The Pragmatism and New Populism of Ivanka Trump

The Pragmatism and New Populism of Ivanka Trump
(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
The Pragmatism and New Populism of Ivanka Trump
(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
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The most important job was also the best job. Naturally, it went to Ivanka. Twice.

At her first Republican National Convention, she introduced the presidential nominee by telling the faithful that she was not, in fact, one of them. “Like many of my fellow millennials,” Donald Trump’s oldest daughter explained, “I do not consider myself categorically Republican.” She said she wasn’t a Democrat, either. On the biggest night of Republican politics, Ivanka was agnostic.

Not anymore. Well, not exactly.

The senior adviser to the president tells RealClearPolitics in a rare phone interview that she is “a pragmatist when it comes to everything,” that for her -- and her father -- politics is about people, not parties, and, in that way, she is “a Trump-Republican.”

What else could she really be? Donald John Trump remade the GOP in his own image in the last four years, and anyone loyal to him necessarily shares his loyalty to that rebuilt party.

How about a populist then?

“I think a lot of these labels, to be quite honest, are really limiting in terms of what you call yourself or how you identify,” she said, “but I don’t reject that label at all.”

This is a little unusual given that, by all objective measures of wealth and status and upbringing, Ivanka Trump should be considered a coastal elite. But that was before her populist education began with a firsthand look at the rusted-out factories in the forgotten cities and towns full of overlooked people without the opportunity, a tour that later inspired her father’s uninspiring phrase “American carnage.”

Ivanka tells the same story, only a brighter version. “When people think you have the potential of changing their lives for the better, they share with you the stories,” she said of her time on the 2016 campaign trail, remembering private conversations about things “their own children don’t know or their spouses haven’t heard.”

And the story she heard isn’t just about the shutdown factory. It is also about the underemployed, and those who went to college and, whether they graduated or not, were left with plenty of debt but not better opportunities. She isn’t the first to confront the problem. Joe Biden says he would work to make community college free if elected, and the previous administration had its own jobs programs. But while Biden all but told out-of-work coal miners to “learn to code” last December, the Trump administration is more likely to encourage the unemployed and the underemployed to try their hand at riveting or pipe-fitting or welding.

“The largest complaint from business owners was the lack of a workforce,” Ivanka says. She speaks longingly of “a blue-collar boom” and of that good kind of pre-pandemic problem where, “for roughly 16 consecutive months, there were more job vacancies than unemployed Americans.”

To address this need, Ivanka co-chairs the National Council for the American Worker. The White House initiative encourages businesses to create new opportunities like apprenticeships and on-the-job-training and retraining. More than 400 companies have signed on, creating 16 million training opportunities (her father, however, regularly exaggerates those numbers).   

While it has been a years-long project, Ivanka still looks out of place at times in the way only a politician can look out of place when they wear jeans to walk a factory floor. During a visit to an Illinois community college, she paired a sleeveless green dress and black heels with a work jacket and welder’s helmet. When the former Vogue model took off the hood, she laughed and asked, “How’s my hair?”

The president’s daughter isn’t any better at driving rivets (she tried during another demonstration in Kansas), and that is sort of the point. Blue-collar skills are increasingly technical, and the wages earned are good enough to fulfill the “hopes and dreams” Ivanka says she hears expressed by voters. Plenty of politicians say the same. “It's pretty cynical, actually, because I know they hear the same stories, that they travel and they listen,” she continues, “and if that doesn’t motivate you, really, nothing will.”

More recently the White House joined with the nonprofit Ad Council and such companies as Apple, IBM, and Lockheed Martin, along with the Business Roundtable, to launch a slick initiative complete with splashy graphics. A utility worker scales a building in one ad, and the accompanying caption reads, “The new corporate ladder.” A woman stands in a field of solar panels in another; the accompanying message: “The new corner office.” All of it was carefully curated to raise awareness about new opportunities.

The tagline: “Try something different.” The inside-the-Beltway reaction: tone-deaf.

Ivanka and the administration were cast as the cynical, out-of-touch elites when the Washington Post panned the effort with a headline that read “White House tells 18 million unemployed workers to ‘Find Something New.’” Others piled on. “Oh, my God. Fits perfectly with their belief that the real problem is people don’t want to work,” complained Krystal Ball, the progressive host of the Hill’s “Rising” show, “not that there’s a raging pandemic and massive business closure/job loss!”

