It’s the night of the Tyson-Spinks fight: June 27, 1988. Twenty-two-thousand people crammed into the Atlantic City Convention Hall. Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Oprah Winfrey, Madonna — all the big shots. And someone else as well: little Ivanka Trump, 6 years old, with a bow in her hair and a ringside seat.
Why would anyone bring a little girl to a prizefight? This is a childhood constructed out of mores and experiences not immediately recognizable to most Americans as enriching for a young child, although they ultimately were — deeply enriching, in their strange way. It’s four years before Ms. magazine will invent Take Our Daughters to Work feminism, but the Trumps are way ahead of the game and Ivanka is in the middle of the revolution, her vivid memory of the night described in her 2009 book, The Trump Card. The fighters come out of their corners, the bell rings, and 90 seconds later Spinks is down, the referee counts — “Eight! Nine!” — and the biggest fight since the Thrilla in Manila is over before it begins.
The crowd has witnessed a historic event, but at the time the sentiments in the hall range from the angry (22,000 people feeling they’ve been cheated of a night’s entertainment) to the potentially violent (some percentage — including those with money on Spinks — feeling that the fight’s been fixed). Will there be a riot?
“My father hopped into the ring,” Ivanka recalls. “He was dressed impeccably in a classic power suit — a real ’80s look. I remember thinking he was so brave, so confident, so charismatic, trying to take control like that. I was just a little girl, but I was awestruck. I imagine it was a scary scene, but it never occurred to me to feel afraid because my father was there, taking charge.”
It’s all there, the same themes that have become familiar: the crowd of people feeling ripped off; the Trumpian certainty that a huge number of angry people presents an opportunity that can be capitalized upon by the right kind of leader; the unapologetic vulgarity of a big fight; the undercurrent of gambling and big money quietly changing hands. But most familiar of all — down there by the canvas, in her hair ribbon and party dress — the little girl who thinks her father is the greatest man who ever lived.
It’s not unusual for a 6-year-old child to see her father as perfect, the measure of a man. What is unusual is for those sentiments to withstand adolescence, young adulthood, independence, and the beginning of married and family life. Malia Obama has been seen giving her father the occasional eye roll. Chelsea Clinton looked like the oldest 18-year-old in history when she walked her disgraced parents across the White House lawn to Marine One. Julie Nixon looks like Sylvia Plath compared to Ivanka Trump.
Ivanka Trump and her father have a very interesting relationship.
What we have in this embattled, increasingly embittered, and endlessly resourceful First Daughter is someone who made a pact with herself long ago that she would never, ever, lose her father’s attention. After the divorce, Ivanka made a study of keeping her father fully engaged with her, and now she remains the one woman in the world with whom Donald Trump hasn’t slowly fallen out of love.
Up to now, that’s been a deal that has yielded only golden results. Successful careers in modeling, television, construction, hotel management, fashion — all have been the rich rewards of being her father’s favorite child, his favorite person. Only now, by placing herself at the center of his grotesque campaign and presidency, has the cost of this unblemished devotion seemed higher than its potential rewards.
Ivanka Trump has put all her markers on her father’s success, as she always has. But like Michael Spinks in 1988, this time she’s leading with her chin.
She’s said she’s working on behalf of “women’s empowerment,” but she’s proudly part of an administration that wants to defund Planned Parenthood. She’s released a new book (Women Who Work, meant to position her as the millennials’ Sheryl Sandberg) without getting approval from the inspirational women she’s quoted, so she’s been treated to the rich humiliations of some of them — from Jane Goodall to Reshma Saujani — letting her know what they think of the Trump agenda. And she’s provided an unending hymn of praise to the man who has single-handedly revived and unified even the most far-flung and previously marginalized factions of the feminist left in a galvanizing shared hatred of him. The old tricks — the ravishing smile, the glowing Instagram account, the spot-on television performances — fail to enchant. Manhattan, the city of her birth, voted against her father by a margin of nine to one. Washington, her new home, spurned him at a rate of 23 to one. She has traded a deep reservoir of goodwill (she was respected and even loved in the circles she traveled in before the campaign, from Choate to Penn to the New York of her adulthood) for a daily punishing blast of derision, taunts, and hatred.
