Ivanka Doesn't Get To Decide What "Complicit" Means

Ivanka Trump leverages complete control over her image — but she doesn’t get to redefine how history will judge her silence.

Ivanka Trump is the inverse of her father, Donald Trump, in one very essential way: her silence. When Trump is aggrieved, he can’t shut up. But when Nordstrom dropped Ivanka’s clothing line earlier this year, she declined to speak publicly. When her father tweeted that the company had treated her “unfairly,” Ivanka said nothing. Even when Kellyanne Conway advised Americans to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” — prompting an ethics investigation — she was silent. She didn’t address the outcry over her presence, without a security clearance, at meetings with heads of state, or acknowledge a Saturday Night Live parody of her that advertised a fictional perfume called “Complicit.”

President Trump’s PR strategy, like Kellyanne Conway’s, is total saturation — and deflection. Dominate with your own message, no matter how contradictory, and you’ll be able to guide the narrative others tell about you. That worked for Trump for decades, and it’s continued to work, to varying degrees, throughout the beginning of his presidency. Ivanka, by contrast, controls the narrative through scarcity: She offers just enough of her personal life, via Instagram, to create an aura of transparency and accessibility, even when she’s meting it out with tremendous precision. She’s an incredibly private person who’s managed to project an image of total publicness.

So when it was announced, last week, that Ivanka Trump would be taking on an official role in the White House — essentially performing the same tasks she already had been, only with security clearances — a public acknowledgment was in order. Or, rather, an interview that would soften any sharp edges around the fact that the president’s daughter would take on a major advisory role as her father’s “eyes and ears.”

“Eyes and ears” underlines precisely how Ivanka — and her father — seem to envision her (continuing) role: see and hear, not say and do. But she made an appearance today, in a three-part interview on CBS This Morning, in order to say just how much she wouldn’t be (publicly) saying. The selection of a morning show is significant: Whereas evening shows are considered “hard” (and masculine) news, morning shows are “soft” and feminized. Ivanka was interviewed by Gayle King, known to millions of audience members as Oprah’s best friend; the interview itself took place in Ivanka and Jared Kushner’s DC home — a point that both King and Ivanka were keen to emphasize, even though there were no revealing shots of the home itself.

Ivanka alluded, at one point, to her sons sleeping in the next room — “it’s shocking that we made it through this interview without one of my two little boys crying” — firmly situating her in the domestic sphere. She wore a sheath dress, but in a muted black and green tone, not the power red or white that she wears in many photos in the White House. She spoke at length about the joys of living in DC (her kids have a swing set in the backyard) and emphasized that she takes her kids somewhere new in town (a monster truck rally, a “cultural institution") every week. Her tone of voice was soft, breathy, as if trying to calm down a worked-up child.

Ivanka’s current image is like a flashing sign on a casino that’s closed: Look at me, then look away.

The message: Ivanka’s power is nothing for you to worry about. It’s a subdued, feminine power. She might be a strong, successful woman, but she’s not abrasive, not dangerous, and she’s certainly not breaking the law — or using her position for financial gain, or anything else untoward. Ivanka’s current image is like a flashing sign on a casino that’s closed for business: Look at me, then look away.

There’s nothing to see here, in other words — and on that point, Ivanka was explicit. She gave up her business to serve her father and her country; it’s now in “trust” and out of her control. No matter that the “independent trustees” are Kushner’s brother and sister, Josh Kushner and Nicole Meyer. “I have no involvement with any of it,” she told King. “I’ve been very transparent about that.” King suggested that she could call up her brother- or sister-in-law and ask what’s going on, and Ivanka shut it down entirely. “I take a legal document very seriously,” she said, “and I wouldn’t go through the pain of setting this up if I intended to violate it.” Plus, she added, if she really wanted to grow her business, she would have stayed in New York — “I would be doing far better.”

There’s no mention of how Ivanka "still wields power over her brand," trust or not: Brand sales exploded after her name took center stage in February around the Nordstrom tweet. And while profits from Ivanka’s forthcoming book, Women Who Work, will be donated to charity, her legal disassociation from her company does not mean she is not still laboring as the primary face of the brand. Her clothes, her shoes, her Women Who Work site — all of it is pegged to Ivanka’s public image, which is vastly amplified vis-à-vis her position by her father’s side, in White House photography, or traveling to Mar-a-Lago. She might have been able to sit in on board meetings for her company if she’d stayed in New York, but in DC, she gets incredible, if currently unquantifiable, brand visibility.

