Why Scarlett Johansson does not understand Ivanka Trump’s public silence

Ivanka Trump

Ivanka Trump (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a recent interview, Scarlett Johansson criticized Ivanka Trump. She said that Ivanka’s failure to challenge her father’s public betrayed her claims to be an advocate for women.[1] In response, Ivanka explained that her influence was hidden from the public. She argued that a private criticism was more effective than a public one.[2] Although Ms Johansson did accept that Ivanka was in an awkward situation with her father and touched on the potential family dynamics that restrained Ivanka, she seemed uncertain as to why Ivanka could not speak publicly and preferred to work behind the scenes. What Ms Johansson lacked was an understanding of Ivanka as she understands herself. This essay attempts to create that understanding.

Can you criticize publicly that which provides you with luxuries?

For all of her power, status, and privileges Ivanka is in an invidious position. She cannot publicly rebuke her father because she lives in his shadow. As Trump runs his empire, like a patriarch of old, Ivanka knows that to cross him publicly would be sever herself from the family. The family and business are blurred to the point where there is no difference.[3] As a friend commented, the Trump empire rotates around Donald. It is all about him with the children accessories to his success.[4] A break with her father would endanger all of it. Is it a relationship she is free to criticize publicly?

Ivanka has always worked this way, why would she change it?

If we look at Ivanka’s previous behaviour, we see a pattern that reflects her precarious situation. The pattern does reveal to some extent how she understands herself and her relationship to her father. Even when her father’s comments bordered on sexual harassment, she did not criticise him directly. Even when asked directly “Have you challenged your father”, she gave an indirect answer that provides the impression she does without saying it.

“On whether she ever admonishes her father for his more outrageous assertions and personal insults: “Well, I’m his daughter. In a political capacity, I don’t. It’s his campaign. I don’t feel that’s my role. But I would challenge him as a child. That’s what children do. [My daughter] Arabella challenges me every day. People ask me, do I ever disagree with my father? It would be a little strange if I didn’t.”” [5]

She also responded indirectly when the issue was raised directly on the View in 2006. In the video, she is an outfit that to put it modestly puts her modelling assets on display.[6]

“Notoriously, appearing on the View in 2006 with Ivanka sitting beside him, Trump announced: “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”

Ivanka gamely shook her head, tongue firmly in cheek, as if to say, “Yep, that’s my dad!” (This was before she became someone who tweeted out #ITWiseWords, including quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt about self-worth).” [7]

Ivanka is modelling a behaviour as old as Rome

To understand Ivanka’s behaviour we need to go back to ancient Rome. Tacitus, a famous Roman orator, described in his work the Annales how virtuous courtiers survived within a Caesar’s court. They survived by finding a mean, a path, between servile obedience and rash resistance.

I find, Lepidus to have been a serious [gravem] and wise [sapientem] man in those times. For often he bent aside the cruel adulations of others into a better [course] Nevertheless he was not lacking in moderation [temperament!] either, since he flourished with constant authority and influence with Tiberius. Thence I am compelled to be uncertain [dubitare] whether the inclination of First Citizens toward some and their ill will toward others comes by fate and the lot of being born, as other things, or whether there is some [room] for our own counsels, and it is permitted to follow a course devoid of ambition and dangers, between rash obstinacy [abruptam contumaciam] and servile obedience [deforme obsequium] (iv.20.2-3).[8]

Scarlett Johansson has the luxury of not having Trump as her father. Ivanka does not have that luxury. In a sense, she lives within a tyranny, a wider network of relationships that exists for one purpose—to server her father.

Ivanka serves he father because it serves her.

Ivanka knows that she must serve her father. She does so because she also serves herself. Her success is derived from her father and her father’s name. At times, she acts as his surrogate.[9] If his brand fails, so does hers. She has no existence beyond the name Trump. Moreover, her husband is no longer independent of her father. Although they might have carved out a life beyond his immediate circle, had they wanted to, they would have needed to do it when they first married. Instead, they have embedded themselves within the family. Perhaps there was no conscious choice for to have a choice one must understand the alternatives. If you have been conditioned since birth to rely on your father and to live within his shadow, you would find it hard to challenge it or question it especially when all that is good in your life is derived from it.

The Presidency magnifies the president’s psychological characteristics

The relationship appears psychologically complex. Yet Trump is not the first president to come to the White House with psychologically complex relationships. One recalls that Bill Clinton’s relationship with his mother was similarly complex. One effect was it appeared to help him empathize with other people. In a curious parallel, Chelsea Clinton remarked that Ivanka had a similar trait.