But long ago she made a decision, one befitting a Tudor or a Gotti: She would make it her mission to “preserve and protect the family name and reputation.” She is Jerry Maguire, every day on an “up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege,” and she is the Jeanne d’Arc of her own imagining: “I am not afraid; I was born to do this.”
And so, at this moment, Ivanka Trump is quivering on the precipice of two related but distinct identities. On the one hand, she is rapidly crossing the border that separates simple fame from its platinum club. She is on the verge of becoming an international lifestyle celebrity of an order not seen since the high days of Princess Diana. She regularly shares the photogenic details of her “curated” life (curated being an important word to her, along with connectivity), her beautiful children and attractive husband on rich display in the beautiful houses in which they spend their time.
Here’s what happened when we asked working moms to react to Ivanka Trump’s new book about being a working mother.
She is forever meeting with heads of state and other dignitaries, sometimes at the White House and sometimes at Mar-a-Lago, where newcomers look around in awe and she relaxes in the Balmoral of her own childhood, sitting at the long dining-room table with the gold-handled knives and forks and the heavily embroidered tablecloths, while somewhere out in the darkness, warm water laps at the white beach of a thousand suntans and sand castles. To millions of young Chinese women, she is regarded as a goddess.
On the other hand — and this is what it’s like to be an international lifestyle celebrity on the order of a Princess Diana, but with the behind-the-scenes political power of an Imelda Marcos — she is becoming something she has never been in her life: deeply, personally, and venomously loathed. To sit in a family mansion with gold-handled forks while your father proposes cuts to a federal food program for women, infants, and children is, at best, a complicated message. It’s one thing to be a billionaire’s lucky and hardworking daughter doing her best to increase the family holdings; it’s another to be such a person working to subtract from the poor some of the few things they have — and thus the excoriating press that wounds and angers her.
I. Prisoner of Childhood
“They’ve grown apart,” Ivanka Trump writes wistfully of her parents in The Trump Card. Donald and Ivana Trump grew apart the way Harry Truman and Emperor Hirohito grew apart. BEST SEX I’VE EVER HAD, said the New York Post headline, across a picture of a very-satisfied-looking Donald — which seemed believable. But when you opened up the paper and found out that it was actually Marla Maples who had made the astonishing claim, you knew this woman was playing for keeps. The divorce hit all of the high notes: Ivana accused Donald of marital rape and took the kids to Mar-a-Lago to escape the vicious press and (one assumed) stake a claim to the palace she loved so well. Marla couldn’t keep her mouth shut: “Now he calls his beach house Marla Lago.”
Before the Florida escape plan, 9-year-old Ivanka walked past a newsstand and saw the blaring headline love on the rocks over a picture of her parents: “Right there, for all the world to see … it was devastating, mortifying, violating to see an intensely private matter on display in such a weirdly public way.” She could no longer walk to school because reporters were camped out along all of her usual routes; one asked her if Marla’s claims were true, another asked whom she would live with after the divorce. Her brother Donald Jr. stopped talking to her father for a year.
All was in ruins. And so Ivanka did something that many young children of ugly divorces do: She set about rewriting the facts of the case in her own mind, transforming cruelties into a beautiful story. She became the Pangloss of the fifth grade. The divorce was a good thing because it “brought me closer to my father,” made her realize “I could no longer take him for granted.” After her parents split up, she “went down to see him every morning before school, and I also started dropping by his office on my way home in the afternoon. Just to say hello. In no hurry to get back to whatever I’d been doing, because nothing was more important.” At school, she would slip into a janitors’ closet where there was a pay phone and call his office collect. He would always take the call, and whoever was in there — celebrity, vendor, reporter, politician — he would put her on speakerphone, proud of the devotion of this beautiful child.
