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How Ivanka Trump is using her dad's campaign to strengthen her own brand

Donald Trump standing next to Ivanka Trump
Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump at the Republican National Convention.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Nobody expected a Republican presidential candidate would use primary airtime to compliment Planned Parenthood. Or feature a primetime speaker who bragged that the nominee would close the gender wage gap. Or make child care the subject of his first big economic proposal.

Donald Trump has done all three — guided by Ivanka Trump, his 34-year-old daughter, who has played an unusually active role his campaign.

“He will fight for equal pay for equal work,” Ivanka Trump said at the Republican National Convention. “I will fight for this too, right alongside of him.”

It’s more common for conservatives to argue that the wage gap is the result of women’s personal choices, not a problem for the president to solve. But Ivanka Trump got a roomful of Republicans to stand up and cheer.

Ivanka Trump, in her role as one of her father’s most trusted, if unofficial, advisers, has injected her own ideas and values into Republican politics. A party that has historically championed traditional gender roles now has a nominee whose daughter celebrates ambitious women and calls for government to make it easier for women with children to succeed at work rather than stay home.

But she’s also representing her own interests. Like her father, Ivanka Trump isn’t just a mere human. She’s her own brand, selling Ivanka Trump jewelry, shoes, handbags, and clothing to educated professional women.

Donald Trump represented the ideal of mid-’80s masculinity — outrageous wealth accompanying outrageous braggadocio. Ivanka Trump is the other side of the coin, projecting the idealized femininity of 2016. She celebrates the power of working women while making sure to display her adorable children in the background. Not only is she a polished professional who seems to have it all, she’ll sell you the shoes you need to wear to follow in her footsteps.

All this matters because what Ivanka Trump talks about, her father cares about. She also has a quality that’s rare in the Trump campaign: an ability to relentlessly, unshakably stay on message and on brand.

Often, though, the brand isn’t her father’s but her own. Ivanka Trump’s feminist-ish message might be calculated to attract the women voters among whom Donald Trump polls so terribly. But she’s also advancing her own personal ambitions. Ivanka Trump’s brand is about representing “women who work” — and the more she’s on the campaign trail, the more she’s able to promote that image.

As she wrote in her 2009 book, The Trump Card: “Everything I’ve done has led directly to what I’m doing, just as everything I’m doing is tied into what I might do next.”

Who is Ivanka Trump?

Republican National Convention: Day Four
Ivanka Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention.
John Moore/Getty Images

Before she turned 30, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump’s daughter from his first marriage to model Ivana Trump, was a vice president at her father’s company, a reality television star, the author of a career advice book, and a fashion entrepreneur.

In other words, Ivanka Trump, now 34, is an extension of the family brand. She’s an executive vice president at the Trump Organization with a broad portfolio of responsibilities. Her Ivanka Trump fine jewelry collection, aimed at women who are buying their own jewelry, launched in 2007. Then she expanded into mid-priced shoes, bags, and work clothes.

She’s also trying to carve out a role for herself in the bigger national conversation about women and ambition that found its apex in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.

Her 2009 book, The Trump Card, is a career advice handbook, the same breezy mix of common-sense tips and memoir that Donald Trump made famous in The Art of the Deal. Her website, IvankaTrump.com, puts fashion tips next to articles with headlines such as “5 Tips for Running a Business from Home.” In 2014, Trump launched a Women Who Work campaign, a series of short videos focusing on the lives of successful women entrepreneurs.

The Women Who Work videos, and the interviews Trump has given about them, make the sometimes-facile Lean In seem like a weighty sociology text. But female empowerment is a hot marketing tool. Trump is selling a polished version of female ambition and competence, like a slightly older, impossibly poised sorority sister mentoring the girls a few years behind her.

Of course, she’s also selling shoes.

Ivanka Trump is all about celebrating “women who work” — but only some women

Ivanka Trump’s core ideology is about celebrating the achievements of women who work not as an economic necessity but by choice.

Trump says she wants to remove the stigma from the term “working woman,” but she’s talking about and to a very specific kind of working woman — the same woman who can afford to buy Ivanka Trump clothes and has a white-collar job where she can wear them.

In her Women Who Work videos, a series of successful professional women, many of them startup founders, describe themselves in terms of their achievements outside the office. “I play at cooking — I say ‘play’ because I’m not good,” says Alexa von Tobel, the founder and CEO of LearnVest.

“When things have gone wrong, it’s been my family that has helped me piece it together and let me know that I have inherent self-worth,” says Shiza Shahid, co-founder of the Malala Fund.

This isn’t feminism so much as “You go girl!”-ism. Trump is celebrating the achievements of women of her generation and highlighting that they have lives outside the office. The videos skirt close to suggesting that the women she’s profiling “have it all,” in part because Trump is much less likely to talk about the tradeoffs that society requires of them in order to be successful.

Every woman, Trump is arguing, is a woman who works. And the more women there are who are “women who work,” the more potential customers there are for Ivanka Trump clothes.

Structural critiques, though, don’t help sell clothes. So her brand largely ignores the darker side of being a woman at the office, whether it’s the struggle to balance work and family or the frequency with which women encounter sexual harassment.

Even in The Trump Card, where she tells a story about her anxiety about responding appropriately to wolf whistles and other forms of sexual harassment on construction sites, she turns it into a lesson about the need to learn to take a joke:

Sexual harassment is never acceptable, and we must stand against it. At the same time, we must recognize that our coworkers come in all shapes, stripes, and sizes. What might be offensive to one person might appear harmless to another. Learn to figure out when a hoot or a holler is indeed a form of harassment and when it’s merely a good-natured tease that you can give back in kind.

