reading the signs

Ivanka’s Wall of Silence

Where is the pastel-clad cipher of the Trump administration right now?

Photo: © 2019 Bloomberg Finance/Getty Images
Photo: © 2019 Bloomberg Finance/Getty Images
Photo: © 2019 Bloomberg Finance/Getty Images

Where is Ivanka Trump right now? We know where her husband, Jared Kushner, is: The president just put him in charge of his famous, promised “Wall” project. But Ivanka has been even less present, less audible than usual.

In the past few weeks, she has popped up in the news a few times, mainly as a vessel for the words of others: quoting Jefferson and misquoting de Tocqueville on Twitter, being praised by her father for somehow “creating 14 million jobs.” She’s not missing, exactly, but she’s not quite there, either.

Ivanka’s muteness, the air of mystery around her (what does she do all day?), is the key to her function within the White House. Hers is a symbolic, instructional role: She perpetuates Trump’s power by instructing us — tacitly — in the desired response to this administration.

Ivanka Trump has always been the eerily calm eye of the hurricane that is her father and his presidency. While he rants, she speaks softly and politely. He calls women dogs or pigs; she utters the soothing bromides of corporate feminism (her last book a paean to “Women Who Work”). Physically, she is his inverse. His badly dyed comb-over flaps in the breeze; her expensive blonde hair is ironed into sleek submission. His undisciplined flesh strains his Brioni seams; her Pilatified figure zips perfectly into pastel sheaths. She is Beauty to his Beast, restraint to his abandon.

From left: Ivanka in pink in the Ivory Coast in April 2019 Photo: Copyright (c) 2019 Shutterstock. Ivanka with her father at the G20 summit this past June. Photo: Getty Images
From left: Ivanka in pink in the Ivory Coast in April 2019 Photo: Copyright (c) 2019 Shutterstock. Ivanka with her father at the G20 summit this past ... From left: Ivanka in pink in the Ivory Coast in April 2019 Photo: Copyright (c) 2019 Shutterstock. Ivanka with her father at the G20 summit this past June. Photo: Getty Images

Once, long ago, we thought we knew Ivanka’s purpose: She was to be the Trump whisperer, on scene to talk her father down from the rafters. Ivanka reassured — albeit in contradictory ways. For some, she conjured the ghost of the Trump family past, when the clan were Democratic, socially liberal New Yorkers (back when Bill and Hillary Clinton were guests at Donald and Melania’s wedding). For others, say, moderate Republicans, Ivanka conjured the ghost of a Trump family future, the faint promise of dynastic succession, when a 40-something Ivanka — calmer and more reasonable than her father — might succeed him in the Oval Office.

But things are different now. I think we can agree that Ivanka has had no moderating effect whatsoever on her father (does she even try?), and Trump’s presidency may well self-immolate before his daughter could ever follow in his footsteps.

Ivanka does have a purpose, but it lies beyond where we imagined it. She exists within the administration as a model of disavowal — the psychological process by which people refuse to acknowledge a reality they perceive, especially if that reality might be traumatic.

The current administration is a traumatic reality. As atrocities have mounted over the past nearly three years (take your pick: children dying in cages, white nationalists in the White House, the murderous betrayal of allies, exchanging love letters with dictators), no wonder there’s been the urge to shut down, deny, disavow. Disavowal, in fact, has become central to the Trump presidency. We see it in the oddly muted, incommensurate, blank reactions Trump elicits. The strange absence of emotion. “Where is the outrage?,” pundits ask over and over. (“Stephen Miller is a test of our outrage,” wrote Michelle Goldberg last week, wondering about “how much hate we’ve learned to tolerate.”)

Why haven’t we taken to the barricades? How can Republicans defend this? How does anyone even keep a straight face anymore while Trump speaks? But they do. Visiting world leaders sit silently beside him as he rambles. Aides and cabinet members repeat his nonsensical lies, updating their talking points as quickly as the lies shift. The storm that is Trump rampages, and the world absorbs it, sitting placidly by.

Yes, there is resistance — hearings, articles, books, cable news. But on an affective level, there is … almost nothing. Even Robert Mueller proved disturbingly blank, nearly dissociative on camera. America goes about its business, stoic, tolerant, even, in the face of horror. How is this possible?

A pink moment at the G20 summit in 2017. Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto

Enter Ivanka Trump, whose role here is key. Why? Because stoic tolerance has a lot in common with the behavioral codes of retro, prefeminist femininity — and this is Ivanka’s stock-in-trade.

While privately she may be a hard-driven businesswoman, Ivanka’s public persona is all ladylike placidity. One gets the sense she’s had years of practice. Back in 2013, when TV host Wendy Williams asked Ivanka and Donald what “favorite things they had in common,” the pre-Oedipal Trump answered, “I was going to say sex, but I can’t relate that to her.” The audience gasped, Trump smirked, but Ivanka only laughed charmingly at her father’s incest joke.