And she sat in her pale-lilac bedroom in Trump Tower and memorized the names of all the important apartment buildings — the San Remo, the Majestic, the Eldorado, the Dakota — and who lived in them and what they had paid. The names were an incantation, a way of proving her love for her father who loved real estate. She told herself the story of her parents meeting as though it had been a grand romance. When young Donald Trump saw a group of models — including 27-year-old Ivana Zelnícková — looking for a table at Maxwell’s Plum, he flagged them over to sit with him, a sign of his “old-fashioned sense of chivalry.” It was a “chance, storybook meeting.” Meeting models at Maxwell’s Plum and cramming them around your table tended, in the late 1970s, to be not a chance meeting but a solid plan — but little girls like to dream about the way their parents met, and this is Ivanka’s dream. The perfect couple who had merely grown apart; the family bond that had only strengthened because of it.
The years passed, her father eventually remarried — Marla: that destroyer, that font of black magic — and (like a wife enduring a husband’s affair) Ivanka never complained or accused, she patiently waited and she triumphed. Once, during his brief second marriage, father and daughter sat together in their private plane on a New York runway, ready to take off to Florida, but Marla Maples was nowhere to be found. They watched as her car screeched onto the runway and she emerged from it “all frantic and frazzled,” racing for the plane, and at that very moment, Donald gave the pilot the go-ahead to take off, and they rose high, high above the desperate, vanishing woman on the tarmac. That has been the life: In the end it is always Donald and Ivanka lifting up together into the bright, thin air of their private understanding.
II. The Weirdness
Let us now regard — as through a glass darkly — the sexual charge that seems to exist between Donald and his daughter, the one that has been freaking all of us out for a decade-plus.
More specifically, it’s a one-way sexual charge, the lecherous old man making sexual comments about his daughter while she shrugs them off good-naturedly as part of the package. At a certain point, women who worked in offices decided they were sick of the unending sexual comments from boorish colleagues, and the world changed. Not so Ivanka; she just smiles when her father tells Wendy Williams in a 2013 interview that the thing he has in common with his older daughter is “sex.”
Donald Trump is a man incapable of euphemism, which is what our national obsession with the family romance demands. We are a country of father-daughter dances, the growing trend of “daddy-daughter date night” (Ivanka’s 5-year-old daughter recently enjoyed a “date with Dad” at a Nationals game, per her mother’s Instagram account), and the expectation that the father of the bride will turn in a performance based on the gentle melancholy of losing his best girl. All of this involves deeply sublimated emotions, but Donald Trump is incapable of repression, so we are treated to his discussing Ivanka’s breasts with Howard Stern and telling the host that it’s okay to call his daughter a “piece of ass.”
Ivanka never, ever, talks about her father this way. But she is quick to heap praise on his masculinity in a manner not typically associated with daughters. She has hailed his “strength” and “stamina,” called his personal style “big, bold, luxurious, and daring,” and championed his “winning, vibrant, upmarket persona.” When he unleashed missiles on Syria, she felt “proud.”
The president doesn’t see his daughter in only sexual terms, of course. He has genuine respect and pride for her intellect and business skill, her smooth ability to mix with people of all social classes at rallies, meetings, and the mansions of the superrich. Here is Chapin and Choate; here is the corrective to military school and Queens, to ringing doorbells and collecting rents. His sons would eventually appear on The Apprentice, too — but who remembers them? God’s greatest gift to those two is their ability to blend into crowds, their appearance of being two more harried frequent fliers trying to upgrade to Economy Plus. It’s Ivanka — her thrillingly low voice and her father’s delight in her — who lingers. This is the person he will always listen to; this is the person whose ideas are always based in the sentimental education of her own upbringing.
