Feminist or Family First? Ivanka Trump’s Perilous Balancing Act Continues Into 2017

She succeeded in acting as surrogate to her father’s presidential campaign while maintaining her identity as a soft-focus feminist. Will 2017 bring a set of tougher choices for her?

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The date was tentatively set for some time after January in New York or D.C., the highest bid was nearly $73,000, and there were still four days to go before it ended: an auction for coffee with Ivanka Trump, the president-elect’s poised, pretty daughter—the clear favorite of his five children—and unofficial political adviser.

That people were willing to pay so much for 45 minutes with Ivanka spoke loudly of her influence. But the auction itself—a charity fundraiser for the Trump Organization—has exposed still more potential conflicts of interest for Ivanka, who has remained close to the Trump business brand while playing a crucial role in the Trump administration’s transition.

The auction was announced in early December, just days before Ivanka had both arranged and participated in a meeting between the president-elect and Al Gore to discuss climate change; days before reports surfaced that she and her husband Jared Kushner are house-hunting in Washington, D.C.—and that Ivanka is looking for office space in the White House.

Ivanka Trump’s 2016 has been a rollercoaster—supporting her father, even at his most misogynistic, while simultaneously trying to monetize her own female-focused business—and her 2017, with her father installed as president, is set to be an even more complex year of identity shifts, along with professional and personal challenges.

With Melania Trump planning to stay in Trump Tower for at least a few months after Trump’s inauguration, Ivanka looks ready to be the de facto first lady. She is taking steps to separate from the Trump Organization, where she’s executive vice-president, and is seemingly eager to act as envoy from her father to skeptical and scared Democrats.

She has already met with Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio, both prominent climate change activists, and is reportedly planning to lobby Congress to expand child care. She’s also sat in on a meeting between Trump and the Japanese Prime Minister, and on a call with her father and Argentina’s president.

Now, Ivanka’s move to Washington—reports of which have so far been uncontested—and potential new role as policy adviser in the White House have raised questions about the ethics of maintaining her own lifestyle brand while being an operative in her father’s administration. It caps off a year that has seen Ivanka pull off a precarious balancing act, serving as surrogate to her father’s presidential campaign while maintaining both her business and identity as a soft-focus feminist.

Ever since Donald Trump announced his presidential run, many have said that Ivanka is his greatest asset: self-disciplined, graceful, and physically striking, she seemed most capable of softening her father’s offensiveness and broadening his appeal. That she managed to do so throughout much of his campaign without running her fashion line and #WomenWhoWork lifestyle brand and website into the ground is even more remarkable.

But the more Trump promoted racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic rhetoric in his campaign, Ivanka’s tight-rope act became increasingly perilous—now more than ever, as the country prepares for a President Trump and Ivanka’s reported installment in the White House.

Offering access in exchange for (charity) money, as the Trump Organization did with its “Coffee with Ivanka” auction, was so ethically controversial that it was axed the day after The New York Times first reported it last Thursday (Eric Trump, who heads the famiy organization, rang up the paper that day to say they were considering canceling it). By Friday, the chance to shoot the breeze with Ivanka over an espresso was no longer on the table—a move that the Times referred to as the “second concession by Ms. Trump that she might have overstepped ethical bounds.” (The first was an apologia by a jewelry company Ivanka owns after it promoted a $10,800 gold bracelet she wore during her first post-election TV interview with her father.)

How, then, will Ivanka continue to run her eponymous fashion line and lifestyle website from Washington without conflict? Will she be a moderately liberal ambassador to her father’s administration, shaping her father’s decision-making in a way that will please her socially liberal peers? Or will she ultimately bend to her father’s whims and remain loyal even when he behaves appallingly and provokes political disaster, as she did throughout his campaign?

Ivanka all but renounced her own political allegiances when she introduced her father at the Republican National Convention, though she insisted that her advocacy for women’s rights and support for his campaign didn’t contradict one another: “Like many of my fellow-millennials, I do not consider myself categorically Republican or Democrat. More than party affiliation, I vote based on what I believe is right, for my family and for my country. Sometimes it’s a tough choice. That is not the case this time.”

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When her father boasted about his penchant for grabbing women “by the pussy,” she responded with the verbal equivalent of a slap on the wrist: “My father’s comments were clearly inappropriate and offensive, and I’m glad that he acknowledged this fact with an immediate apology to my family and the American people,” she told Fast Company magazine in the wake of the leaked Access Hollywood tape.

She was his chief defender when he was subsequently accused of sexual harassment and assault, dismissing the women who spoke out against him. “I’m not in every interaction my father has, but he’s not a groper. It’s not who he is,” she said in an interview with CBS. An online, women-led campaign to boycott her products followed.

If this does not seem as feminist as the empowerment maxims that clutter her website, recall Ivanka sitting alongside her father on The View when he confessed: “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” There was no flush of embarassment on her face, no indication that she was creeped out in any way.

As Jessica Yellin remarked in this publication, Ivanka has consistently been her father’s “polished, polite enabler.”

“Poised” is perhaps the most frequently deployed word when describing Ivanka—and when defending her. “You hear the name, Ivanka, and you expect fur, leather, but she’s really poised, elegant, down to earth,” Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, told Town & Country of Trump’s daughter. Ivanka certainly has a better command of the English language than her father and is possessed of the social grace that he lacks. But there’s no question that the word “poised” would likely not be applied to Ivanka as much as it has been if she weren’t physically beautiful. Likewise “graceful” and “elegant," among other common Ivanka descriptors.

She may not be particularly unique-looking (she is blonde and coiffed, resembling a “Disney princess,” as my colleague Olivia Nuzzi put it), but her beauty is arguably the most potent distraction from her father’s ugliness. It has also served to distract from her own flaws—namely, that she’s a less-than-honest ambassador for her #WomenWhoWork brand, and that whatever moral core she has will always be superseded by familial loyalty and ambition.

In the early days of her father’s campaign, Ivanka’s tweets and Instagrams featuring her children or promoting her brand were easier to swallow. Now, her platitudes about feminism and motherhood seem ever more disingenuous. Coming from a woman who has insisted that her brazenly misogynistic father is a feminist and championed paid parental leave while supporting someone who once said pregnancy inconveniences employers, these platitudes are at best contradictory and at worst plainly dishonest.

Given all we’ve learned this year about “this particular daddy’s girl,” as Ivanka described herself in her 2009 memoir, the down-to-earth, palatable feminist appearance she markets so well only reflects her character insomuch as it reveals a successful businesswoman-turned-potential political operator who will do everything she can to protect the Trump brand. And at this stage in the ongoing balancing act that is being Ivanka Trump, something’s gotta give.