borrows generously from Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families. This includes advice on “crafting a family mission statement.” Silicon Valley’s corporate trends, such as the concept of working in “sprints,” are preached. Gurus of self-actualization are cited on almost every page. There’s Brené Brown (Be successful, by being vulnerable!), James Altucher (Choose yourself!), and David Brooks (Cultivate the eulogy virtues!).

Although Women Who Work begins with a mention of all the people she’s met while working on her father’s campaign, it has no discernible political content besides a demand for paid maternity leave in the last few pages. The impression the book makes on the attentive reader is that you are about to be pitched a $2,000 weekend conference and networking event called “Architect Your Life with Ivanka Trump.” (For an additional fee, meet this legend of business!) And perhaps that was Ivanka’s plan if her father had lost the election.

Now, instead of giving talks in a hotel ballroom on how to “let go of balance and seize the meaningful moments,” she is advising the leader of the free world. “I’ll go to the mat on certain issues and I may still lose those, but maybe along the way I’ve modified a position just slightly. And that’s just great,” she told the New York Times. Ivanka has said that she wants to work on environmental and LGBTQ issues and the economic empowerment of women. That describes the billet of a modern Democratic first lady. And yet unlike any first lady, this Republican first daughter is getting top security clearance.

What does the scorecard look like? It’s easy to find out. The Trump White House leaks the contrary positions of advisers to help them keep up appearances ahead of a decision. Nationalist Steve Bannon is against bombing the Syrian government’s airfields. Ivanka is for staying in the Paris climate agreement. Then, like a game-show host, Trump unveils the new policy.

So far, for Ivanka, it is a mixed record. That she is a point of contact in the White House for liberal advocates is not in doubt. Ivanka asked Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, to lobby her father to stay in the Paris accords, but populist mastermind Bannon and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt were said to have gotten the jump on her with the boss.

On religious liberty, Ivanka got the win. Religious conservatives were baffled when the Trump administration rolled out a religious-liberty executive order that had no conscience protections and simply called for easing the Johnson Amendment, which restricts politicians in their ability to fundraise at churches. The scale of Ivanka’s win was large enough that the American Civil Liberties Union, which had planned to sue anything it thought infringed on LGBTQ interests, simply stood down.

What about the economic empowerment of women? Here there is a long way to go. Ivanka did get paid maternity leave into the first drafts of the president’s proposed budget. That’s something. The proposal includes $19 billion over a decade to be given to states to fund a six-week paid-leave program. But if the states fall short, they are supposed to raise payroll taxes to make up the gap. Republican lawmakers are skeptical.

There are some creative oddities in Ivanka’s record as well. Before the Republicans’ vote to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, she met with Cecile Richards, the head of the organization, to better understand how it worked. Ivanka proposed a radical idea: According to the New York Times, she suggested that Planned Parenthood be split, with a “smaller arm” to provide abortions and “a larger one” devoted to women’s health services. There’s something endearing about how Ivanka’s proposal swallows Planned Parenthood’s own risible claims that abortion is the smaller part of its operations. But there’s something sensible about her intuition that a family-planning and women’s-health organization could win uncontroversial funding support if it didn’t do abortions. Obviously, it was a non-starter for Richards.

Politics is not a game that aspiring entrepreneurs usually want to play, for good reason. And in the coverage she gets, one can feel Ivanka’s status as a recognized “glamorous person” being taken hostage in order to lobby her to lobby her father harder or make a public break with him.

Gayle King infamously asked whether Ivanka and her husband were “complicit” in everything the Trump White House does. “If being complicit is wanting to — is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit,” Ivanka said. Perhaps not how Seneca the Younger would have explained his service in Nero’s court, but a decent enough bob and weave as these things go. She added, “I don’t know that the critics who may say that of me, if they found themselves in this very unique and unprecedented situation that I am now in, would do any differently than I’m doing.” It’s as close as she’s ever come to saying “I’m stuck being a Trump and I’m doing my best.”

It’s hard not to think that Ivanka’s wins and losses as a White House advocate have little to do with her. Donald Trump was already loyal to a fossil-fuel economy and therefore bound to be skeptical of the Paris agreement, which Ivanka supports. He gives no evidence of having thought seriously about religion, and therefore he was bound to be uncomprehending of Evangelical and Catholic conscience claims, like his daughter.

If that pattern holds, then the effect of Ivanka’s position will be less that she influenced the Trump administration than that the White House and its reputation-protecting leaks — she opposed the Paris decision, she’s working on maternity leave — were used to shape her image and the Trump brand in her bid to upscale them for Millennials. But in the end, you suspect that her father’s style is going to bleed over and push it back down into the discount racks. And that means there is something merely aspirational about the role she has at the White House. Ivanka has the job, but not the juice. She could take advice from her own book, if she has read it: “Be irreplaceable — then ask for what you want!”

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