Before the presidential campaign and election, Ivanka Trump self-identified and was perceived as a businesswoman passionate about women’s empowerment. You’d have been hard-pressed to hear someone speak negatively about her, with words such as lovely, hard-working, self-directed and genuine typical descriptives.
And then, Dad ran for president and won.
Throughout and after the election, and especially since her role in the Trump administration shifted from merely “daughter,” as she said she initially intended, to G-20 Summit-attending formal adviser, Ivanka has taken her hits, critics questioning not only her qualifications but also her motives and her silence in light of various presidential outbursts. Following President Trump’s shocking equal assignation of “blame on both sides” when white supremacists, many brandishing swastikas, stormed Charlottesville, Va., to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the criticism escalated exponentially, with many wondering, how could Ivanka not speak out?
Whether or not she knew just what she was getting into in accepting her White House role, surely Ivanka knows her father, and she is accustomed to life in shared spotlights, his and her own. Though thrust into the former as a child when her parents’ public marital woes made for tabloid grist, she chose the latter early on. An adolescent flirtation with modeling crossed over to television; at 15, she cohosted the Trump-owned Miss Teen USA Pageant. After college, she joined the family business off-camera, brokering real estate deals, and on-screen, as a twentysomething dispensing advice and admonishments to business aspirants on “The Apprentice.” From the start, she emanated savvy composure.
To her credit, the celebrity ride on Dad’s coattails proved an insufficient challenge for Ivanka’s intelligence and drive. In 2007, she launched a fine-jewelry company that targeted women not as recipients of jewelry gifted by men, but as jewelry buyers themselves. This led to the Ivanka Trump fashion lifestyle brand targeting Millennial women with accessibly priced clothes and accessories and, on its web site, a bounty of content under the verticals Style, Work, Home, Play, Travel and Wise Words. The last features feel-good bon mots in graphic renderings resembling college-dorm posters, some the pith of famous people (“The biggest adventure you can ever take is to live your dreams.” — Oprah Winfrey) and others apparently generated in-house and unsigned, but for @IvankaTrumpHQ (“Challenge yourself always”).
Ivanka has recused herself from all involvement with the company while working for the administration. Still, her aura remains dominant. The web site notes that in addition to selling merch, Ivanka identified “an opportunity to make a broader impact for her customers” and sought “to evolve the company into a solution-oriented lifestyle brand, dedicated to the mission of inspiring and empowering women to create the lives they want to lead.” Everything about the woman and her brand emanated that singular message.
Ivanka structured her interest in women’s empowerment into policy positions during the campaign, and thus arrived in Washington, D.C., with a meticulously branded professional persona. That’s not a criticism. Branding is what companies do; fashion is obsessed with it. Unless otherwise proven, why shouldn’t we accept that the Ivanka Trump brand is the business personification of its founder’s genuinely held beliefs?
The problem for Ivanka is one of perception, and how her belief system, variously stated and implied, is perceived as dovetailing with or diverging from her father’s more outrageous comments. In his first press conference after the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Trump decried “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” making no distinction between the white supremacists and neo-Nazis and those who opposed them. That was on Aug. 12. The next day Ivanka tweeted, “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazis.” Otherwise — save for a congratulatory shout-out to Hope Hicks — she’s been silent since the mayhem, even as the President doubled down on blaming “both sides” in Aug. 14’s follow-up press conference.
Some critics have suggested that as observant Jews, Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner have a responsibility to speak out against the neo-Nazi outrage, a distinction that seems remarkably beside the point. The couple’s personal religious beliefs and practices shouldn’t have anything to do with it. Jew, fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, atheist, Wiccan — every American should view the venom spewed in Virginia last weekend as reprehensible and antithetical to American core values and principles. Even a fashion writer knows that.
As do fashion consumers and the retailers they frequent — some of whom have long memories. Ivanka has been cast as the administration’s modernist, moral guardian; her silence now could have post-political pragmatic fallout. When the Trump presidency is over and he himself has retired to Fifth Avenue, Mar-a-Lago or New Jersey, Ivanka will still be young and of peak working age. One assumes she will want to return to the company she founded. Will there be a company to return to? How much paternal controversy can her brand withstand? Will her consumer base remain faithful? Her retail partners? Though to my knowledge no retailers have gone on record as dropping the brand in direct response to controversial administration positions, in February, Nordstrom did so, citing performance issues, and other retailers have reportedly similarly eliminated or cut back on it.
When does Ivanka Trump, presidential adviser, cry uncle over Dad in the interests of preserving the future for Ivanka Trump, businesswoman?
If Ivanka’s White House role is as a tempering force on the President’s more outrageous tendencies, it’s not working. As the American public is not privy to their private conversations, and given Ivanka’s typical silence through moments of extreme volatility, the logical conclusion is that she stands in solidarity with her father on these issues. It very well may be the wrong conclusion, but it’s the most logical, and one that could come back to bite when she wants to reestablish herself as a forward-thinking, mainstream businesswoman. When she has spoken out, as when she tweeted support for the LGBTQ community a month before her father imposed a ban on transgender individuals in the military, she’s been accused of hypocrisy.
So what’s an advising daughter to do?
In April, Ivanka told CBS’ Gayle King that, despite her initial post-election intention, “I realized that having one foot in and one foot out wouldn’t work.” She got that one right. Fair or not, Ivanka is perceived as all in. If only for the sake of her own professional future, she should consider getting all out.