Ivanka Trump’s dress sleeves catch the wind during a women's empowerment event Wednesday at a police academy in Bogota, Colombia. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Columnist

Ivanka Trump descended upon Bogota, Colombia, this week to talk about women’s empowerment and left us talking about her sleeves. They were voluminous, bell-shaped swaths of green fabric. As the first daughter stood in solemn formation with the Colombian vice president, the sleeves caught a draft and attempted to launch themselves away from her body. Midair, they formed into perfect circles, and this became the hallmark photograph of the trip. Ivanka Trump from the neck up was on a mission of benign diplomacy. From the neck down, flying saucers.

It’s shallow to call attention to a minor clothing malfunction, but this viral sleeve image is what alerted many people to the fact that Ivanka Trump — who, after all, is not an elected official with a dedicated press corps — was in Latin America at all.

To understand exactly what she was doing there, your best hope was to follow the itinerary she unspooled on Instagram: She launched the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs, which, she said, was “designed to equip women with the practical skills they need to create sustainable businesses and to participate more fully in the global economy.” She participated in a wreath-laying ceremony. She met with Colombia’s president and vice president, and then she prepared to head to Argentina and Paraguay for more of the same.

Ivanka abroad seems to be Ivanka’s platonic ideal of herself: doing things that are considered patriotic but not overly political, important but not controversial, and personally on-brand. If you believe the rumors that Ivanka will run for office one day, you see her social media presence as fodder for a future campaign ad.

Four of her recent Instagram stories have been devoted to her encounters abroad with heads of state. On a trip to Africa earlier this year, she documented herself sitting with Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde. At the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, she name-checked a whirlwind of prime ministers. She went to South Korea and met the president; another photo in that series saw her slipping off to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.

President Trump’s deepest desires are primal and obvious: to be loved and worshiped. What his daughter wants has always been a little harder to pin down, but when she’s traveling abroad you see it plain: to be legitimate. To earn respect in a cohort composed not of the sycophants her father favors but of intellectual leaders. To fit in well enough that foreign dignitaries begin to think she really is one of the foremost experts the United States has to offer.

To be Ivanka abroad is to escape from the utter weirdness of this White House, with its rally chants and doctored weather charts, and instead give speeches to erudite diplomatic allies who are protocol-bound to nod and smile. Back home, her father is starting an online feud with an actress from “Will and Grace,” but Ivanka is in Colombia, praising the economic empowerment of female business owners, visiting a strawberry farm.

Occasionally, there are cracks in the facade.

In June, a deeply cringeworthy video was released by the French government. In it, French President Emmanuel Macron chatted with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; Theresa May, then British prime minister; and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde. And Ivanka — Ivanka was there, too, horning in on the conversation. She could be heard, in the 20-second clip, clumsily interjecting something about “male-dominated” industries.

In response, Macron looked away. May ignored the comment. Lagarde pursed her lips, and delivered what could only be described as baffled side-eye.

What had prompted her to think she needed to speak in that moment? What was she doing there at all?

Moments like this are useful, because they bring us back to reality. The reality of Ivanka is that she goes on these trips, and she meets these leaders, and she is smart and gracious, but she is not Theresa May. She is not Angela Merkel or Christine Lagarde; she is Ivanka Trump.

It’s always hard for me to figure out how, or whether, to criticize Ivanka Trump. She prompts withering hatred from her detractors, but focusing the hatred on specific charges is harder than one might think. At a surface level, she says the right things, she tweets the right things. Her causes are backed by good impulses — who doesn’t want economic opportunities for women in developing countries?

They are also, of course, backed by rampant nepotism: last month, the White House looked at canceling billions of dollars in foreign aid, but officials said Ivanka’s initiatives would not be affected.

Still, it’s easy to see how in normal times, the public might let that slide. In normal times, under a normal president, we might let his daughter have her projects and initiatives.

That, I’d argue, is everyone’s essential problem with Ivanka, even if they haven’t quite put their finger on it: She behaves as if we are in normal times. She behaves as if she is working in a normal administration. And she behaves as if her role is benign diplomacy, rather than what her role should be — acknowledging and fighting against the madness.

The work she wants to do internationally on behalf of women is laudable, but there are dozens of scholars and economists who could do it as well or better; nobody needs Ivanka’s specific brain on these matters.

What she could do — what only she could do — is act as a public check on the president of the United States. She could offer an informed, clear-eyed perspective on her father’s behaviors and fitness for office. She could publicly express with a daughter’s love and concern that, yes, it is really worrisome that the president keeps falsely insisting that Alabama is going to be hit by Hurricane Dorian. She could say, “Here’s what he’s doing that scares me.” She could say, “Look, here’s everything I know. I love my dad, but here’s everything I know.”

Would she be fired? Probably. Disinherited? Maybe.

But that’s where her value is. That’s her diplomatic mission. The one thing she could be doing to be taken seriously is the one thing she’s not doing.

Instead, while the president unleashes strange rants about “America’s Spying Apparatus,” and how Hurricane Dorian really was going to hit Alabama, Ivanka posts photos of herself hugging women in the strawberry field.

Instead, while migrant children are being traumatized at the U.S. border, the first daughter visited a camp for migrants on the border . . . of Colombia and Venezuela.

She is the single person on the planet whose public approval or disapproval of her father could possibly matter — to him or to his supporters.

If she wanted to be thought of as a serious person, as a hero rather than a passive villain or cipher, she could have impact where she actually could have unique, meaningful impact.

Instead, we’re left scrolling through pictures on her Instagram feed. And analyzing her flying dress sleeves. Which is the only visual preposterous enough to evoke the absurdity of it all.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.