Ivanka Trump And The Aesthetics Of Denial

Ivanka only wields her power where no one can see it.

There’s a recent meme that combines photos of Ivanka Trump, Ann Coulter, and Kellyanne Conway — suggesting a sort of ghoulish transformation from the prim, contained femininity of Trump to the monstrous, freewheeling abjection of Conway. While it’s true that high-profile conservative women seem to gravitate toward a particular aesthetic (rail thin, long blonde hair, sheath dresses), it’s a mistake to place Ivanka within the Coulter/Conway framework — and with Conway in particular. Where Conway is working-class wherewithal, making her way in Washington through gumption and tireless ambition, Trump is practiced, poised class. Conway is a whirling dervish of political spin, creating elaborate word salads; Trump speaks in precisely calibrated sentences — or doesn’t speak at all.

Over the first month of her father’s presidency, Ivanka has maintained her silence — seen, via her social media, but not heard. When Nordstrom dropped her clothing brand on February 2, she posted a video of her daughter, Arabella, singing a song for Chinese New Year. When her father lashed out on Twitter about her “unfair” treatment by Nordstrom, instead of responding to the press, she posted a photo of herself “taking a call in the White House” with her “personal assistant,” aka her infant son, Theodore. After Conway encouraged audiences to “buy Ivanka’s stuff,” her social media accounts remained silent for most of the day — and then posted a video of Ernst & Young CEO Mark Weinberger praising her for making women in the workplace “a top issue.”

Ivanka’s silence — and subtle deflection — are hallmarks of Ivanka’s incredibly successful management strategy. Unlike her father, who is reactive, defensive, and easily distracted, Ivanka is incredibly disciplined in her messaging — which, since her marriage to Jared Kushner, the birth of her children, and the development of her clothing line, has coalesced into her Women Who Work lifestyle brand. Distinguished by its distinctly postfeminist approach to work-life balance, Women Who Work suggests that every woman can both “have a seat at the table” and be an accomplished mother — so long as they dress cute, stay thin, and aspire toward white bourgeois respectability. Be like Ivanka, in other words, and you can have it all.

During Trump’s presidential campaign, Ivanka wielded Women Who Work as a deflective armor; she emphasized, in both her RNC speech and subsequent interviews, how she’d advocate for paid maternity leave and equal pay. Trump, in turn, used Ivanka’s placement in his organization — and her advocacy — as proof that, in his words, “nobody respects women more than I do.” Many voters internalized that message: As several women told me at rallies across the country, Ivanka’s poise, class, and perceived integrity was proof that Trump couldn’t be that bad. Trump might be filled with bombast and bluster, the logic went, but Ivanka would keep him in line.

Ivanka’s unflappability seemed to confirm as much. As her father continued to unhinge himself on Twitter and her brothers committed prominent gaffes, she stayed the course of her brand, not her father’s. If you got your news exclusively from Ivanka’s social media feeds, you could theoretically remain ignorant that a presidential campaign was even happening, let alone that she was a part of it. Then, as now, her feed was filled with pictures of her children, pictures of her looking polished while hanging out with them, inspirational quotes, and “Women Who Work” branding. It appeared that even if her father’s campaign self-immolated, Ivanka’s brand could remain intact.

Since the election, both Ivanka and Jared Kushner have continued to cultivate a force field around their family, sustaining their power and influence within the administration even as they avoid the sort of official appointments that could directly link them to policy decisions and their ramifications. Kushner’s appointment as a senior adviser to Trump (despite nepotism concerns) understates and publicly diffuses his actual influence; inside sources suggest that he is, in fact, functioning as a sort of “shadow secretary of state” through whom Trump’s official appointees vet and filter their requests. Ivanka purportedly penned part of Trump's presidential address. Ivanka and Kushner have been widely reported as responsible for quashing an executive order that would’ve rolled back Obama-era protections of LBGT rights, cementing their image as the voices of reason blunting Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller’s most egregious and aggressive scheming.

While Ivanka has no official role in Trump’s administration, she is ubiquitous at the White House. When a Navy SEAL was killed in the botched raid in Yemen, it was she who accompanied her father to the memorial. While the rest of the president’s family — including the first lady — remain in New York, Ivanka and her husband have moved to DC. She sits in on private meetings with heads of state; she breakfasts with movers and shakers; she hosts CEOs at dinners in her home; she lobbies for her pet project, a tax deduction for child care costs, to be included in the forthcoming tax cut package. It was Ivanka, not Melania, who was placed next to the widow of Navy SEAL William Ryan Owens at Trump's national address, her solemn, supportive clap depicted in the thousands of images and clips looping across the newscycle.

Many liken Ivanka’s role to that of the first lady, which is true only if the first lady we’re talking about is Hillary Clinton, who transformed what had, up to that point, been largely a role of domestic helpmatery into one of policy adviser and lobbyist. At the time, Clinton’s performance as first lady was widely criticized — and earned her historically low approval ratings.

Unlike Clinton, Ivanka camouflages her power grabs beneath her beautifully blown-out hair, her 4-inch heels, her tasteful shift dresses, and her three delightful children. Ivanka’s mother, Ivana, was a perfect feminine specimen — a Slavic Model Barbie who looked great on Donald’s arm. Ivanka is the updated version: Barbie 2.0, the sort of woman men want to both marry and fuck, but who also doesn’t alienate women. While Ivanka’s early, pre-Kushner image had tinges of Angelina Jolie vampishness, her post-marriage image is all Jennifer Aniston: apolitical, inoffensive, all-American.

