Members Only | July 3, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

In Defense—Ugh!—of Ivanka

She's not as marginal as some elites want you to believe.

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Motherogod, Frank Bruni is going to force me to defend Ivanka Trump!

I’d rather not—seriously!—but someone should say something about his latest. The Times columnist is appalled by the president’s daughter’s recent behavior. But beneath the surface, I sense, there is a kind of status anxiety that’s prevalent among some American elites. She’s revealing a societal truth they’d rather remained hidden. 

The subtext of Bruni’s piece is that Trump did not belong among the president’s entourage during an overseas meeting with G20 leaders and North Korea’s dictator. Her “job” as a White House “advisor” is not the product of her education, her experience, or her singular insight into the complexities of domestic affairs and international relations. She has a “job,” because her dad gave her one, which launched charges of nepotism with the fury of a thousand suns. Some of that was in good faith. Nepotism breeds corruption. But some of that fury wasn’t, well, exactly honest.

Of Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, Bruni said:

Ivanka and Jared typify the belief that attitude is achievement, that breaching a sanctum is as valid as earning a place there and that faking it is indeed making it. Call yourself a peacemaker and—abracadabra—you’re a peacemaker. Play the part of a diplomat with enough élan and people will eventually take you for one.

Maybe I’m wrong, but Bruni is describing an entire class of Americans.

Raise your hand if you’re a professional woman who’s been shut down during a business meeting by a man with half the know-how and twice the “confidence.” “Breaching the sanctum” is just “disruption” reworded, the mantra by which Silicon Valley operates. Pretending to be something instead of actually being something is the source of billions traded every day on Wall Street. Trump and Kushner are less marginal than Bruni would have us believe. The difference is they don’t care about, or don’t seem to care about, maintaining one of America’s defining conceits. 

That conceit is meritocracy.

There are three groups of American elites.

Now, I do not mean that Americans can’t work their way toward wealth. What I mean is that wealth has, in a majority of cases, very little to do with an individual’s innate capacities and willingness to work hard. For some, wealth is obviously the result of genius, pluck and luck, but on the whole, the top 20 percent of Americans has access to pretty much the best of everything, or nearly the best, because their parents did too. If inheriting a parent’s social status is not nepotism of a kind, then nothing is. 

Why would Bruni take offense to something ubiquitous among the top 20 percent? Why would he have us believe that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are outliers. At the risk of oversimplifying things, let’s say there are three groups of American elites.

One group understands the moral, social and political significance of being among the top 20 percent, and they are committed to paying it forward. Think of the Kennedys or Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Michael Bloomberg, people of affluence and influence who act in spite of self-interest to advance the cause of serving the greater good. 

Another group has no sense of morality or the social contract. They believe they deserve their place in society because they were fated (perhaps by God) to be born into it. It does not matter if they are dumb, lazy, illiterate or otherwise incapable of feeding themselves. They are deserving of their place in society by dint of owning that place, and that’s it. If this worldview isn’t a kind of fascism, it’s certainly and deeply anti-democratic. Here we can place Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and their ilk.

Of the country’s top 20 percent, I’d say the above two groups are the poles where minorities reside. The fat middle is the third group that mostly believes they deserve what they have but understand the social utility of pretending they don’t. That or they feel genuine shame for the accident of birth determining their lives. I don’t know where Frank Bruni resides along this spectrum. After graduating from a Connecticut boarding school, he could have gone anywhere to study. Yet his decision to attend UNC over Yale, he has said, was “divorced from the simple question of prestige.” 

Bruni didn’t want to do what his peers were doing. He wanted to go his own way. And that’s to his credit. I presume many of his peers followed suit. But that does not change the fact that much about their lives was decided before they were born. No matter how hard they work, no matter what choices they make in their lives, they still inherited their parents’ social status. It’s hard for me to imagine the weight of the burden of believing that just by existing, one can literally contravene the idea of America.

They should work that out, if they can, but doing that is surely made more difficult with Ivanka Trump in the White House. Bruni is right. She has no right to be there. But she’s not marginal. She reflects the anti-egalitarianism of American affluence.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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