She’s equally unlikely to deal with larger structural issues affecting women. Asked on CBNC if she identifies more with Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s championing of female ambition, or Anne-Marie Slaughter’s structural critique in an article headlined “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Trump dodged the question: “My approach is to celebrate that we are all the architects of our own lives,” she responded.

Her goal is to define “women’s work” as something bigger than just their careers, with the message that every woman is a working woman. And if every woman is a working woman, then every woman is a potential Trump customer.

How Ivanka Trump’s beliefs have affected Donald Trump’s policy

Before her father started running for president, Ivanka Trump’s message of female empowerment was utterly devoid of ideas about the role of government in women’s professional success. Now that she’s helping craft his domestic policy ideas on the campaign trail, they often reflect — consciously or unconsciously — that she’s speaking to a very specific audience.

Trump’s Women Who Work campaign isn’t aimed at women who get dressed in a Starbucks cashier’s uniform rather than an Ivanka Trump-branded dress and pumps. She isn’t celebrating the achievements of a single mom who works two jobs at the minimum wage, or a woman who needs child care while earning a college degree.

The biggest piece of policy she’s worked on so far reflects those blind spots. Donald Trump, whose campaign has been almost entirely policy-free, broke with tradition in August with a child care plan which called for making child care expenses tax-deductible, a policy which Ivanka played a role in crafting.

Almost immediately, the plan was criticized for helping the wealthy, who pay a higher tax rate, more than the poor, who struggle the most to afford child care. As originally proposed, the plan would do nothing for the families who pay no income taxes at all, or for those who are living paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford to wait until tax time to see a benefit.

The campaign later suggested those workers could deduct child care costs from payroll taxes. Still, the fact remained: The people who would be helped most by Donald Trump’s child care plan are the well-educated, well-compensated women in Ivanka Trump’s audience.

Even Ivanka Trump’s emphasis on the gender pay gap, particularly for women with children — a longtime cause of feminist activists — skews toward professional women. Women with advanced degrees experience the greatest gap between their salaries and their male peers’.

How Ivanka Trump’s message could influence Republicans long-term

Ivanka Trump’s message could be an awkward fit with her father’s base. But even after she gave a Democratic-sounding speech at the Republican National Convention, delegates didn’t seem dissatisfied.

The speech seemed aimed less at the Republicans in the room and more at Ivanka’s own audience — women who are statistically very unlikely to vote for her father. Trump fares worse with well-educated people, young voters, and women. Ivanka Trump is aiming her message squarely at that group.

Still, that doesn’t mean there’s no home for her ideas within the Republican Party.

The Trump Card, is infused with an up-by-the-bootstraps mentality. Trump seems to believe there are few disadvantages that can’t be made up for by hard work: “You might not have their Ivy League pedigrees or their advanced degrees,” she writes to her audience of young professionals. “But there’s no reason you can’t get to work earlier than they do every morning and leave later every evening.” That fits in well with a party that prefers self-reliance to government assistance.

Even the underlying message of Women Who Work — while it celebrates women who go to the office rather than stay home and raise children — is in its own way socially conservative, emphasizing that it’s not enough for a woman to define itself by her professional success. Her admonition that while sexual harassment is unacceptable, sometimes you just need to laugh it off, wouldn’t be out of place on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page.

For Ivanka Trump to have a lasting impact on the Republican Party, she’d have to care about conservative politics beyond her father’s campaign.

And so far, her policy suggestions haven’t drawn on the Republican Party as a whole. Conservative reformers have suggested ideas to expand the child tax credit and help women with children, whether they work or stay home, that the campaign could have adapted. Instead, the campaign came up with its own child care plan, one that reflected Ivanka Trump’s biases and audience.

Is Ivanka Trump helping her father’s campaign, or helping herself?

Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump
Ivanka Trump and her father at the Republican National Convention.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The vast gulf between the Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump audiences means that, by working so avidly for her father’s election, Ivanka Trump is taking a risk. Her brand could be tainted by being so permanently associated with a man so many women, particularly educated, affluent women, disapprove of.

But there’s another possible outcome, too. The more Ivanka Trump talks about working women and gender issues on the trail, the more she strengthens the core of her “women who work” brand while trying to help her father attract female voters. (She doesn’t weigh in on crime or immigration, more controversial subjects tightly associated with his campaign but not with her own brand.)

The evidence suggests that Ivanka Trump would see a choice between helping her father or helping herself as a false one.

In the epilogue of The Trump Card, Trump writes about one of her favorite business terms, synergy — making all of your ventures work together to reinforce each other. When she was a judge on Celebrity Apprentice, she designed a challenge around her jewelry brand; in her work at the Trump Organization, she offered $500 discounts to the best customers at the company’s hotels.

The point, she wrote, was a sort of cross-promotion, strengthening the Ivanka Trump brand (she looks like a competent businesswoman), the Trump Organization (which was able to reward its loyal customers), and her jewelry business (which got airtime on Celebrity Apprentice and more business from Trump Hotel guests), all at the same time.

Through that lens, her choice to speak about equal pay at the Republican National Convention makes sense. It’s another example of her cherished synergy: She could appeal to women voters for her father while underscoring to a national audience that Ivanka Trump is a poised businesswoman who understands the needs of “women who work.”

When it comes to synergy in self-promotion, Celebrity Apprentice is nothing compared to the main stage of a national political convention.

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