When Ivanka married Kushner, she married into a family startlingly similar to her own. The Kushner and Trump family fortunes were both rooted in real estate; both patriarchs grew up outside of Manhattan, always looking in — with great aspiration and class anxiety — on the old-money establishment from which they were largely excluded. Both, too, were embroiled in scandal, and their children were forced, at a very young age, to adopt public relations strategies that would shield them from the mess their fathers had wrought, even as they maintained close financial and emotional ties.

There’s a reason why Ivanka is openly acknowledged as her father’s “favorite,” and why Jared Kushner emerged as the dominant player in his family’s sprawling real estate dealings. They stepped up — and they figured out how to be classy on the way up. Ivanka, in particular, left behind her father’s tacky style, his garish publicity hounding, and other signifiers of “poor breeding.” She learned how to stop talking, instead of talking incessantly.

Throughout the Trump campaign, Kushner eschewed interviews entirely, while Ivanka’s once-voracious embrace of publicity became increasingly tempered. She became selective with her interview choices, making herself available to only the glossiest of publications: Town & Country, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar. Her clothing line was united in its tastefulness, even as it, like the rest of Ivanka’s carefully curated public outfits, harken back, according to fashion scholar Helen Sheumaker, “to a pre-feminist era of the twentieth century.”

As Trump doubled down on the more bigoted, xenophobic, and anti-Muslim of his beliefs during his campaign, Ivanka retrenched into inoffensive blandness. She’d never been more visible — or beige. Her social media following ballooned; demands for her to comment or otherwise decry her father grew incessant. But Ivanka stood the course. She told People, “I’m a daughter, not a clone,” explaining that she and her father sometimes disagreed. Just not in public — never in public. Because Ivanka only wields her power where no one can see it.

The day of the election, I wrote that we shouldn’t pity Ivanka — who some had argued would be sunk by her father’s humiliating projected loss — but fear her. She might be the “social liberal” among her father’s advisers, but her understanding of who deserves advocacy (namely, those who look, behave, and “know their place” like she does) is the same as her father’s. Her ostensible apoliticism is, in fact, the most dangerous sort of politics, cloaking its own power in the banal aesthetics of domesticity and femininity, outwardly professing, “I’m not part of this narrative,” even as her ubiquitous presence communicates just how much a part of it she is.

You can see this attitude in the images that dominate her social media — especially since January 29, when, against the backdrop of thousands of Americans protesting Trump’s travel ban, Ivanka posted a picture of her and Kushner dressed up for a black-tie event. That picture, in which Ivanka wears a shimmery silver dress, was swiftly paired with photos of young refugee children huddled in silver emergency blankets and comparisons to Marie Antoinette.

The photo was, as some put it, tone-deaf, out of touch — distasteful. And nothing is more off-brand for Ivanka than being in poor taste, which might explain why she’s become even more vigilant in the timing and content of her posts since then. Generally, Ivanka’s accounts — which are coordinated to post the same images and videos across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram — post about once a day. But after the silver dress, she posted just a single video over the course of the next week. That video, of her daughter, Arabella, singing a song for the Chinese New Year, is a subtle suggestion that of course Ivanka (and her family) loves other cultures! Her daughter speaks Putonghua! A language taught to her by her (never depicted) nannies! She’s still deflecting, but she’s now doing so at intervals that can’t be directly tied or contrasted to the material effects of her father’s policies.

When Donald Trump lashes out at the press, Ivanka posts a picture of him walking hand-in-hand with her children on the White House lawn. When Trump rescinds protections for trans children, she poses with her daughter on the steps of the Supreme Court. When Trump calls the media “the enemy of the people,” she posts pictures of her kids at their first monster truck rally. There are images of her and the president meeting with nongovernmental organizations to discuss the prevention of human trafficking, meeting with African-American entrepreneurs, and visiting Boeing in South Carolina.

But nothing that could be construed as objectionable, or even arguable: Who doesn’t want to stop human trafficking? Who really believes women don’t even “deserve a seat” (but maybe just one) at the table? Behind the scenes, she’s lobbying for a child care tax credit (that would primarily benefit the rich), but even that’s too controversial to promote. Call it effective social media management, or call it a precisely curated oscillation between the domestic and the political that softens any potential threat (or implicit power) of the latter.

In recent weeks, the White House’s acknowledgment (or lack thereof) of acts of rampant anti-Semitism has forced Ivanka’s hand, or at least forced her to break her silence. After the White House issued a statement that did not mention the word “Jew” or “Jewish,” Ivanka wrote a similarly ambiguous tweet: “America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship and religious centers.” There was no invocation of her own identity as a Jew, and in fact, no invocation of Jewishness at all — save the hashtag, #JCC, whose meaning, for most, would remain opaque.

It’s the same posture Ivanka holds when it comes to power, and her father, and her brand: The less she says, the better. Instead, she persistently refocuses her image: I’m a Trump, but I’m not that kind of Trump. I’m in the White House, but I’m just doing nice things. I’m working, but I know my place. I’m committed to my business, but I’d never do something as crass as go on cable television to defend it. Again: I’m seen, but I’m not heard.

Ivanka’s force field is composed of her innocuous image, her carefully cultivated figure, her children, and her silence. Together, they compose a particularly 21st-century propaganda aesthetic — one that attempts to blind us to the discrimination and destruction committed by her father and performed in the name of rebuilding America. That aesthetic, of course, also excuses Ivanka: Her social media is her plausible deniability, constructed with the same sort of precision as a criminal crafting an alibi. The question remains: Will historians of the future look to Ivanka’s digital footprint and excuse her...or look to her willful blindness and condemn her?

Update: A sentence of this essay related to Ivanka's public Jewish identity has been modified for clarification. See more here.

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