The effect of such visibility has been mixed: Even as Ivanka’s sales rose, millions of others were refusing to buy anything with the Trump name attached. In an effort to distance themselves from Trump’s most egregious and alienating policies and rhetoric, Ivanka and Jared have positioned themselves as the voices of liberal reason in the White House; various stories from unnamed “sources” claim that it was they who helped quash an executive order, early in Trump’s presidency, that would’ve reversed Obama era protections for LGBT workers, or they who are arguing for America to retain its place in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

A Washington Post story from March situated Ivanka and Jared, along with fellow New Yorkers Gary Cohn and Dina Powell, in a de facto coalition referred to as “the Democrats” in a “turf war” with the “ideologues,” i.e., the executive-order-drafting nationalists Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. In addition to whatever these stories accomplish as journalism and/or gossip, they double as PR for Kushner and Ivanka’s image as competent, nonracist moderates.

When the GOP American Health Care Act imploded in late March, Ivanka and Kushner were away on vacation in Aspen — and very much in public view, photographed extensively by the paparazzi. As Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox explains, their physical, thoroughly documented distance from the bill allowed the pair to “return to DC with clean hands.” More importantly, Fox argues, “Ivanka won’t have to answer for her father’s concessions that would eliminate maternity-care coverage from a health-care bill — a difficult task for someone who is in DC to advocate for women and families.” (A source inside the White House told CNN that Trump was "upset" with Kushner's absence; the White House denied the report).

There are plenty of things to stay silent about: Trump’s budget currently proposes cutting 20% of the funding for the National Institute of Health — a position that flies in the face of Ivanka’s extensive Instagram campaign for STEM training. On March 27, Trump signed an executive order revoking the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order, which ensured that companies receiving federal contracts had paycheck transparency and banned arbitration clauses for sexual harassment, sexual assault, or discrimination. Policies, in other words, that helped eliminate roadblocks to equal pay for women — one of Ivanka’s pet projects.

The silence makes sense: The media didn’t make a fuss over that EO, so why would Ivanka? Other White House advisors don't speak out about individual policy decisions, so why would she? Maybe because, at least until very recently, she wasn't actually on Trump's stuff: she and the White House insisted that she was simply operating as her father's daughter. It's that insistence that makes it so difficult to deflect calls to speak publicly. Her brothers certainly don't shy from it. Why would she?

Even before Ivanka arrived at the White House, Ivanka’s vision of women’s empowerment was always limited to a specific sort of empowerment, for a specific sort of woman: Women who are privileged, women who are feminine, women who know when to shut up. In the CBS interview, King asked Ivanka why she doesn’t speak out on issues that she’s previously indicated are important to her — on Planned Parenthood, on gay rights, on the rights of women, on climate change. “It’s, like, you’re being held personally accountable for not speaking up,” King said. “What do you say to your critics?”

“I would not conflate lack of public denouncement with silence,” Ivanka responded, her tone measured. “I think there are multiple ways to have your voice heard. In some cases, it’s through protest and it’s through going on the nightly news and talking about or denouncing every issue on which you disagree with. Other times it is quietly and directly and candidly. So where I disagree with my father, he knows it. And I express myself with total candor. Where I agree, I fully lean in and support the agenda — and hope that I can be an asset to him and make a positive impact.”

Here, Ivanka implicitly ranks ways of “having your voice heard” — there’s the unruly, immoderate way (“through protest,” “on the nightly news,” “talking,” “denouncing,” “every issue”) and there’s her way: in private. Directly, candidly, but quietly. Which is to say: off the record, without taking any risks. And while that mode of protest might, in fact, be more effective with Ivanka’s father — who’s notoriously nonplussed by public opinion and often swayed by the advice of whoever spoke to him last — it does not magically immunize her from critique.

If Ivanka is, in fact, a “passionate advocate,” that passion and advocacy has never been more necessary. 

Ivanka might conceive of herself, as her Instagram bio proclaims, as a “wife, mother, sister, and daughter” — a private person with no responsibility to speak publicly. But she made the decision as an adult to remain a public person, leveraging her last name and her lifestyle into a brand that has significantly expanded her fortune. As the second line of her bio states, she also thinks of herself as a “passionate advocate for the education and empowerment of women and girls.”

If Ivanka is, in fact, a “passionate advocate,” that passion and advocacy has never been more necessary. And while Ivanka believes she knows the best way to influence her father and advocate for women and girls, in truth she’s found the safe way: a way that might help others, but certainly doesn’t hurt herself — and very well may hurt others.

Ivanka may think, as she told King, that “complicit” is “wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact.” But no matter her privilege, no matter her father’s insistence on redefining words to serve his means, she cannot redefine that word. To be complicit is to help commit a crime or do a wrong in some way. The “wrongdoing” component of that definition — with specific regards to actions by Trump’s campaign — is currently under investigation. The moral question won’t be decided by Ivanka, or what she “wants” to be. It will be judged by the number of people who suffer or thrive, both here and abroad, over decades to come, as a result of her father’s policies. It will be judged, in other words, by history. And no amount of privilege, of practiced answers and poise, can change that. ●

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