But the real weirdness is the actual nature of their impenetrable bond, which is too vivid to be marital and too enduring to be erotic, despite his big talk. At her father’s side, Ivanka is a sort of human luxury brand, with her pale makeup and sleek golden hair, her expensive clothes and stiletto heels, her understated jewelry and her stilted, careful way of speaking. Her father stammers away, trying to find the right word and then giving up: “Jared is terrific, he’s … he’s … Jared is terrific!” Daughter pauses, scrolls through her private lexicon, and comes up with a slightly pumped-up version of the right word. She is never “aware” of something; she is “cognizant” of it. Nothing is “unusual”; it is always “unique.” Imagine how impressive this broad command of big-league words would seem to you if you could never manage to locate and deploy the right one yourself. To him, she is a kind of miracle.
They are somehow essential to one another. Melania can dawdle in New York waiting for her son to finish the school year. Ivanka had all three of her children relocated, and the eldest enrolled at a new kindergarten as soon as her father arrived in Washington. What would be the point of winning this tremendous “opportunity” if Ivanka were not there to witness and take advantage of it? Sometimes, she seems not just essential to his idea of being president; sometimes, she seems the point of his being president.
III. The Hustle
Ivanka Trump was born rich, had an interlude of being the daughter of a man astronomically in debt, became an heiress once again, and then married a rich man with a family fortune. But she has never once been a slacker. From the time her grandfather dangled a silver dollar in front of her and then snatched it away until she found a way to earn it, she has worked and worked and worked. When she began to make money modeling as a high-school student, her mother said that if she wanted to travel beside her in first class, she’d have to pay for the upgrade. When she wanted to open a lemonade stand, she had to pay back “the house” for the ingredients before taking any profits. At the family’s Greenwich mansion, she helped her brothers run a short con on their playmates, seeding the grounds with fake Indian arrowheads, pretending to discover them, and selling them for five bucks apiece.
She is the daughter of a woman who grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and who was reborn to American capitalism. During her ’80s reign as a Trump Organization executive vice-president, Ivana returned to a midtown construction site 48 hours after giving birth. (“Busting balls,” an ironworker on the project remembered, respectfully, many years later.) And Ivanka is also the daughter of a man deeply influenced by the teachings of Norman Vincent Peale, which are essentially those of The Secret, except that putting in 12-hour days instead of creating vision boards is all that’s necessary to “manifest” a great dream. Ivanka has always maintained that — as a result of these values — she will outwork anyone on a project.
These are the things she knew her father admired: hard work, a perfect physical presentation, excellent grades earned at fancy schools, and mental and emotional toughness. For women, he also preferred a charm-school command of classy manners — after his first lunch with his current pastor, Paula White, she suddenly felt compelled to take a course in “etiquette.” Ivanka delivered all those things, and most of all she delivered hard work. She graduated cum laude at Wharton, and as a young professional, she was known not for her hard partying but for her work ethic.
When Donald Trump brought steaks, bottled water, and wine all bearing the Trump name to a campaign event last year, he made one thing clear: He did not consider the gravity of presidential aspirations to be inconsistent with the promotion of small-ticket consumer goods. Similarly, Ivanka has seen no need to stop selling the shoes, handbags, and clothing that bear her own name simply because she is now employed in the White House. It would have been child’s play to close down the relatively small, eponymous brand until after her governmental duties are over — the company has only 20 employees; not many people would be hurt. But Trumps never back down, they are always selling, and they will always press every advantage.
To understand the ways in which she is in full compliance with the Standards of Ethical Conduct established by the Office of Government Ethics is not so much to be disappointed by the low bar set by the OGE as it is to realize how unprepared this outfit was for the Trump Imperative. How could these civil servants have imagined a hugely famous federal employee with her own White House office and untrammeled access to the president who would want to continue profiting from the sale of earrings and sandals and sports bras? Those suckers didn’t see this coming.