Even the First Lady cannot compete with this level of disavowal. We can, at times, espy cracks in Melania’s composure, the little moments of rage or contempt she permits herself: the flicked hand, a steely gaze, the scowl when her husbands seems to forget they share a child. But Ivanka never breaks character. She remains pristine, seamless, behind a screen of her own making, a study in girlish oblivion — as we can often see in her personal style.

Ivanka tends to dress in the colors of nursery décor or Easter eggs — pale hues evoking not merely youth but toddlerhood. (Even her name evokes childhood, Ivanka being an affectionate diminutive for the given name she shares with her mother, Ivana.) The garments themselves, however, are often far from childlike. They’re often provocative, clinging suggestively to her showgirl figure, their silhouettes at odds with their sweet palette. And while Ivanka favors soft fabrics that look yielding and touchable (glossy silks, fine-spun wools), her cool, inscrutable demeanor telegraphs the precise opposite. The effect is disorienting. How can such incommensurate qualities coexist? It’s the fashion equivalent of cognitive dissonance. Is Ivanka a harmless baby girl in candy colors (and, often, bows and ruffles) or a sexpot glamazon? An approachable fuzzy duckling or an aloof swan?

The answer: She is neither. Rather, Ivanka is the process by which one becomes the other. In other words, in her self-presentation Ivanka performs the labor of denial for us. To see her is to feel how she prettifies, tamps down, smooths over, deflects, denies, and ignores the very issues her own physical being raises. Her clothes say, “I am not what I seem. Ignore what you see.” This is a visual performance of the very disavowal her father imposes and requires, an instruction manual on how to ignore the obvious. (“Just remember,” Donald Trump once instructed a crowd, “what you are seeing … is not what’s happening.”)

Occasionally, Ivanka’s resolute non-acknowledgement of her father’s outrages reaches almost parodic heights. At these times, she seems not only to be ignoring her father’s worst actions but performing their undoing or reversal.

In the spring of 2018, for example, just as reports flooded the media about migrant children being ripped from their mothers’ arms, Ivanka tweeted a photo of herself lovingly embracing her toddler son. Swift media backlash followed with critics accusing Ivanka of being “tone-deaf.” But her behavior felt driven by something more powerful than mere cluelessness. The photo felt deeply connected to Trump’s family separation policy by virtue of how clearly it demonstrated its inverse. It depicted a mother physically uniting with her son. A happy family, a Madonna and child.

Here too, Ivanka’s style played a key role. Look at the sundress she wears in the photo above — light in color and fabric with a whimsical floral print. This girlish outfit blends seamlessly with the light-colored, sailboat-print pajamas her 2-year-old is wearing. The message is clear: “I am as innocent as this child. He and I are one entity, melded together, indistinguishable.” This is a visual opposite of family disunification, a symbolic smoothing over of one of the president’s worst acts — tearing children from their parents.

Even now, amid the storm of impeachment hearings and their shocking revelations, Ivanka floats calmly onward. Last Wednesday, she stepped out to fête big brother Don Jr.’s literary debut looking sleepy-time chic in a silk pajama pantsuit of baby pink. Thursday found her chatting with the National Review Institute about her father’s commitment to paid parental leave (family values!) resplendent in baby-blue cashmere.

Ivanka is a symbol, then, not just of the Republicans who will accept any crime committed by the president but of all of us. Of a nation so beaten down that we have grown numb, emotionally (if not politically) acquiescent. And in her continual demonstration of how successfully to disavow, deflect, and even invert the horror, Ivanka helps perpetuate it.

Last week, in an attempt to discredit the damning testimony of Ambassador Marie Yovanovich, Donald Trump told Fox News, “This was not a baby … This was not an angel, this woman.” For him, a woman who does not appear infantile and innocent should be discounted. Such a woman could not be credible or reliable. But of course babies and angels would make terrible congressional witnesses, and, thankfully, Yovanovich was neither. She was a model of grown-up expertise, eloquent and convincing, as were the other impressive women who testified before Congress: Fiona Hill, Jennifer Williams, and Laura Cooper. Not a baby-angel among them.

(Another possible sign that baby-angel femininity is on the wane: Victoria’s Secret’s decision to end its annual fashion show, with its parade of “angels” — models wearing jeweled bras, thongs, and giant, feathered wings.)

For now, though, we still have Ivanka, who performs on the national stage her own version of the angel-baby womanhood prized by her father. But paradoxically, within the context of his administration, such sweet, oblivious softness functions like a kind of armor. Ivanka’s blankness provides a rock-hard, unbreakable, reflective surface for her father’s presidency, a projection screen showing us how a benumbed, impervious public should — and does — behave. Or to put it another way, Ivanka may be the one wall her father will ever successfully build.

This post has been updated to reflect that Donald and Melania Trump were not guests at  Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.

Ivanka’s Wall of Silence