Will an ideological rift between the President and his daughter eventually consume the White House?
It is a bitter irony that, in an effort to dismantle the presidential production line flowing from the Bush and Clinton households to the White House, the American people have handed power to the entire Trump family. Donald Trump is now the CEO of USA Plc. whose board members also include Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his daughter, Ivanka.
In effect, the distribution of power in American politics now resembles a medieval Italian dynasty, with a court of subjects posturing to win the ear of their patron and master. A fierce and relentless competition to sit in the lap of the President keeps the court focused (allegedly, there have already been clashes between Kushner and chief advisor Steve Bannon), while ritual purges of wavering disciples help to maintain loyalty. Mutterings about self-destructive policies are quashed without hesitation, and spectacular, Mexican-thwarting walls are planned, to hallow in bricks and mortar the divine legacy of the administration.
A modern equivalent might lie with House of Cards. The world-conquering US drama tracks a power-gripped couple as they flirt with death, deception and adultery (though only two of those are familiar to Trump, I assume) en route to the White House. The Underwoods use their duplicitous charm to cultivate a circle of faithful insiders, as they refine the art of emotional manipulation.
However, most family dynasties eventually descend into war, in fiction as in reality, typically when a high-ranking ally seeks to overthrow the power-bloated patriarch. Claire Underwood will topple her husband Frank (watch the British original, if you don’t believe me), Claudius, the Roman emperor, was allegedly killed by his own wife, and John Gotti, head of the Gambino crime family during the late 1980s, was dethroned by his own underboss, Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano.
And though Ivanka doesn’t possess the lethal cunning of a mafia hitman or an empress, the similarities between the First Daughter and the fictional First Lady, Claire Underwood, are striking. Whereas Melania Trump intends to detain herself in Trump Tower for the duration of her husband’s time in office, Ivanka has embraced her family’s newfound political prominence, and is a beacon of poise and composure in an otherwise vulgar and chaotic White House. Ivanka’s personal approval ratings exceed those of the President, mirroring the popularity of Claire in House of Cards. Many therefore live in hope that Ivanka will harness this popular admiration, and follow Claire’s example by attempting to unseat or, more realistically, confront the President.
But what would motivate such a Machiavellian move? After all, Ivanka clearly isn’t desperate for political power; she has only reluctantly accepted a (semi) formal role in the White House. More likely, the breaking point will be the ideological crevasse between Ivanka and her father. Indeed, Ivanka is an A-list member of the metropolitan New York elite – a group that Donald publically despises, even though he once aspired to membership. She hangs out with Chelsea Clinton and has launched a campaign to celebrate the lives of independent, working women. A graduate of Wharton Business School, Ivanka has encouraged her sons to embrace ‘the sides of their personality that have previously been considered more feminine’ and has joined her father’s team with a pledge to “advocate the economic empowerment of women”.
In contrast, Donald’s political agenda could have been written by an ageing rancher in the Rust Belt – an all-American stalwart who hides 1970s Playboy magazines in his mattress and only feels comfortable with a Remington shot gun slung listlessly over his shoulder. This man still views the Japanese with suspicion and believes in the sacredness of masculinity. Chiming with the intolerance of conservative America, Trump’s public, and private, comments about women have been crude at best and blatantly sexist at worst. If Megyn Kelly was attempting to make a political point by questioning Trump’s attitude towards women, Donald’s ugly response categorically proved her argument. While progressive gender reforms might be a top priority for Ivanka, they don’t even make Donald’s shortlist.
Despite all this, you could be forgiven for assuming that a mutual respect will endure between Ivanka and Donald. Their political relationship is only in its infancy, but there have been few murmurings of discontent. Ivanka has meticulously avoided disputing her father’s policies, amidst intense media attention. In fact, the President has deployed Ivanka in a shrewd and tactful way. He placed Ivanka at the forefront of meetings with Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel, during which the First Daughter forcefully advocated women’s rights. By parading the compassionate face of the administration, Donald was clearly attempting to soften the stance of liberal leaders. For the moment, Ivanka is effectively, and quite happily, Donald’s progressive proxy.
But this harmonious political relationship is merely the symptom of a nascent administration. As the First Daughter becomes more assured in her political surroundings, and as the President’s policies are executed across the country, the prospect of a family feud will loom over the White House. Indeed, there are early signs that Ivanka’s timidity might be waning. According to a diplomatic memo, Ivanka pressured her father to retaliate against a chemical attack by the Assad regime. The President was willing to discard his pledge to avoid military intervention in Syria. But what if Ivanka, emboldened by this success, challenges her father on a more internally divisive issue, such as abortion or environmental protection? Surely not even Donald Trump, the Han Solo of American politics, would be able to wriggle out of a conflict.
If Donald and Ivanka remain political allies, their relationship will be based upon pragmatism and family loyalty, rather than ideology. For, though they share a surname, Ivanka and Donald do not share the same political disposition. This even extends beyond gender issues, to economics and the future of technology. In an interview with Vogue in 2015, Ivanka described her vision of a modern economy, where life and work are indistinct; where people are able to instantly respond to client demands through their smartphones. Ivanka painted this economy as a new-age nirvana, especially for young mums who want to maintain a career whilst keeping up with childcare commitments. Her father is almost certainly in a different camp, having repeatedly warned against the infiltration of technology into daily life. In fact, according to a 2013 deposition, the President “very rarely” uses email, even despite his worrying Twitter addiction.
Family arguments about feminism and the benefits of technology happen on a daily basis across America. The amount of acrimony roused between the President and the First Daughter on these same issues will have a significant impact on the nation’s politics. And I am not the only individual to have reached this conclusion. Scarlet Johansson, who has conveniently found a passion for politics after the election, similarly views Ivanka as the lynchpin of the Trump administration. In a merciless sketch for Saturday Night Live, Johansson depicts Ivanka as a hollow feminist, unwilling to stand up to her father. Johansson attempts to bait her fellow New Yorker by saying: ‘well, if you’re such a great feminist, prove it’. In the short term, this is unlikely to drive a wedge between the President and his daughter. However, even if Ivanka stands behind her father, Johansson will have cast Ivanka as a political figure. And if Ivanka is typecast as a politician, if she realises her status and influence, she is more likely to clash with her father – with whom she disagrees politically – in the long run.
Of course, it is a bit disheartening that Scarlett Johansson is the foremost public opponent of the Trump administration. But that’s simply the new status quo: politics and show business are intermingled, inseparable. Experts are boring; career politicians practically toxic. Thus, the President can serve up cavalier threats against foreign enemies on a daily basis, because nothing can go wrong in show business, right?
The Trumps are the sultans of show business; they built an empire on the industry. But, beyond the media glare and the red-carpet treatment, politics is a different beast altogether. The White House is not Trump Tower, and foreign leaders are not contestants in some sort of cheap game show. What are the implications? Politics is partitioning the Trump family, in a way that show business never did. In its pre-political guise, the shared goal of the family was to accrue as much money and fame as possible. Trumps of all ages were happy to paddle in synchrony, through an ever-expanding pool of gold. However, now that vast political power rests in Donald’s tiny hands, not just the gaudy toys of the wealthy, family harmony is being tested.
A friend of Ivanka and Jared Kushner recently mused about the popularity of Ivanka. He told a privy journalist: “Her father is hated by half of America and loved by the other half. The half that love him love her. And the half that hate him love her, because she’s not him.” Ivanka is popular, perceptive and bordering on progressive. Once she seizes her opportunity to shape policy, the President will witness a threat emerging from within his own house. And, with that, Donald’s dynasty will surely lose its swagger.
Sam Bright is the Director of Backbench.