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18 November 2016

How Ivanka, the new first daughter, sold the Trump brand to women

She was nicknamed Trump’s “secret weapon”; now she's on her father's transition team. Yet campaign observers have questions about Ivanka Trump.

By Helen Lewis

In May 1996, Donald Trump, then almost 50, posed for a photograph with his 14-year-old daughter, Ivanka, who was dressed in a blue miniskirt and a vest top. She sat on her father’s knee. His arm was around her waist, and she gazed at him adoringly.

In the years that followed, many versions of this picture have appeared. Ivanka on her father’s arm heading off to a New York society party. Ivanka and Donald announcing a hotel that they were building in Soho, New York. Ivanka, now executive vice-president of development and acquisitions of the Trump Organisation, at Dad’s right hand on his reality-TV show The Apprentice.

Then came the 2016 election campaign and she stood beside him at rallies, as poised and elegant as he was rambling and uncouth. When Trump won the South Carolina primary in February, he patted her pregnant stomach as he was giving his victory speech. (She gave birth to her third child, Theodore, in March.) She was there again on election night, glacially cool in powder-blue Alexander McQueen. This was a small surprise: on the campaign trail, she had often modelled her own clothing range, which is notable both for its relative affordability (about $150 for a dress) and the image it projects. Unlike her father’s often garish Trump-branded products – his fragrances are called Success and Empire – Ivanka’s range of sheath dresses is sober and restrained, if unflattering to anyone shorter or wider than its creator.

In March she was nicknamed Trump’s “secret weapon” and “the anti-Donald”. Undecided voters alienated by Trump’s racism and misogyny seemed to relate to her softer, less aggressive brand. BuzzFeed identified a type of female “Ivanka voter”, who found Hillary Clinton’s bluestocking feminism unappealing compared to Ivanka’s more ladylike style. “If Trump produced someone that classy, that’s a testament to something,” one woman said.

In August, Trump was asked which women he would appoint to his cabinet. He could think of only one name. “Well, we have so many different ones to choose,” he told a TV host in Florida. “I can tell you everybody would say, ‘Put Ivanka in, put Ivanka in.’”

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Unfortunately, Ivanka says that she will not serve, but she – together with two of her brothers and her husband – are on Trump’s transition team.

The new first daughter’s ability to withstand a media onslaught can be traced to 1990, when her mother, Ivana, divorced Donald Trump, citing his “cruel and inhuman” treatment. The tabloid interest helped Ivanka to “build up a certain callousness”, as she told GQ in 2007. The photographers outside her school taught her “not to trust anyone”.

After graduating with a degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania, she worked as a model, and in 2005 she began a relationship with Jared Kushner, a millionaire property developer and the owner of the New York Observer. Kushner’s father, Charles, is a Democratic Party donor who in 2004 was sentenced to two years in jail for crimes including submitting false campaign finance reports and tax returns.

Ivanka converted to Orthodox Judaism before her wedding to Jared. In 2015 she told a reporter that they kept Sabbath, refusing to work and spending time with each other.

Yet the demands of the campaign overwhelmed those of religion, and Kushner was one of the advisers who gathered at Trump Tower in Manhattan on Saturday 8 October to discuss the hot-mike moment in which the candidate boasted about grabbing women “by the pussy”. Ivanka was not present. The next day, CNN uncovered audio from 2004 of her father telling the shock jock Howard Stern that it was OK to call her a “piece of ass” and, a couple of years later, denying that she had breast implants. “She’s actually always been very voluptuous,” he added, helpfully.

Campaign observers have asked how Ivanka could square her liberalism (she is friends with Chelsea Clinton; their husbands introduced them) with her father’s views. Others have wondered how she and Kushner feel about the anti-Semitism unleashed by Trump supporters on Twitter, or the troubling tropes about “global special interests” used in his final campaign advert together with pictures of prominent Jews. Stephen Bannon, Donald Trump’s campaign chief and now his director of strategy, has been accused of allowing his old website Breitbart News to run anti-Semitic posts.

In private, who knows what Ivanka and her husband have said to her father? She is reputedly his favourite child, and the president-elect has sought his son-in-law’s opinion many times. Yet, in public, there is silence. For the Trumps, family comes first. 

This article appears in the 16 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world