Ivanka regularly wears or carries items from her brand while exercising her official duties: the Fit and Flare Midi Dress to a day’s work at the White House; the Mara Cocktail Bag in Midnight Velvet to dinner with the Japanese prime minister; the Carra Pump to International Women’s Day festivities. Photographs travel around the world; the media quickly identify the products and sometimes even provide links to online vendors. The title of her new book, Women Who Work, will be richly familiar to longtime customers of her brand: The phrase was the result of an intense marketing project and was the animating idea behind the brand; the site featured content related to the phrase, which Ivanka — with forgivable exaggeration — says became “a movement,” one that seems to be a response to the legitimate one started by Sheryl Sandberg with Lean In. What Ivanka provides is not new information about women and work but rather a cleverly conceived array of merchandise to accompany the concept. By not following up a big idea with its obvious marketplace implications, Sandberg had committed the ultimate Trump sin: She left money on the table.
IV. The Amateur
When Ivanka graduated from college and briefly went to work at Forest City Enterprises, she was so nervous about being late on the first day that she arrived two hours before the start of business. Her first project involved the construction of a shopping center, so she enrolled in a night class on engineering at NYU. Her ideal late-night activity is catching up on her emails. She’s a quick study, a perfectionist, and a person who dislikes being surprised in public by something she doesn’t know.
You can get through a lot of careers that way, backfilling any gaps with cram courses conducted out of sight of your colleagues and faking your way through the rest until you know what you’re doing. But the skills she learned in the business world — that everything is a negotiation and that everyone has a price — don’t always apply in Washington.
As per family custom, Trump gave his child a huge job with the assumption that she would — by dint of her intelligence, perseverance, and Trumpian specialness — quickly excel in it. But her current assignment, which seems to be squaring his various anti-woman policies with the hopes and aspirations of millions of actual women — many of them super-pissed-off — is a mission doomed to failure. Empower women but support a man who wants to cut millions of them off not just from abortion but from contraception? Good luck.
Gamely enough, however, Ivanka invited Cecile Richards, who is the powerful head of Planned Parenthood, to a private meeting. Ivanka had arrived at a brilliant solution for the administration’s opposition to Planned Parenthood, which is mostly opposition to 3 percent of its services: abortion (not even funded by federal dollars, as it stands). What Planned Parenthood could do is open separate abortion clinics, perhaps rebranded with a new name, next door to its existing clinics, according to one person familiar with Ivanka’s thinking on the issue. The new, separate abortion facilities could be funded with private money, the main clinics with the $500 million in federal money that is currently in contention.
Was there no one around to tell Ivanka that the one enemy a women’s-empowerment advocate doesn’t want to make right out of the gate is Cecile Richards? No one to tell her that Planned Parenthood is as likely to give up its abortion services as it is to get into the automotive business?
“Her portfolio is women’s issues,” Richards told Cosmopolitan. “And for the first three months of this administration, women have seen an unrelenting attack on every fundamental right that we’ve achieved, and particularly that we’ve achieved over the last eight years in getting equity and health-care access.”
That Ivanka would imagine that the vast, deeply political problem of abortion and Planned Parenthood could be simply solved with a clever bit of rebranding hints at why she’s having such a hard time in Washington and why it’s not likely to get better for her anytime soon. In her White House office, as in much of the West Wing, it’s amateur hour. She says she is establishing a charitable fund meant to solicit donations from corporations and countries in the name of women’s entrepreneurial empowerment, one that is as fraught with potential conflicts of interest as the Clintons’ foundation — but she’s doing it while still employed in the White House. She’s announced that a portion of her book’s proceeds — up to $200,000 — will go to charity, leading everyone to wonder who’s getting the rest of the money from the book she’s officially not promoting but constantly highlighting on her social-media feeds. She continually tells people that she’s still “learning” how Washington works, but this isn’t seventh-grade civics, it’s the West Wing of the White House, where she seems to have some incalculable amount of power, and where protecting the Trump brand — and her father’s legacy, which will surely affect, in turn, the value of the Trump brand in future decades — seems as important to her as working in the nation’s service.
