This past weekend, left-wing Twitter was enthralled by a short clip of Ivanka Trump attempting to insert herself into a conversation among French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May, International Monetary Fund president Christine Lagarde and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau while at the annual Group of 20 summit in Japan. The group appeared to be patiently tolerating Trump — at least, until the moment it became clear Lagarde could no longer contain her disdain for America’s first daughter. For a split second, viewers caught a look of utter contempt on Lagarde’s face. Her mouth quirked and she gave Trump a side-long glance, before she resumed a blank expression.
It was an incident straight out of a Victorian ballroom, a dowager putting the young, presumptuous and nouveau-riche upstart in her place. If the scene had taken place in an Edith Wharton novel, Trump’s reputation would never recover. In a William Makepeace Thackeray tome, her glad-handing would be just another bit of comical overreach on a path to ultimate success.
What it ultimately means for the real Ivanka Trump is still to be determined.
There seems to be little question that the first daughter wants something. As soon as Donald Trump was elected president, she began to insert herself into her father’s political orbit, joining in meetings with a world leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Argentinian President Mauricio Macri during the transition. While her brothers — Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. — remained in their roles with the family business, within a few months, Ivanka Trump instead took on a position as an unpaid special adviser to her father, joining husband Jared Kushner in the White House. Over the past 2½ years, despite having no discernible political qualifications, the younger Trump has taken meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, sat in for her father during a meeting of world leaders at the Group of 20 summit in 2017, and lobbied for and publicly promoted the Trump administration’s tax overhaul.
Many observers — including myself — quickly came to think of this as so much banana republic corruption. After all, almost immediately after her meeting with Xi, Ivanka Trump’s company received a number of trademarks from the Chinese government. She spent no small amount of time talking up a particular aspect of the tax reform, a real estate development tax break known as Opportunity Zones, one that, just coincidentally, benefited her husband, Kushner.
But Ivanka Trump’s clothing line is now defunct, likely a victim of falling sales as her father’s unpopularity made her business — based, as it was, in the “value” of the Trump family name and the perception that she was a tasteful exemplar of female ambition — increasingly unsustainable. Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s income decreased significantly from 2017 to 2018. The Trump Organization is experiencing its own financial woes, with bookings down at premier properties. The Trump name has seemingly become so toxic, in fact, it’s been taken off buildings in places from Panama to New York. As a business venture, the Trump presidency, if not quite a bust, is certainly not as promising as observers might have expected.
But as a means to amassing power — well, that’s another matter entirely. Here, the Trump family, once such a tabloid joke that HuffPost initially planned to cover the Trump presidential campaign as entertainment instead of politics, found amazing success, and not just in the sense that the patriarch captured the presidency. Donald Trump has so thoroughly conquered the party that congressional Republicans offer no check on the president, excusing everything from the Mueller report to more garden-variety corruption. Trump stands a decent chance of being elected to another term in 2020, and he is comfortable enough that he makes not-very-funny jokes about sticking around for more than eight years with increasing and disturbing frequency.
And whatever you may think of Ivanka Trump’s complicity in her father’s administration, or the amoral nature of her ambition, it would be a mistake to look only at her clothing line and write off her time as first daughter as a political failure. She has been careful not to overstep in ways that would leave her perilously exposed. Earlier this year, when her father openly floated naming her to the presidency of the World Bank, Ivanka Trump herself shot down the idea, while still telling reporters that she’d played a key role in the selection process. However ludicrous her claims in this regard may seem, she continues to portray herself as a champion of women, a lodestar for female entrepreneurs and other women who want to get ahead — causes with which few can quibble. And unlike her perpetually aggrieved brothers, the G-20 snubs didn’t deter Ivanka Trump one bit. She promptly accompanied her father to his historic meeting with North Korean despot Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone, attending meetings and crossing briefly into North Korea. She even spoke to troops at a U.S. air base in South Korea.
While many portray Ivanka Trump’s White House service as a part of her psychodrama with her father, there is another way to look at it. President Trump claimed earlier this year that if his older daughter “ever wanted to run for president, I think she’d be very, very hard to beat.” In his bestselling 2018 book “Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff claimed that Ivanka wanted to run for president one day, as did Emily Jane Fox in “Born Trump” and Vicky Ward in “Kushner, Inc.”
We need to take what is being reported about Ivanka Trump’s presidential ambitions seriously. I dare say that if there were multiple reports of a Trump son musing about a presidential run, we would have long since done just that. It’s easy to ridicule the first daughter, but Ivanka Trump appears to be an all-but-unstoppable force, impervious to snubs, ridicule and setbacks — all traits that are mighty helpful for a presidential run. That’s the thing about social comedies: It’s the smug dowagers who end up answering to the upstarts.