The first time I became aware of Ivanka Trump as an adult and not a line item in Donald Trump’s divorce from her mother, Ivana, was through Jamie Johnson’s 2003 documentary about the existential angst of the monied class. Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson family fortune, turned his college thesis film into a documentary about himself and his society buddies trying to figure out how one becomes a person in the world when one's family is seriously loaded. I know -- what a challenge!
Before this election season, at least, watching the wealthy make assholes out of themselves was fun. Or kind of fun. (Add this innocent pleasure to the burning trash heap of things Donald Trump has ruined, along with the color orange, democracy and the winsome 1994 Timothy Busfield comedy “Little Big League.”) “Born Rich” is not a good film — Johnson might have gone into this project with many assets, including a boodle of pseudo-woke self-awareness about “the voodoo of inherited wealth,” but charisma and a flair for voiceover were not among them — but it remains a favorite hate-watch of mine. I mean, at one point the cost of a plane ticket to Europe is categorized as roughly equal to the price of one pair of pants. When Young Master Johnson verbalizes his existential crisis, it’s a cringer: “There are no courses in college about how to be a hardworking, productive rich person.”
The characters are straight out of a Wes Anderson film about well-heeled misfits, but real. They include Josiah Hornblower, an introspective Vanderbilt-Whitney with a melancholy lisp; Condé Nast heir Si Newhouse IV, who channels his fury at a mercurial pater familias into his fencing; and Georgina Bloomberg, who’s bummed that journalists care more about her dad than her horses. And then there’s Ivanka Trump, alternately sporting brown hair, which makes her look painfully young, and the sleek, basic blonde she wears today. She’s humble and appreciative of her family’s good fortune as she shows Johnson and his camera around her childhood bedroom overlooking Central Park, with its Bon Jovi posters — girl, me too! — and pink walls.
"There’s some sort of pride in the fact that people would even take an interest in me, just because I’m a part of them,” she demurs. “For my whole life I was worried I’d be under my parents’ shadow. But it’s not a bad shadow to be under, I guess.”
When I first watched this movie in my mid-20s, with my nonprofit job and fresh graduate-school debt, I thought the Born Richies were clueless, shameless and awful. They truly had no idea how revolting they sounded to the average person, I thought. Except Ivanka. Poised, enchanting, model-with-a-brain, big-dreaming Ivanka! This is damn faint praise, true, but compared to her peers in the film she came off like a sane, well-adjusted person.
Lately, I’ve begun to wonder.
Throughout this interminable election, Ivanka has kept a tight rein on her position as the prestige product of the Trump family business. Sandwiched in birth order between proto-fascist Don Jr. and walking ’80s movie villain Eric, Ivanka emerged as the star of Trump’s traveling creepshow thanks to her ability to glamour her father’s piss on your leg into a reasonably priced, office-appropriate facsimile of rain.
Flash back to her speech at the Republican National Convention this summer:
Throughout my entire life, I have witnessed his empathy and generosity towards others, especially those who are suffering. It is just his way of being in your corner when you’re down. My father not only has the strength and ability necessary to be our next president, but also the kindness and compassion that will enable him to be the leader that this country needs.
Even if we didn’t have him on tape at that point admitting that he tries to grab women by the pussy whenever he feels like it, Ivanka’s portrait of Donald Trump was unrecognizable to anyone with a pulse and an Internet connection.
Indeed, after the "Access Hollywood" Billy Bush audio emerged, Ivanka's brothers got busy downplaying the old man’s predatory “locker-room talk,” but Ivanka clung to her fantasy version of Donald, as if she believed deep down that if she simply repeated these things about her father often enough they might come true: “He recognizes it was crude language. He was embarrassed that he said those things, and he apologized.” Clap if you believe Daddy means it!
Throughout this election, though, the public and the mainstream press have largely swallowed what Ivanka has served them. She’s actually a Democrat, we equivocated, and friends with Chelsea Clinton. Even Hillary gave Trump a masterful backhanded compliment when she said nice things about his kids at the end of the second debate. (Which we all know really means the girls — #FreeTiffany — plus that little boy who knows the cyber.)
Being Donald’s millennial woman-whisperer hasn’t always been a smooth ride — Ivanka found out the hard way that being interviewed by Cosmopolitan's Prachi Gupta (a former Salon writer) about the lackluster maternity leave policy she was so proud of pushing on her father is no walk in the park with Jamie Johnson — but she has soldiered on nevertheless, delivering howlers like “My father is a feminist” with her game-face on.
And who better to perform this illusion of a miracle? Ivanka isn’t a walk-on in “Cruel Intentions” all grown up, she’s an accomplished executive with an on-brand husband who never misses her children’s bedtimes. All that, and the most amazing daughter, too?! I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT. Especially during the Republican primaries, she often acted as the aspiring first lady Donald Trump wishes he had, and if that sounds 11 kinds of icky, it should.
But one does not arrive on the world’s stage so prepared to throw one’s self between the speeding bus of one’s father’s temperament and the majority of the electorate without preparing to do so for one’s entire life.
