I’ve no doubt she thinks she is qualified. Politics is not really all that different from advertising, right? You promote handbags; you promote nice causes. Women entrepreneurs, friendship between nations, edgy earrings — whatever. These are all part of a lifestyle that everybody wants, and it’s a lifestyle that Ivanka Trump has been selling, for profit, for most of her life.
But when Trump appeared on a stage in Berlin this week, purportedly to discuss women in the workforce, she did not seem qualified. On the contrary, she provided a shocking reminder of the damage that the Trump lifestyle brand will do (and has already done) not just to America’s “image” but to America’s reputation as a serious country, even to America’s reputation as a democracy.
Why was she there at all? The other panelists — the Canadian foreign minister, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — raised no eyebrows because their official functions explain themselves. But Trump was there as “first daughter,” a notion that the moderator of the panel — another impressive woman, the editor of a business magazine — at one point asked her to explain. “The German audience is not that familiar with the concept,” she said. “ Who are you representing, your father as president of the United States, the American people or your business?”
Trump has enough media training to know what to deny. “Certainly not the latter,” she said quickly (only to contradict herself, a few moments later, by saying, as she is no doubt accustomed, “Speaking as an entrepreneur . . .”). But the question never got a real answer. As everyone in the room knew perfectly well, Trump was not on the panel because she is an entrepreneur, or because she represents the American people or even because she speaks for her father, which is far from clear. She was on the panel because Merkel, ever the pragmatist, realizes President Trump is not interested in history, ideas, policy or any of the other things that have long tied the United States to Germany. To maintain its deep political and economic relationship with this American administration, Germany therefore needs to be solicitous of Trump’s daughter.
There are sinister precedents here. Daughters have long been used cynically to “humanize” thuggish men. The president’s strategically meaningless but politically useful bombing raid on Syria was justified on the grounds that Ivanka Trump had seen pictures of dying children and prevailed upon his softened heart, as in a fairy tale, to do something. Sarah Kendzior has laid out the remarkable similarities between Trump and Gulnara Karimova, the Uzbek dictator’s daughter, a “cosmopolitan socialite who married into a powerful business family” before making her mark as a fashion designer. Like Trump, Karimova also masks “brutal practices under the pretext of a soft ‘feminism’ ” and styles herself an ideal modern woman.
But the real problem with Trump is not what she and her husband, Jared Kushner, contribute to the president’s “image,” but what their presence says about the culture of this White House. One of the things that distinguishes rule-of-law democracies from personalized dictatorships is their reliance on procedures, not individual whims, and on officials — experienced people, subject to public scrutiny and ethics laws — not the unsackable relatives of the leader. That distinction is now fading.
No ordinary public official would be allowed to dine with the leader of China, as Trump did, on the same day that China granted valuable trademarks to her company. No civil servant would be able to profit from the jewelry she advertises by wearing it on public occasions. Only in kleptocracies are sons-in-law with broad international business interests allowed to make foreign policy.
Yes, sure, “the Clintons did it” — and look how that turned out. First lady Hillary Clinton’s attempt to craft a health-care policy ended in fiasco largely because her mixed roles created hostility. Even though she acquired genuine legitimacy by being elected senator and serving as secretary of state, that hostility remained. The suspicion of nepotism haunted her throughout her career, and it probably cost her the presidency.
For all I know, Trump might really care about the lives of working women, though she has never demonstrated much interest in how they are treated at the factories that produce her products in China (so much for “America first”). But it makes no difference. When she plays with the role of public official as if she were trying on a new hat, she demeans the public servants who take their jobs seriously, who acquire them through expertise and competition, who work for salaries and obey ethics laws. The presence of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in the White House, particularly in a White House that has failed to nominate hundreds of senior officials, is a glaring symbol of democratic decline, and around the world it is already recognized as such.