V. Women Who Work
The number of women who write book reviews for mainstream publications and who voted for Donald Trump is — unless someone’s been fibbing at Write Club — zero. Thus Ivanka’s new book is currently recognized as a crime against humanity registering somewhere between The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and The Total Woman. However, if her father had not gone into politics, it would never have come to the attention of book-review editors, would have found its rightful audience via a media blitz by its telegenic and aspirational author, and would have been brought home to teenage daughters interested in “business” by supportive moms who saw it on the table at Costco and thought, Brittany would like this.
Brittany would have been in no way harmed by this pretty little book, would perhaps have learned several important truths about working in corporate America that she might not have learned elsewhere. Inter alia, she would have learned that women must learn to do something men are much more likely to do: negotiate starting salaries and every single raise along the way — and how to do those things. She would similarly have learned how to conduct herself in a job interview, how to treat people she works with, how to hire new employees, and how to use hard work to outshine more pedigreed colleagues. This isn’t Harvard Business School — it was an impulse purchase at Costco, and Brittany and Mom have probably come out ahead on this particular transaction.
But, of course, Women Who Work was published when Ivanka was shaping up to be one of the most powerful people in a suddenly more dangerous world, and so book-review editors rightly seized on it with understandable zeal. Writers waited eagerly for the moment the book was officially published so their reviews could tell the truth about the author and her beliefs on women. “Ivanka Trump Wrote a Painfully Oblivious Book for Basically No One” was the title of a review on newyorker.com, and there it was, the present American political equation reduced to its purest expression: To the tastemakers of New York and Los Angeles, Brittany is basically no one. Pay no attention to the book’s debut at No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list; this is a nothing book for nobodies.
Is there anything more bewildering, infuriating, outrageous to the coastal elite than the untroubled devotion that so many lower-middle-class Americans — the very ones most likely to be hurt, or at the very least not helped, by many of the president’s signal proposals — have to the Trump operation? What the elite fail to grasp is that between the common man and the golden Trumps there is a kind of perfect understanding. It’s the kind of understanding that George Orwell described in “The English People,” regarding the profound devotion to their monarch expressed by slum London at the time of the Silver Jubilee of King George V: It was possible to see in it “the survival, or recrudescence, of an idea almost as old as history, the idea of the King and the common people being in a sort of alliance against the upper classes.”
Diana, it was decided, in a brilliant phrase coined almost on the spot by Tony Blair, the morning after she was killed, was “the people’s princess.” Ivanka is a different kind of people’s princess. She wears couture gowns of staggering cost, but she sells shoes that a bank teller can afford on a splurge. Like many of her fans — and like Diana — she is the daughter of a messy divorce, but she has found a way to rewrite that unlovely story into one of unbroken father-daughter devotion. She admits occasionally to the reality of skillful nannies, but she sends out pictures and videos of herself with her adorable kids so you know that she’s a mom, one of us. She advances the kind of Spanx feminism that crosses the political divide and that can unite even the pro-choice and the pro-life: feminism as a fashion to be worn, as a consumer need that should be met by a canny entrepreneur, as the belief that a woman really can do anything because all that is required is the right attitude and the right giant handbag. She has probably never in her life had to visit a Planned Parenthood or sit on a phone for hours fighting with a health-insurance company, never lived in the income bracket that won’t be much helped by her proposed child-care tax credit — nor would her fans want her to have experienced any of these things. They haven’t fallen in love with a nobody, after all.
Like a princess, Ivanka devotes herself to the needs of a waning king. He is Lear — “All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience” — but Lear with only one relevant daughter, and to her has fallen the task of keeping his terrifying impatience from destroying not just their shared empire but the world itself. He is strangely dependent on her now. And so are we.
*This article appears in the May 15, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.