Aside from a shared youthful appreciation for Jersey hair-rock and an astrology sign, Ivanka and I have one more thing in common, and no, it’s not an ex-boyfriend who wants you to call him “Bingo”: We’re both middle children. (Basically. Tiffany, Donald’s daughter with Marla Maples, was raised on the opposite coast; 10-year-old Barron might as well be a nephew.) I know a thing or two about the skills and deficits you develop as a middle child, including triangulation, extreme diplomacy and negotiation tactics, and the emotional distance you can cultivate from flying a little under the family radar, burdened with neither the expectations on the eldest nor the indulgences of the baby.
As her mother told Town & Country, this was Ivanka’s role at home. "As the middle child, Ivanka was the peace maker and keeper. She was always a savvy deal maker and negotiator, even as a little girl. She could charm anyone."
Since Ivanka’s brand is built around an emphasis on the increasingly permeable boundary between professional and personal lives, it’s no wonder she glided so effortlessly into the role of peacemaker with the entire country on behalf of her sleazy father’s terrifying, retrograde beliefs.
“There was a previous generation of women who rose through the ranks in an environment when work and life were highly compartmentalized,” Ivanka told Vogue in an early 2015 profile. “Where there used to be work life and home life, now it’s one life.”
Ivanka has been mixing work life and home life since her youth. At 15, she co-hosted Trump’s 1997 Miss Teen USA pageant. You know, the one where he allegedly barged into a dressing room full of teenage girls bragging, “Don’t worry, ladies, I’ve seen it all before.” One contestant told Buzzfeed that when she told Ivanka what happened, her response was, “Yeah, he does that.”
If that account is true, it would seem as though Ivanka has spent years in the awkward position of speaking on her father’s transgressions as both daughter and employee. I wonder if she is starting to see the wisdom of that previous generation of female sphere-separators now. Living under the Trump shadow isn’t looking so hot, maybe, if her father’s views of black Americans or his admitted pussy-grabbing habit are turning off Ivanka Trump apparel customers. Ivanka might now be realizing that slapping her signature polish onto the Trump family bullshit only takes a rotten deal so far. Nov. 9 is coming, and she has blouses to sell. “I’m not a surrogate,” she insisted this week. “I’m a daughter.” You do you, Daddy, but don’t mess with my business.
Which brings us to that Jonah Peretti tweet.
Wednesday afternoon, a few hours before the third and final presidential debate, Buzzfeed’s CEO dropped a curious item of gossip on Twitter. Reacting to Ivanka’s protestations about Trump’s pussy-grabbing comments, in which she claimed, “That’s not language consistent with any conversation I’ve ever had with him, or any conversation I’ve ever overheard, so it was a bit jarring to hear,” Peretti wrote that he was surprised that Ivanka "would be shocked by lewd language.” He followed that with a quote in which Ivanka allegedly used a racially offensive word to describe one of the types of cocks she had not yet seen. In a follow-up, Peretti has said this conversation took place eight to 10 years ago.
Ivanka’s team called the anecdote “a complete and total lie” and demanded an apology, which as of press time has not come. Perhaps Ivanka does not share in the litigiousness favored by her father or stepmother, or perhaps she hopes that Donald’s “nasty woman” comment aimed at Hillary Clinton during Wednesday night’s debate has knocked the spotlight off of a mortifying story. But the tweet lingers on in Peretti’s timeline like a fart in a Trump Tower elevator.
It must be emphasized that the shock of the anecdote lies not in Ivanka Trump talking about cocks (I hope you see all — and only! — the cocks you want to see in this life, Ivanka!) but in the allegation that she sprinkled a racist term into casual conversation much as her father did with his infamous conversation with Billy Bush, depersonalizing men of color in the same way that her father depersonalizes women. This is an Ivanka I can imagine palling around with the obnoxious “Born Rich” crowd, who now seem like lonely, anxious, alienated and very angry kids — painfully human and depressing to watch, with or without trust funds.
We don’t know Ivanka Trump, but she has told us to believe her when she says her father is a good person who will be a good leader for women. As a practiced middle child, let me step in here and offer a translation: What Ivanka meant to say is that her father has always been good to her. And if we can all just be as good as Ivanka — as beautiful, as polished, as diplomatic, as gullible, as willing to wave off a terrifying strain of white nationalism and politicized misogyny as Daddy-bluster — maybe he will be good to us, too.
To reference the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that lends Jamie Johnson's documentary its name, Ivanka’s learned cynicism has served her family’s purposes well. Now the crippling softness emerges. She is human, allegedly. Ivanka has played the role of that girl in the “Born Rich” documentary throughout Trump's campaign — the one perfectly poised and humble face among the twisted weirdos — and now the mask has slipped. Ivanka the person has clashed with Ivanka the product; the work life and the real life are no longer seen as one. Jonah Peretti had no reason to take this interest in her until Ivanka moved from building hotels and an anodyne lifestyle brand to selling a dystopian future to the electorate. But that was the deal Ivanka Trump the savvy deal-maker accepted, whether she realized it or not.