The controversy over Melania Trump’s apparent plagiarism of Michelle Obama has blunted whatever might have otherwise been the impact of one of the Republican convention’s few humanizing moments.
On the night the would-be First Lady spoke, the rest of the slate spoke in broad and apocalyptic terms about the potentially catastrophic effects of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Had the speech not opened Mrs. Trump up to plagiarism charges, its substance and its halting delivery—indicating the speaker was acting against her will, in an act of love or duty—might have helped to frame Trump as a person, rather than a set of troubling fears. Now, though, a figure who had largely been absent from the campaign trail (including, surprisingly, at the rollout of Vice-Presidential pick Mike Pence) will likely recede yet further into the distance.
The next such opportunity to showcase Trump’s softer side will come courtesy of speeches delivered by his adult children, all four of whom—Tiffany, Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka—are slated to speak. The schedule, unsurprisingly, gives pride of place on the convention’s final night to media star Ivanka, perhaps the most well-liked member of Trump’s family in the media.
But based on her public persona and past TV appearances, it’s incredibly unlikely that the candidate’s daughter will provide even a Melania-sized change in Trump’s image. For years as an advisor on The Apprentice, Ivanka Trump’s great skill was genially and smoothly echoing her father. Her speech will surely lack Melania’s human jitteriness, along with anything that could give us new insight. It’ll be the work of a pro.
Ivanka Trump was even before the election a very familiar figure—covered in the celebrity press for her own family with newspaper owner Jared Kushner. (Disclosure: I spent two uneventful years working at Jared Kushner’s New York Observer, during which time I interacted with neither Kushner nor his wife.) Her primary forward-facing role, though, was in her time on The Apprentice, where, along with her brothers, she counseled her father. Eric and Donald Jr. were perfectly competent at the basics of appearing on TV, but Ivanka had an almost otherworldly poise. Press coverage of her, pre-presidential election, indicates how she came to be seen in the public sphere as omnipotently good at everything, from jewelry design to business deals.
The Ivanka Trump character, on the reality show, projected confidence and competence but did more to ratify her father’s firing decisions after the fact than to express her own opinion before the hammer came down. (This, it should be noticed, is distinct from her real-life job as an executive at the Trump Organization, which is by all accounts a demanding one.) Her image as a genius of business seemed in large part to trade against how relatively suave and pleasant she was in contrast to her rough-edged father—sharing with him only a killer instinct for finding the camera.
But what she actually said in her job as advisor seemed to come down to weekly shots of Trump conferring to make sure he’d made a good decision. Coincidentally, he always had! After her father said he didn’t like one contestant’s disloyalty, Ivanka replied, “I agree, I think Lou really dug his own grave in here.” Or Ivanka would issue a vague platitude, as when she declared one season’s first evictee “has a great heart, and I think she’ll continue to do great things.” Sometimes, her message existed outside of insight or meaning, uttered only to provide a teaser for the next episode: “The dynamic is fascinating,” she said after one firing. “We’ll see how the guys do going forward.”
While Ivanka Trump’s website, with articles about summer accessories and succeeding in the workplace, projects a similarly assured tone, she’s been less present in TV coverage of the campaign than she was on The Apprentice. This isn’t necessarily surprising. Her mastery of The Apprentice was her ability to shift with ease into playing the role her father expected of her. Daylight never shone between her opinion and that of the boss. In this election cycle, that has meant allowing her father to shine as brightly and garishly as he otherwise might, neither contradicting him nor amplifying him but just noting that the dynamic is fascinating and we’ll see how the campaign does going forward.
There’s no reason to believe, after having assiduously built a public career where substance comes second to style, that Ivanka is going to risk it all by going any further than she’s comfortable with. The great blunder of Melania’s speech—the thing that made it at first transfixing, and when its sourcing became clear, deeply unfortunate—was the degree to which it overextended her.
Ivanka, unlike both her father and her stepmother, is congenitally unable to go out on a limb. It’s what has made her such an effective surrogate, and what will likely make her speech at the Republican National Convention a missed opportunity to show us something about her father besides the fact that his daughter knows to say he’s always right.
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