Over the past year or so, Donald Trump has solidified his image as a fundamentally blue-collar president—a relatable vehicle, despite his personal wealth, for the tastes and concerns of America’s white working class. Trump is “a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” Fran Leibowitz declares in Vanity Fair. “They see him. They think, ‘If I were rich, I’d have a fabulous tie like that. Why are my ties not made of 400 acres of polyester?’ All that stuff he shows you in his house—the gold faucets—if you won the lottery, that’s what you’d buy.” His gauche décor, his blunt and blustering style of speech, his terminal lack of manners—all this, supposedly, helps Trump connect with the little guy.
Less frequently acknowledged is the hold that Trump has on the white, suburban middle and upper-middle classes. Last November, he scored the vote of 53% of all college-educated white men (white women in that demographic went, by a slim majority, to Clinton) and the majority of all voters with a household income of over $50,000. The roots of Trump’s middle-class appeal are no doubt complex. Yet if you had to boil it down to one word, it’s pretty easy to pick: Ivanka.
Ivanka Trump acts as a walking, talking human shield for her father in a number of ways. By positioning herself as the more liberal, even feminist member of the family, she aims to make Trump more palatable to moderates in general and white women in particular. His misogynistic comments and aggressively anti-women policies are softened by her lifestyle brand, #WomenWhoWork, and her superficial touting of child-care and paid parental leave policies. As Emily Nussbaum writes in the New Yorker, Ivanka has “made a conscious choice to deodorize the stink of her father’s misogyny, to suggest that because he loves her that means he loves women.”
But Ivanka also serves another important purpose: She classes her family up. Through her social media accounts and personal branding, she presents the world with the exact sort of aspirational, firmly upper-class image that her father is lauded for being unwilling to provide. Thanks to Ivanka’s mastery of white respectability politics and bougie social norms, she can appeal to those who claim to care about “good taste” while allowing her father to reap the benefits of blustering “authenticity.” As long as Ivanka’s around, in other words, Trump doesn’t have to be classy at all.
It’s easy to see the father and daughter pair as a study in contrasts. Trump is rough-hewn; Ivanka is poreless. Trump roars; Ivanka murmurs. Trump rambles and attacks; Ivanka remains unflappably polite and on-message. Trump is all glitz and dirty jokes and martinis served in wine glasses, happy to disparage women’s looks or reference the size of his penis on the national stage. Ivanka is pale-pink manicures and apple-picking in New England and careful instructions on how to pour your homemade stone-fruit sangria into individual leak-proof jars before heading to the beach.
Trump vows to appoint a Supreme Court judge who will overturn Roe v. Wade and creates “Muslim bans” that leave American residents stranded in airports. Meanwhile, Ivanka quietly publicizes her work on behalf of LGBT people and tweets a lovely selfie of herself enjoying “date night” in the White House, clad in a $5,000 silver gown. With Ivanka as a brand ambassador, Trump can have his cake and showcase it through the most flattering Instagram filter possible, too.
On some level, it’s classist for the media to insist on identifying Trump with working-class people just because he happens to like gold plate and burnt steaks with ketchup. Still, social class is constructed as much by our consumption habits as by our income. The food and clothing and hobbies that we like, as well as the ways we talk about liking them, signal our social circle—or the social circle we aspire to. Trump tends toward flashy displays of his wealth, a habit traditionally associated with strivers and “new money” types who want to flaunt their upward mobility. People who are economically secure enough to find this tacky can opt for the Ivanka aesthetic—just as expensive, but far more discrete.
Ivanka’s style of self-presentation is also designed to cater to traditional values. She’s mastered the art of behaving like a lady; a wife, a mother, a woman who knows how to have it all, without ever being so rude as to overindulge or ask for bigger portions. The whole point of the #WomenWhoWork brand is that “work”—which most middle-class women now have no choice but to do—should not conflict with marriage and motherhood.
Ivanka is, essentially, reclaiming for working women of all income levels the same privileged, traditional white femininity that white housewives possessed in the mid-20th century. The pastel-pink office attire and endless, beaming selfies of Ivanka enjoying family time with her husband and spotless children (probably kept spotless by a wide array of invisible domestic workers) makes the very idea of a “working woman” less threatening. Her performance of femininity communicates that no matter how big one’s office might be, no woman is complete or fulfilled unless she’s also a doting mother who looks great in a floor-length ballgown. A recent Saturday Night Live skit, “Complicit,” aptly skewers the hollowness of this rhetoric. ”A feminist,” a silky voiceover declares as Ivanka (Scarlett Johansson) waltzes around the room with a glass of champagne and a perfect blowout. “An advocate. A champion for women. But like … how?”
Nonetheless, Ivanka’s message seems to be working. As Anne Helen Petersen has reported for BuzzFeed, the same well-to-do suburban women who hate Hillary Clinton (America’s archetypal image of a threatening, “unfeminine,” career-focused, second-wave feminist) flock to Ivanka, whom they call “classy” and “regal.” They have created a fandom based on exalting her above lesser, “trashier” women. “She is so beautiful and classy, I love her style. She is elegant and sexy without putting it all out there and trying to be,” one woman writes on Pinterest, next to a glowing portrait of the first daughter. Ivanka represents an idealized version of femininity: successful without prioritizing her success over her domestic roles, “sexy” without ever being pinned down to something as vulgar as sex. Her spotless “politeness” effectively makes her father’s belligerence look like mere machismo. If “Trump produced someone that classy, that’s a testament to something,” one woman told Petersen.
But ultimately Ivanka’s poise covers up a sinister truth. There are two types of bigotry in America. The first kind doesn’t bother to disguise itself. Its proponents will openly spout slurs against Muslims and cheer for walls to keep Mexicans out. This form of prejudice gets pinned on the white working class—whether as a nasty caricature of the opinions held by “hicks” and “white trash,” or as a fundamentally patronizing portrait of people whose “economic anxiety” inexorably leads them toward scapegoating.
White middle- and upper-class America has its own version of bigotry—the kind that’s far less visible. It doesn’t involve racial epithets. Its power depends on maintaining systemic injustices while denying there is any problem at all. We live in a post-racial America. We support gay marriage, it’s just… do the kids need to hear about it? What if my daughter sees a penis in the school restroom? Women are capable of anything they put their minds to. #LeanIn. And it is precisely this form of bigotry that Ivanka Trump gracefully promotes.
The issue, in the end, is not just that Ivanka “deodorizes” her father. It’s that middle-class bigotry operates by “deodorizing” any expression of open prejudice, remaining gracious, perhaps grimacing a bit about how rude it all sounds—and then endorses essentially the same bigoted policies from a greater position of power. When Ivanka lends her father class, she lends him the legitimization of someone who’s mastered middle- and upper-class mores, and can therefore help his toxic message reach demographics that are concerned about appearing respectable.
It’s true that Trump has found a way to connect with some of the powerless white working-class people in American society. But just as importantly, thanks in large part to his daughter, he’s connecting with the powerful and wealthy ones. She shows image-conscious Americans a way to make systemic oppression look good.