In a rare display of emotional candour last week, Ivanka Trump tweeted her disappointment at a culture that was prepared to violate the bastion of free speech. She was speaking not about the rights of thousands of people to express their opinion on the killing of George Floyd without being tear-gassed, but about the decision of Wichita State University to kill her own pre-recorded commencement address.
Ivanka’s rebuke was to post her nine-minute address on YouTube, so that she might still reach the students — as well as share her broader insights with the world. “Listening to one another is important now more than ever!” she wrote by way of introduction. “I know that all of these talented graduates will dream big and aspire to make the world a better place!”
Like her father, Ivanka loves an exclamation mark! But when it comes to their delivery and deportment, they sit at either end of two extremes. While The Donald is portly, dyspeptic and shambolic, Ivanka is as poised, shellacked and polished as a wax figurine. Days before bequeathing her wisdoms to the public, Ivanka joined her father for a picture opportunity beside a church. Gliding along in stilettos, a pantsuit and a gently spotted mask, behind the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Mark Milley (head-to-toe in army camo), she was a portrait of benign beatific blondeness, a smiling handmaiden there to proffer Bibles from her $1,540 purse.
Likewise, as a public speaker, her delivery is benevolent and kindly. While her father’s vocal timbre seems always two beats away from nailing a deal on some old banger, his daughter speaks in vanilla-smeared aphorisms with a fairy-princess rasp.
So smooth, so munificent, so flaxen. And yet somehow so much more discomfiting a spectacle than her father. Trump is all-out open warfare. Ivanka is watchful, Teflon-coated, unnaturally serene.
Watching her talk about the students’ accomplishments, I tried to think who it was that she brought to mind. And then it struck me: she seems to have modelled her performance on the villainess of some teen dystopian film. In particular, I was reminded of Kate Winslet as Jeanine Matthews, a platinum-haired dictator in a sheath dress who seeks the destruction of the Divergents in the film series of that name.
Certainly, Ivanka has perfected the art of the deathly flat delivery so that every sentence sounds the same. “Your journey to today didn’t come without determination, sacrifices, grit, sweat, and likely even a few tears. But you persevered,” she said in a monologue that took in Star Wars-inspired themes: “The achievement of the hero is one that he is ready for,” she instructed. “The adventure that he is ready for, is the one that he gets.”
While Ivanka’s style is more conciliatory than her father’s, she shares his habit of putting things in jeopardy, or on either side of a divide. In the week when Jim Mattis, former US secretary of defence, remarked that Trump’s leadership was dangerously divisive, her rhetoric plays to a similar theme of friend and foe. “You are a wartime graduate,” she announced. “Our entire society is engaged in a national endeavour to defeat the virus, protect our fellow citizens and open up America again.”
Yet, just as her presence at the church photo op suggested the mien of a woman who was mentally booking a manicure, the commencement speech was similarly devoid of connectedness or passion. It made me wonder why she felt so compelled to share it. But Ivanka has long harboured grandiose ambitions. In the 2003 documentary Born Rich, about super-privileged Manhattanites (still available on YouTube), the young Ivanka describes her intention to follow the family business and get into real estate. Filmed as she considers the New York skyline, she wonders “what patch of, like, sky, you know, maybe one of my buildings will be in”.
Instead, she has followed her father elsewhere. And while Ivanka may seem to scud around the reaches of her father’s orbit, her desire to be noticed is still powerful enough to draw her in. Despite her demurral she loves a bit of limelight. And even in a month where the watchword has been to listen, Ivanka’s natural instinct was to wade in.
Maybe she hoped the speech would highlight her humanity at a time when the administration’s humanity is hard to read? Instead, it made her seem even more peculiar than usual — a toothy avatar beamed in from Planet Weird.
I wonder also what the graduates would have made of her reassurance that, armed with their learning, they might look forward to a future in which they might “run an assembly line, build a field hospital, police our communities …keep America connected through the internet” or even “draw blood to save lives.”
It’s not quite the scale of aspiration she herself once harboured. Instead, I hope they too are dreaming of a city skyline, and wondering where they might fill their patch of sky.
Email Jo at [email protected]
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