Once upon a time, there was a dictator who had a daughter. The dictator, who came to power vowing to make his country great, enacted a series of repressive policies under the guise of nationalism. He persecuted the media and the opposition, used “war on terror” rhetoric to justify a clampdown on civil rights, maintained a close but complicated relationship with Russia, and built a kleptocracy that ensured the country’s riches lined his pockets.
The daughter seemed different – or at least, she wanted to be seen that way. She was an Ivy League-educated cosmopolitan socialite who married into a powerful business family before making her mark as a fashion designer and businesswoman. Like her father, she encouraged an avid personality cult; and like her father, she hid her own brutal practices under the pretext of a soft “feminism”, claiming to represent the ideal modern woman of her country.
I’m talking, of course, about Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov and his daughter Gulnara Karimova. That this description evokes the burgeoning Trump political dynasty should concern you.
For Americans, the elevation of Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, into the upper echelons of the administration is an unfamiliar violation of basic tenets of American governance. The United States was founded, after all, in rebellion to a monarchy. And while there have been numerous political dynasties – Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons – there has never been such a blatant insertion of relatives with no qualifications for political office into such high positions of power.
Why appoint family members?
While novel to the US, the Trump family dynamic may be familiar for citizens of authoritarian kleptocracies. One has seen it in Central Asian states like Uzbekistan and in countless other countries where rulers consolidate power and strip the country’s resources for their personal benefit.
Family members tend to have a warmer public profile which offsets the brutality of the dictator, distracting the population with pictures of their happy families or glamorous lifestyle
Adult children of authoritarians are useful in three ways: first, they tend to be trustworthy confidants in regimes rife with paranoia, as corrupt authoritarian states usually are. Second, they are excellent vessels for laundering money, creating enough distance that assets stolen from the state are harder to track. Third, they tend to have a warmer public profile which offsets the brutality of the dictator by distracting the population with pictures of their happy families or glamorous lifestyle.
For nearly two years, Jared and Ivanka have been peddled by the press as a “moderating influence” on her vulgar, bigoted father. They have done nothing to merit this characterization.
When hate crimes rose in tandem with the Trump campaign, Ivanka and Jared were silent. When xenophobes like Michael Flynn – the former NSA head revealed to be a foreign agent – screeched tirades at the Republican National Convention, Ivanka and her siblings dutifully followed on stage. When Trump filled his cabinet with white supremacists like Steve Bannon, Nazis like Seb Gorka, and racists like Jeff Sessions, Ivanka and Jared did not distance themselves, but joined the team.
This is not a “moderating influence”; this is complicity.
Ivanka and Jared in the White House
Though initially Trump denied his daughter and son-in-law would have a significant role in the administration, they are now serving in positions of power.
Ivanka, a fashion designer whose wares were peddled on television by Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway in a possible violation of federal law, has her own White House office, though what she does beyond “advise” her father is not entirely clear.
Jared, who floundered in the real estate and publishing businesses, has now been tasked with bringing peace to the Middle East, running a “SWAT” team to streamline the federal government, and serving as an all-purpose envoy around the world, leading to jokes that he is the “real Secretary of State” which would be funnier if the US was not flirting with war with a number of heavily armed countries.
When a handbag designer recommends bombing another country
While once known as international jet-setters, the pair are now known for propelling a different kind of aircraft.
We are supposed to believe that Donald Trump, who once bragged that he would turn away Syrian refugee children, suddenly discovered his conscience through Ivanka, who apparently also just noticed the child victims of the brutal six-year war.
In response, Trump launched a strike without a strategy at a Syrian base, accomplishing nothing yet gaining media accolades – “He’s so presidential,” pundits swooned, before Trump blew it a few days later by nearly getting into nuclear war with North Korea – all seemingly at the behest of his daughter, the handbag designer, whom he once said he wanted to date.
