This week, Ivanka Trump’s father and his congressional allies toasted the House passage of a health care bill that is animated by the idea of womanhood as a risky infirmity. Also this week, Ivanka Trump published a book on female empowerment. Why did this shimmery humanoid brand pen Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success? She/it provides a “vast diversity” of rationales, most of them in glaring contradiction to her father’s agenda. But the purest and realest one is self-promotion.
So if you are neither Donald Trump’s favorite child nor someone who wishes to playact for 200 pages at being Donald Trump’s favorite child—if you actually seek productivity tips, for instance, or need help expressing your style on a budget—this guidebook cannot assist you. It is a road map to personal and professional success for a theoretical rich, hot woman. It is meant to exalt Ivanka’s celebrity and grow her bank account. It exhorts you, theoretical heiress, to “make time for what matters most” by hiring good help. Its formula for happiness involves identifying the work that thrills and inspires you, nonexistent moneyed entity, and then, task by task, delegating it to your subordinates (your “team”).
She almost certainly delegated the writing of this book, which largely consists of other people’s business and lifestyle advice mashed up into a lavender balm of corporatized psychobabble. Perhaps that is what Trump means by “rewriting” the rules of success: As many have observed, her book essentially reprints ideas from a century’s worth of gurus—Norman Vincent Peale, Adam Grant, Stephen Covey, Sheryl Sandberg—but frequently out of context, and with a dim comprehension of their meaning. (She pulls from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a book about slavery, for an epigraph to a chapter titled “Work Smarter, Not Harder.”) Trump herself, or one of her quislings, writes, “I’m inspired to provide solutions that educate and empower women to be their best selves both personally and professionally.”
And: “I’m committed to inspiring women to redefine success according to what is important to each and every one of you—and encouraging you to design a life that honors your individual passions and priorities in a way only you can.”
And: “Inspiring and empowering women who work—at all aspects of their lives—has been my mission throughout my entire career.”
Like certain health care bills, these words are not meant to be read. They are puffs of scented air that you purchase so that you can display the container in a prominent place. They are an experiment: How much empty jargon can you string together before a sentence just starts wafting aimlessly toward the ceiling? A book should communicate a set of concrete, discernible ideas, but Women Who Work is not a book; it is a product. You don’t sit down and parse this tone-row sonata of concept mission experience perspective authentic empower inspire conversation passion leadership brand positive life creative career success achieve celebrate priority aspiration challenge opportunity purpose memorable moment direction dynamic any more than you would parse a handbag.
Sometimes, the language glides creamily (and brazenly) into ad copy. “My company was not just meeting the lifestyle needs of today’s modern professional woman with versatile, well-designed products,” Trump reflects. “It was celebrating those needs, at a price point she could afford.” Other sales pitches are more subtle. Of her move into the White House, where she enjoys near-unrivaled access to the levers of global power, Trump notes, “It is difficult to step away from businesses that I have worked so hard to build and that I believe in so fully, but the potential to improve the lives of countless women and girls has caused me to fundamentally consider where my work will do the greatest good.” No choice is so safe or self-dealing that it can’t be framed as an act of courage. “I had just decided,” she says elsewhere, “to take the leap and join the family business.”
In the funhouse reality of Trumpworld, all is inverted. If a person’s identity revolves around having things handed to her, then she must publish a book titled Women Who Work. This work book must lean on the labor of others, be they ghostwriters, nannies, or cleaning staff. A similar maddening contradiction informs Trump’s feminist self-branding, her false advocacy on behalf of “all women” even as she enables a serial-harasser president who itches to curtail reproductive rights. “Know your ask, know your worth, know your value,” the author coaches her female audience. Does her father? Are he and his GOP cronies so convinced of our value that they want to deny us medical and psychological care when we are raped, or pregnant, or sick? And does she know the ask, worth, and value of the women who work to take care of her children while curates her brand? If so, why does she barely acknowledge them, in these pages or anywhere?
In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg was rightly criticized for ignoring structural obstacles to women’s flourishing. But the blindness to systemic forces that plagued Lean In manifests here not as an oversight but as a kind of cruel joke. Surely Ivanka Trump is aware that, with her dad in office, women’s self-perceptions and lack of basic organizational skills are hardly the problem. There’s a creepy magic to how Trump has disguised her self-glorification project as an homage to some women (Maya Angelou?) and a how-to for others (Lara Trump?). Millions of Americans are enchanted by the same sleight of hand on a bigger scale—they are desperate to believe that she and her father wish to help them.
After the House passed the AHCA bill Thursday, I stood up and walked outside. I took Women Who Work with me. It was when the sunlight hit the cover of the book at a certain angle, causing Ivanka’s pale skin to sparkle, that I realized who she reminded me of. That dewy parasitism, like Dracula after a meal—America’s first daughter belongs to the Twilight phenomenon, to the pop culture vogue for attractive vampires. The core fantasy of the series was that creatures born to prey on us might come to love and protect us instead. That a glamorous and sophisticated child of darkness, decked in ancestral riches, could float down from the tower and, seeing our potential, remake us in her image. Some blood might be spilled (ours, even!), but would that not be a small price to pay for “architecting a life you love—a full, multidimensional life”?
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the fabled Ivanka voter hails from the same demographic—white, middle class, female—that devours romance novels in general and snapped up Stephenie Meyer’s in particular. Or perhaps this administration has rewritten so many rules and unraveled so many norms that I’m mistaking fiction for truth. The Trumps are right about one thing, though: We can occasionally be authoring our destinies even when we believe ourselves to be fortune’s fools. After all, we invited them in.