Ivanka, your empathy gap is showing
Ivanka Trump’s new book came out this past week, and, what with all the focus on her father’s step toward yanking health care from millions of people and his fulminating about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War, “Women Who Work” didn’t receive the attention it deserves.
Okay, maybe it did. As its acerbic reviewers have observed, the book is a parodic pastiche of the upper-middle-class-working-mom self-help genre. This is a woman who uses “architect” as a verb — repeatedly. As in, “every woman should thoughtfully architect a life she’ll love and actively work toward achieving her goals.”
If there is an original thought in the book, it is well-hidden among new-agey platitudes (“writing a personal mission statement is an incredibly valuable way to begin”) and repackaged wisdom: Nelson Mandela, Sheryl Sandberg, Jane Goodall, more Stephen Covey than anyone should have to reread, a woman who spiralizes vegetables.
Still, I write today not (only) to ridicule the president’s daughter but to implore her. Ivanka, you have a uniquely privileged perch, with the power to command “10 minutes alone with my father,” as the New York Times has reported.
So could you try, just try, to imagine the needs of those who inhabit a world outside your cosseted confines, and use your Trump-whispering skills on their behalf ? Say, the kinds of people who have to worry about finding enough money to get food on the table or — even more painfully salient at this moment — afford health care for their kids?
The evidence suggests this could be a heavy lift. Empathy does not seem a Trump family trait. Ivanka Trump writes of her experience on the campaign, “meeting the men and women of our great nation and listening to their hopes and dreams, their challenges and concerns.”
You might think, as Jennifer Senior observed in the Times, that such exposure might have expanded Trump’s understanding of the needs of, say, women who work because they must, not because it lets them architect “a full, multidimensional life.”
Instead, Trump treats the campaign as part of her journey of self-actualization: “I have grown tremendously as a person and the experience has been life changing.” Still, so demanding were the rigors of the campaign that she “wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.”
At least from the evidence of “Women Who Work,” Trump’s understanding of this cohort is laughably cramped: “We’re training for marathons and learning to code. We’re planning adventures with our kids and weekend getaways with our friends.”
Not, we are taking the bus to two minimum-wage jobs so we can avoid eviction.
Tacked on at the end of the book, just before the referral to additional TED talks and self-help manuals, is a nod to the problems confronting single mothers in low-wage jobs and the need for affordable child care and paid maternity leave. Perhaps it is unfair to expect more from what is a fluffy publicity exercise, not a serious policy prescription. But if the quality of thinking and depth of knowledge evinced by this book are any guide, heaven help us.
The argument for swallowing the inherent distastefulness, if not outright brandbuilding griftiness, of having Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump in the White House is that they are behind-the-scenes advocates for moderation. If they are unprepared except by accident of birth and marriage for such exalted roles, at least they are a powerful countervailing voice to the forces of Bannonist nationalism.
Trump told the Times that she was learning “to be a much more proactive voice inside the White House,” coyly suggesting that even if she loses a policy debate, she may have value at the margin: “Maybe along the way I’ve modified a position just slightly. And that’s just great.”
How great? Look at this past week. Yes, President Trump may have backed off from an offensive order curtailing gay rights. But there was the president rejoicing in House passage of a measure that would cause millions to lose health coverage.
And the week brought news that the president has installed, to oversee the federal family planning program, a woman who apparently believes neither in the mission of her office (“family planning is something that occurs between a husband and a wife and God”) nor in birth control itself (“contraception doesn’t work”).
Maybe it’s time for Ivanka Trump to take her own advice. “You don’t get what you don’t ask for,” she counsels readers. But also, “Be prepared to walk away.” Is she asking? So she would have us believe. Is she prepared to walk away? Doesn’t look like it.
Ivanka Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 5.