This is unprecedented and unpresidential in many ways: the casual violence, the arbitrary policies, the unsettling nature of the father-daughter relationship, both personal and political. That Trump, lapping up media praise, followed up his Syria strike with a pointless mega-bomb on Afghanistan and a frightening escalation of rhetoric with North Korea is concerning: What if Ivanka decides it’s time to take out fellow nuke-bearing millennial Kim Jung Un?
That is not a rhetorical question, that is an actual question. If you disagree, imagine it is five years ago, and you are reading the paragraphs above, and were told that was America’s future.
Blueprint for a kleptocracy
When not operating as Trump’s military muse, Ivanka follows him in the family business of grift.
Trump did not drain the swamp; he merely made it into a moat that protects his family
As a presidential advisor with her own Trump family businesses all over the world, Ivanka is also subject to the emoluments clause, but that hasn’t stopped her from seemingly using White House access to boost her product lines. On the same day that Trump met China’s President Xi, the Chinese government agreed to approve trademarks for sale of Ivanka’s jewelry and handbags – and Trump abruptly changed his stance on Chinese currency days later.
When President Erdogan of Turkey won a referendum essentially rendering him a dictator, Trump shocked pundits by congratulating him – until 2012 tweets from Ivanka praising Erdogan’s backing of Trump Tower emerged.
Ivanka, in other words, is following the standard designs of kleptocracy.
When will this family be investigated?
That there has not been greater inquiry into her financial dealings and foreign ties speaks to a normalization of abuse of executive power, possibly because trading policy for handbags seems less threatening than Trump’s many other misdeeds. But the Trump family businesses should be scrutinized all the same. Trump did not drain the swamp; he merely made it into a moat that protects his family.
At the center of this protective measure is Jared, who when not doing his alleged job of Absolutely Everything, serves as a chess piece in the Trump administration’s media games, a pawn ready to be turned king. According to widely publicized “leaked” information, Kushner is locked in an ideological war with Steve Bannon, the white supremacist advisor who was recently ranked America’s least popular political figure.
Shaking up the status of players is common practice for authoritarian regimes and reality TV shows. Trump now has experience in both
There is no sign that Bannon has relinquished White House power in a meaningful way. Despite leaving the national security council, he still has both his security clearance and Trump’s ear. Should Bannon actually be removed, one would need to see whether he actually left the president’s sphere of influence, or lurks in the shadows, like Trump’s former campaign advisor/foreign agent Paul Manafort did after he took a similar plunge in popularity.
It is very common practice for authoritarian regimes to move around players to create the illusion of debate and dissent, both as a distraction from the regime’s flaws but also to give the impression that power is distributed equitably rather than consolidated around a dictator. Shaking up the status of players is also very common practice on reality TV shows, and Trump now has experience in both.
The goal of positioning Jared as the antithesis of Bannon appears to be to legitimize Jared, who has accomplished nothing beneficial to the American public, while moving the unpopular Bannon further from sight.
This dynasty is no fairy tale
What these maneuvers resemble, unfortunately, are the consolidation of a dynasty – the push of kin into the inner circle, all the more important as the FBI investigation into Russian interference comes bearing down. Jared, through resume padding and theatrical feuds, is getting a makeover – and possibly being groomed for power.
Positioning Jared as the antithesis of Bannon serves to legitimize Jared, who has accomplished nothing beneficial to the American public
What is important to remember is that neither Ivanka nor Jared should be there in the first place. They were not elected, they are likely violating a number of laws ranging from emoluments to security clearance improprieties, they have no qualifications for their jobs, and they wield enough influence that an offhand remark can lead to a bombing and a handbag line can lead to a change in foreign policy, which is a horrifying way for an administration to function.
It is tempting to normalize this, to look for the good – “at least they’re better than Bannon” – but there is nothing good about dynastic kleptocracy.
Ivanka Trump did not choose to be Donald Trump’s daughter, but she chose to participate in this administration, as did her husband. They are accountable. They are complicit. And they should be out.
More from De Correspondent: