When Ivanka Trump went on CBS News last week and mauled the word “complicit” into a smoking heap of linguistic oblivion, it was almost too easy to mock her for presumptuously assuming she could redefine a chunk of the English language to fit her own moral ends. Perhaps the conviction that words mean only what the wealthy would like them to mean is an inherited trait. But more revealing than the fact that “complicit” now means “word festival” is what Ivanka Trump’s redefinition of the word showed about her self-perception:*
“If being complicit is wanting to … be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit.”
Trump sees herself as a force for good. She sees her role in her father’s White House as a formal-yet-informal ambassador for generalized human kindness. Her brother has let us know that it is the free-floating human-like kindness of Ivanka that led Donald Trump to bomb the crap out of Syria last weekend. Is that even a job? Is she even that kind?
When it comes to President Trump, one must either begin from the proposition that he is a mentally ill huckster, unfit to serve, or one must start with the intention of continuously parsing each momentary action (the “give him a chance, he’s not that bad, the people have spoken” approach). And if you are of the camp that chooses to parse each jog and twist in the current madness, you can certainly make the case that though Ivanka does not, in fact, “know what it means to be complicit,” she certainly does seem to hope that “time will prove that I have done a good job and much more importantly, that my father’s administration is the success that I know it will be.”
Indeed, if you are of the camp that maintains that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, despite flagrantly self-enriching and profiteering from the Trump presidency, are vitally important “moderating influences” on the narcissist to which they answer, you can surely assert, as Jared Kushner has been known to do when challenged, that he is doing what he believes is right with “complicated facets,” and that he is, in his own view, “navigating it appropriately.” The argument amounts to the proposition that having elected a nutball, anyone who performs a braking function on the nutball is by definition a national hero.
Semantically, you might be able to make this point. But ethically and morally, you would probably be wrong to do so. Put aside for a moment the very real allegations about very real wrongdoing by this family. Ivanka and Jared’s justifications of their actions rest on the claim that destiny has forced them to play outsize parts in this administration, and that as profoundly and intrinsically good people they are simply trying to play that role with performative goodness. This defense—that anyone who accuses Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner of complicity is opposed to their sane and benevolent intercessions on behalf of America’s good people—is without doubt the most morally and ethically shallow claptrap offered up to public discourse since Trump took office. I think it’s time to label it as such.
For one thing, the whole argument rests on the idea that Trump is more or less mentally and cognitively unfit to serve in office, but oh well, let’s let him do it anyway. It goes on to assert that only the Kushners can help make the best of this bad situation. This goes beyond ordinary lipstick on a pig. This analysis quite literally turns on the proposition that but for their intercession a madman would make even more insane decisions.
It also takes them at their word that Jared and Ivanka have generally been a force for good. This is not true. Jared and Ivanka get credit for helping to quash a proposed executive order in February that would have rolled back Obama-era LGBT protections under the guise of protecting religious liberty. The Trump administration has since withdrawn just such federal protections afforded transgender students in schools, sought to have questions about sexual identification and gender identity removed from the census, removed all mention of LGBT rights from the White House website, and signed an executive order undermining an Obama-era ban on federal contractors from discriminating against LGBTQ employees. But by all means, let’s be grateful to Jared and Ivanka for moderating Trump’s LGBTQ policies.
The same is true, as Kalli Holloway notes over at AlterNet, for gender issues. We have been instructed to celebrate Ivanka’s vanilla-bean bromides about workplace equality, paid parental leave, and the wage gap, and to trust that her convictions will mean that working, poor, and minority women have a valuable advocate in Trump’s White House. But her comments showing she fails to understand what “complicity” even means landed immediately after the Trump White House signed an executive order revoking another Obama order, this one requiring that companies with federal contracts comply with labor and civil rights laws. Two gender-protective rules were gutted: paycheck transparency and a ban on forced arbitration clauses in sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination cases. As she was taking a strong public stand for feminism, Ivanka’s dad was taking a strong public stand defending an alleged sexual predator. At what point does “I know his heart” start to sound like moral cover?
The same is true of climate change, yet another issue on which Jared and Ivanka ostensibly moderate the utterly radical president, who claims it is a hoax. And yet, in his few short months in office, President Trump has all but ensured that we will not meet our commitments to the Paris Agreement, arguably the most important means of mitigating the impending catastrophic effects of climate change. By all means, applaud the ambiguously portfolio-ed couple for convincing him not to actually pull out of the accord. But judge them not on isolated tweets and quotes from their siblings. Judge them, at the very least, on the totality of what has been wrought upon the environment in a few short weeks.
And it is the very murkiness of the political portfolio that should frighten, rather than comfort you: Ivanka Trump thinks she can get away with saying that her public silence on Trump’s most egregious misdeeds is also, somehow, a moral virtue.
As she told CBS:
I would say not to conflate lack of public denouncement with silence. I think there are multiple ways to have your voice heard. In some cases, it’s through protest and it’s through going on the nightly news and talking about or denouncing every issue in which you disagree with. Other times it is quietly and directly and candidly. So where I disagree with my father, he knows it, and I express myself with total candor.
Of course, the first daughter would not offer a single instance in which she disagreed with her father with total candor. It seems that, as is the case with all of her qualifications as America’s Crazy Whisperer, her heroism lies in disagreeing with Donald Trump in secret. And this is a subject on which we are expected to just, well, trust her based on her assertions of goodness. Is there some official position paper or stock portfolio on human goodness we might use as a point of reference?
Of course, this Minister of Goodness proposition is made all the more egregious by their official positions. If Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump did not have formal roles inside the White House, their claims that they are secretly steering the president to rational outcomes might be more credible and more reassuring. But as soon as they assumed formal advisory roles, the argument that their beneficent presence warrants unquestioning public gratitude is absurd. If you oppose the president, tell us why. And if you are just a kind of Tinker Bell with great shoes, then, um, why do you work at the White House? In a democracy “born to it” isn’t actually a sufficient qualification.
The argument being perpetually advanced is that regardless of the daily drip of cruel, misogynistic, racist, and self-enriching know-nothingness coming from the Trump administration, it is—by virtue of some human transitive property—enough or at least preferable to have “good people” around Donald Trump because they might secretly do good things we can’t know about. We aren’t giving cover to a madman, they suggest, so long as we might be dialing him back from the brink. This is how one manages severely troubled people. It is not how one governs a nation. The underlying working assumption, once again, is that the president is so profoundly dangerous that these small Jared–Ivanka efforts are sufficient to be laudatory. It would be best to drug the commander in chief, but barring that possibility, let’s give him a King Lear–style daughter to ping off.
I wish Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner—and the entire stable of people who continue to assure us that they are good people—nothing but the best in their quest to protect us from the utter lunacy to which they have affixed their fortunes. But their efforts are not laudatory. In fact, so long as they themselves are willing to act as distractions, justifications, shiny objects, grandiose believers in their own unbounded competence, and “trust me” placeholders, they are ultimately affording moral cover to that which is inherently not competent, not ethical, and not truthful. That makes them complicit.
Ivanka isn’t Cordelia, she is Regan or maybe Goneril. And not only are she and her husband complicit in Trump’s actions, they also work for him. They are aiding and abetting. And this makes it time for them to turn their good people cards in, or at the very least let us peek at their definition of what “good people” even means in policy terms. Good people do not legitimize, humanize and offer succor to such a president, even if they do happen to be related to him.
The only thing scarier than complicity is complicity with a side of nepotism.
*Correction, April 12, 2017: Due to an editing error, this story was originally published without its first paragraph. (Return.)