What Is Ivanka Smiling About?

America is crumbling. But the president’s daughter is just thrilled to be here.

Ivanka Trump standing at a podium, smiling, with American flags in the background
Ivanka Trump speaking at the Republican National Convention on Thursday. Alex Wong/Getty Images

For anyone who is actually aware of what is happening in America, watching the Republican National Convention was not a pleasant experience. Despite the reality that most of our lives continue to be upended by the pandemic—the death, the jobs lost, the kids stuck home from school, the parents slowly losing it, the grandparents whose loneliness worries us second only to the prospect of them dying alone—the RNC was a bizarre four-night effort to pretend not only that none of this is President Donald Trump’s fault, but also that things are actually fine, and even that the bad times are over. The RNC also coincided with two climate disasters—fires burning through much of the West, hurricanes barreling toward the South—and yet another instance of a police officer shooting a Black man. The pageantry of the convention and the parade of speakers making the case that this administration cares about its citizens was painful against this backdrop. But to me, nothing felt as terrible as watching Ivanka Trump speak.

There has always been some speculation that Trump’s oldest daughter doesn’t approve of his more severe actions—that, unlike her brothers, she actually knows better. She’s supposed to have, or maybe used to have, nonoffensive views on topics ranging from gay rights to climate change. She went into her job at the White House talking about wanting to make child care more accessible. But the evidence of Ivanka as policy softener is not really there, and it’s been clear since Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement four months into his presidency that she was not the moderating force she framed herself as during the 2016 campaign. I’ve known this for so long that I’ve stopped being disappointed by it. Whereas a few years ago it might have only been slightly naïve to ask, “But where was Ivanka?” in response to a horrific new policy, by now we know that the answer is that Ivanka was there, in the room, making the choices. As Elaina Plott observed in the New York Times this week, “Ms. Trump now has the burden of the incumbency.”

So why did she bug me so much last night? I think it’s because she seemed happy. Like, so so happy. From the moment she walked out of the White House and down the steps to the stage, Ivanka was absolutely radiating in delight to be there. And why shouldn’t she be? Not only is she the only Trump offspring to work in the White House (despite having no qualifications to do so), she’s the one who was selected to introduce her father on the biggest night of the convention. She’s the golden child, and she knows it. While her brothers come across as rabid dogs, she beams. In the face of more than 180,000 Americans dead and gun-toting white teenagers “patrolling” the streets of Kenosha, it’s that smile that really got me.

Unlike her brothers, who are there to rile up the base, or Melania, who is there for I’m not sure what purpose, Ivanka’s job is to humanize her father. So it was no surprise that she opened her convention speech expressing sympathy for those affected by Hurricane Laura, and later noted that she prays for health care workers and those mourning loved ones who have died of COVID. But the rest of the speech was built around what an absolute thrill it has been for Ivanka Trump to watch her father be president. (“Tonight, I stand before you as the proud daughter of the people’s president,” she said, just before noting, “He is our president and my father, Donald J. Trump.”) Yes, she celebrated progress made on child care in the middle of a pandemic whose major theme has been the strain it is putting on working parents, and particularly mothers. But the speech wasn’t really about what’s going on in the country; it was about what Ivanka has gotten to witness: “I’ve been with my father and seen the pain in his eyes when he receives updates on the lives that have been stolen by this plague,” she said. “I have witnessed him make some of the most difficult decisions of his life.” When it comes to helping construction workers find jobs, what counts is that “it has been a new and profound experience for him, and for me, to see these stoic machinists and steelworkers come to him with tears in their eyes.” She was with her father when he commuted Alice Johnson’s sentence and got to see the “emotion on his face.” She said this all with great feeling and pride. And she smiled, and smiled, and smiled.

I don’t need to tell you that, for most people, things are really hard right now. Even if you haven’t lost your job or had to relocate because of a natural disaster, you’re probably stuck mostly in your house, maybe with children who have nothing to do and nowhere to be, or far from an older loved one you haven’t been able to see. Nobody is really happy right now. Even if quarantine suits you personally, this is, objectively, not a good time. Unfortunately for Ivanka, unhappy is the opposite of her brand. Ivanka is aspirational. She’s about how good it is to be her, about how she has figured out how to be a working mom, and you can too. Ivanka is the sheath dress that none of us needs to wear right now. Ivanka glows while the rest of us struggle. At least the anger from her father and brothers feels more matched to the national mood.

“Four years ago, I told you I would fight alongside my father,” she said last night, wearing a great-looking pants ensemble, her shiny hair blowing just right in the wind. “And, four years later, here I am.” And it’s true: Here she is, completely removed from where the rest of us are.

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