“Chelsea Clinton and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky. “She’s always aware of everyone around her and ensuring that everyone is enjoying the moment,” says Chelsea. “It’s an awareness that in some ways reminds me of my dad, and his ability to increase the joy of the room.”” [10]

Consider this view of Bill Clinton’s behaviour and his success as a politician who could “feel your pain” because he had lived with such pain.

“”He was abused,” Clinton told Franks. “When a mother does what she does, it affects you forever.”

Clinton continued: “I am not going into it, but I’ll say that when this happens in children, it scars you. You keep looking in all the wrong places for the parent who abused you.”

Franks does not specify the nature of the abuse in the book passage and writes that the then-first lady “declined to give me details.””[11]

Trump’s public comments shape his private relationships

Trump’s public comments about his daughter’s sexual allure and sexual availability indicate that their relationship is complex.[12] What is certain is that what we see publicly may not reflect what occurs privately. If the public behaviour reflects the private relationship, then it would be difficult to speak publicly. Yet, if the relationship allows for private criticism, why does Ivanka need to speak publicly? Either way, the relationship does not allow for the easy independence Ms Johansson demands. She may have it, but to demand it of someone else seems obtuse. She misunderstands Ivanka’s position. If we understand that Ivanka might be acting prudently by seeking a middle path between servile obedience and publicly obstinacy, her behaviour makes sense. Today’s social media age, which Ms Johansson reflects, works on public appearances so that public displays become our standard for public and private behaviour. Such a belief, though, reverses the public-private relationship and removes the chance to act modestly and moderately.

Do we have an author who can capture this family’s complexities?

What is overlooked by many commentators, though, is that the relationship is mutual and it shapes Donald Trump’s behaviour. Trump relies heavily on his children and Jared for he trusts them for the loyalty they have is not found elsewhere in the White House. What we need are writers who can capture this complex family dynamic as it shapes our lives. If Shakespeare were alive we might see him reprise King Lear to capture the Trump presidency. If Faulkner were alive, we would have a writer who do justice to the relationship between the Trumps and the Kushners for he which he would have to reprise the Snopes Trilogy.[13] Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the decline in oratory and the servility of our thought that there is no living writer who can write something half as good with such rich material. For now, we will have to settle for writers who celebrate Ms Johansson’s indignation at being unable to understand Ivanka Trump.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbKPMNt4PCQ

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUaoUPfs1aI

[3] “The Trump Organization has a unique culture. Everyone calls the boss “Mr. Trump.” Employees often eat lunch at the Trump Grill, in the lobby of Trump Tower, which offers a dish called Ivanka’s Salad. The higher you get in the company, the more the family and business blur. Michael Cohen, the executive vice-president of the Trump Organization, told the Jewish Chronicle, “To those of us who are close to Mr. Trump, he is more than our boss. He is our patriarch.”” http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/22/ivanka-trump-and-jared-kushners-power-play

[4] A Trump family friend told me, “It’s a close family in many ways—except it’s all about Donald all the time.” He went on, “Donald only thinks of himself. When you say, ‘Donald, it’s raining today,’ he says, ‘It doesn’t matter, I’m indoors.’” http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/22/ivanka-trump-and-jared-kushners-power-play

[5] http://www.justjared.com/2015/12/29/ivanka-trump-defends-dad-donald-trump-hes-one-of-the-great-advocates-for-women/

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DP7yf8-Lk80

[7] http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/05/ivanka-versus-the-donald/483542/

[8] Cited in James C Leake’s Tacitus’ Teaching and the Decline of Liberty at Rome (Chapters 3 to 7) 15 (2) Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 73, 242 (1987). For anyone who wants to understand oratory, writing, or life under a tyranny, this work is essential. In the United States, as evidenced by the extent to which Ms Johansson misunderstands Ivanka Trump, we believe that our freedom of speech represents a liberty without realizing the appearance of liberty is not the same as freedom from tyranny.

[9] http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2016/04/13/ivanka-trump-proves-a-savvy-surrogate-for-her-father/?_r=0

[10] http://www.vogue.com/11739787/ivanka-trump-collection-the-apprentice-family/

[11] http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2014/08/01/new-book-says-hillary-clinton-blamed-husbands-infidelity-on-abuse-as-a-child/comment-page-1/

[12] http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/donald-trump-awkwardly-hugs-melania-ivanka-expert-weighs-in-w430543

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snopes_trilogy

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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