The creeping influence of nepotism in Trump’s America
     
The US president’s family’s grip on power is unprecedented in western democracy
by: Edward Luce
    
 

What exactly is the role of a first daughter? That question in Berlin this week had Ivanka Trump fumbling for a reply. Without having ever won a vote, Donald Trump’s elder daughter is now among the world’s most influential people. Her husband, Jared Kushner, is the Trump administration’s plenipotentiary by virtue of his marriage. Both appear to be nice people: friends describe them as “normal”. But their ascent to the pinnacle of US power has no parallel in modern western democracy. The Germans are not alone in wondering what to make of it.

From China’s Xi Jinping, to Canada’s Justin Trudeau, and Germany’s Angela Merkel, world leaders are working on the assumption that Mr Trump will keep his daughter and son-in-law in key positions. Others, such as Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, “can easily be replaced”, as Mr Trump quipped this week. But foreign governments think the president’s close relatives cannot be dislodged. They may prefer it that way. Ms Trump was apparently critical in drawing her father’s attention to the human effects of Syria’s recent chemical weapons attack. Her husband is busy sidelining Stephen Bannon, chief proponent of the “America first” doctrine. The couple acts as a curb on the president’s stronger impulses.

Ms Trump also serves to humanise her father. This week she co-wrote an opinion piece for the Financial Times piece with Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, to argue for a greater role for women in the global workforce. Following a campaign in which her father made a priority of restoring male-dominated jobs, such as coal mining, Ms Trump plays a useful yin to her father’s yang. It is no accident that Ivanka was the first Trump to make a high profile foreign visit since her father’s inauguration. Mr Trump has still not travelled abroad.

Yet there are costs to Ms Trump’s meteoric rise. The first is the reputational hit to US democracy. Presidential relatives often play a prominent role. Doubtless Bill Clinton would have been a powerful “first guy” had Hillary Clinton won. Chelsea Clinton would also have wielded power. But Ms Trump’s position takes the White House family enterprise to new levels. Her German trip showed it up starkly. She sat next to Ms Merkel, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, and other women there by virtue of their own efforts.

Ms Trump’s presence also reminded her hosts of the role of inherited power and wealth in modern American society. Like her father, and her brother Donald Junior, who is co-head with another brother, Eric, of the Trump Organization, Ms Trump is a graduate of Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s business school. Nobody suggests she was unfit to attend an elite school. But the fact that her father studied there cannot have harmed her chances.

One in four at Ivy League universities are legacy students. That Mr Trump is estimated to have donated at least $1.5m to Pennsylvania University is also salient. Likewise, there is no reason to question Mr Kushner’s academic abilities. But his father, Charles Kushner, donated $2.5m to Harvard University, which Jared attended. To be fair, elites do whatever it takes to gain advantage for their children. But it assumes a different scale when your father becomes US president.

The second risk is about the appearance of conflict. Ms Trump has rightly ceded control of her fashion and clothes business to outsiders while she works as a White House adviser. She has also declined to take a salary. But that is unlikely to be enough. It is possible China would have approved Ms Trump’s trademark applications regardless of whether her father was president. It was nevertheless awkward that they received the green light during Mr Xi’s visit to Mar-a-Lago earlier this month. Even the clothes Ms Trump wears can have a big pay off. US retailers quaked when Mr Trump sent a tweet earlier this year criticising Nordstrom for having removed a line of Ms Trump’s products from its stores.

Then there is the public relations risk. Ms Trump is right to argue that strong economies are built on equal opportunities. She was also right to criticise the US for failing to provide the right to paid maternity leave. But she will need to show evidence of her influence. Mr Trump’s budget says nothing about paid leave. Ms Trump’s public relations drive could thus quickly boomerang. Instead of arguing women’s case inside the White House, people may come to believe that her real job is to pitch her father’s case to women.

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