This kind of controversy was foreign to Ivanka before politics when she was better known as a socialite and a celebrity and a businesswoman. Her personal politics, if they were ever  discussed, were considered moderate. She was bipartisan in her political contributions (Hillary Clinton and John McCain both cashed her checks). Ivanka even opened up her home on Park Avenue for a 2013 fundraiser for a then-little-known New Jersey Democrat named Cory Booker.

That background fueled liberal hopes that she might moderate the populist impulses of her father -- hopes that were quickly dashed. Scarlett Johansson summarized the feeling on “Saturday Night Live” just three months into the new administration with a caricature of the First Daughter in a spoof of her very real fragrance line.

“She’s a woman who knows what she wants,” the narrator whispers as the Johansson version of Ivanka walks elegantly into a ballroom, “and knows what she’s doing.” The name of the perfume? “Complicit: It’s the fragrance for the woman who could stop all this ... but won’t.” And then, just as the skit is about to end, the narrator adds, “Also available in a cologne for Jared.”

Ivanka has since closed her fashion and fragrance line but the criticism lingers, and while her public policy portfolio focuses on workforce and women’s issues, as a senior adviser to (and daughter of) the president, she is regularly taken to account for White House positions on everything from the environment to the pandemic. She does not wilt in the face of it. She just wishes it didn’t get personal.

“One of the things that we've lost in this nation is an ability to respectfully disagree and debate,” Ivanka says of criticism generally. Her ideal? “Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are great  examples of two people who represented totally different ends of the ideological spectrum and yet were the best of friends and were able to come together and have civilized disagreements and arguments.”

Civilized rhetoric is not, however, the hallmark of this president. His far-from-polite moments are well documented, but so are the attacks against Ivanka and her family. Many of them are personal. She was snubbed after she attended a gym class on Capitol Hill once frequented by Michelle Obama. Journalists questioned whether her son actually built a Lego replica of the White House. “SNL” comedians recently joked about shaving her head to make her “look like Jean-Luc Picard.”

An inevitability of the last four years, Ivanka has also been caught in the maw of the never-ending news cycle. The press has not been nearly as forgiving nor as adoring as the tabloid paparazzi of New York had been, and that came as a shock. “I didn't realize so much ink could be spilled writing so many stories, none of which are based on provable facts or even facts in general,” Ivanka says, noting specifically how the media covered her family during the Russia investigation.

This is the least surprising sentiment expressed by a Trump. Disdain for the press runs in the family, and Ivanka carefully guards her image by rarely sitting for interviews, compared to her other more vocal siblings. But the meat grinder must have taken a toll. Sources close to the First Family believe that, if anything, Ivanka has only become more conservative.

Elon Musk, oddly enough, may have come closest to helping define where the eldest Trump daughter stands in relation to Trumpism. On brand, the exchange came on Twitter. Apparently frustrated in May with the mandated lockdown that shuttered his California factories, the Tesla CEO tweeted a reference to “The Matrix.”

“Take the red pill,” Musk wrote, a shorthand reference on the right for rejecting liberalism to embrace a conservative awakening.

“Taken!” Ivanka responded.

One area where Ivanka has undeniably changed: abortion, an issue that helped deliver the evangelical vote for the president in the last election. Social conservatives saw the New York feminist as a question mark. Did she share her father’s view? She had danced around the issue, declining to take a public position, and a secret meeting with then-Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards in 2017 only heightened fears that Ivanka may have swayed the president away from a campaign promise.

“I respect all sides of a very personal and sensitive discussion,” Ivanka said when asked about the contentious issue, “but I am also a mother of three children, and parenthood affected me in a profound way in terms of how I think about these things.” She continued, for the first time ever saying, “I am pro-life, and unapologetically so.”

A White House aide followed up to clarify that Ivanka’s answer was both a personal conviction and a reflection of how far Democrats have shifted left on abortion. “A huge driving part of that” stance, the aide explained, “is where the Democratic Party has gone.” Republicans have also evolved. The party backed criminal justice reform and paid family leave, developments that Ivanka championed and that likely would have been impossible to push four years ago. Whether her role in these policy shifts was the result of pragmatism or newly found populism will continue to be a topic of discussion, especially as the party weighs its future. Ivanka seems to suggest it is both.

At her second Republican National Convention, this one taking place in the White House Rose Garden, she introduced her father again. Ivanka was hardly agnostic about her politics. “For the first time in a long time,” she said, striking an anti-elitist tone fitting for the night, “we have a president who has called out Washington's hypocrisy, and they hate him for it.”

Before he accepted the nomination a second time, Ivanka told her father that “people attack you for being unconventional, but I love you for being real.” She added, “I respect you for being effective.”



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