Of all the imagery that emerged from the Trump-Trudeau showdown, a photo that showed up on Ivanka Trump’s Instagram feed is the most haunting. In it, she’s seated at the desk of the president of the United States in the Oval Office. Her father stands to her right, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to her left. Both men are smiling. Trump’s grin is so big, it looks like his face might crack. Of course it is. He has just engineered a piece of political iconography, using Canada’s PM as a prop, that people are supposed to accept as normal. It is anything but.
Little doubt the children of past U.S. presidents have sat in dad’s office chair—in private. None have occupied it during a visit by a head of government. That Ivanka Trump, who has no official White House position, is sitting in the chair during a visit by a foreign head of government is ludicrous. But, as her sharing of it indicates, the photo serves a purpose for both daughter and father.
For Ivanka, the image is a useful souvenir, a reminder of a day the Canadian government put a flattering spotlight on her, and by extension her father, by organizing a roundtable focused on elevating women in the workplace. If you want to flatter a parent, compliment his children. But bringing in the ladies served another purpose: it filled time and focused attention away from thornier issues such as refugee claimants fleeing the U.S. for Canada. Ivanka, reportedly an unofficial advisor to her father, sat next to Trudeau for the 35-minute gathering that included accomplished female executives from the U.S. and Canada. Its optical importance was telegraphed by the fact it was held in the Cabinet Room, the first time Trump has used the venue since he became president. The formation of the “United States Canada Council for the Advancement of Women Business Leaders-Female Entrepreneurs” provided a professional salve of sorts for Ivanka, whose clothing and accessories line was dropped by major retailers for poor sales in past weeks amid controversy. It also dovetailed perfectly with Ivanka’s own #WomenWhoWork branding featured on her clothing and upcoming book.
On Instagram, the photo is accompanied by this message: “A great discussion with two world leaders about the importance of women having a seat at the table!” Yet, if anything, the photo infantilizes the president’s daughter. It’s a reminder that the only reason a woman is (fleetingly) sitting in the U.S. president’s chair has nothing to do with achievement or votes. She’s there because of a personal relationship and, in this case, nepotism.
The image is a mark of Trump’s arrogance, more proof of his poor judgment and lack of presidential decorum. Could it be the unofficial launch of Ivanka-for-President in 2020? Who knows. Stranger things have happened. The photo also stands as yet one more indication of Trump’s lack of appropriate boundaries with his daughter, his proudest creation. There’s ironic unintended consequence as well: at the very moment Trump is facing bombshell revelations about Russian involvement in the U.S. election, the photo serves as a reminder that Ivanka’s father might not be sitting at that desk legitimately either.
Ivanka, by all measures a smart and competent woman, has long been her father’s political prop: she’s used as proof her father can’t be as misogynistic, predatory, and the threat to women’s rights that the evidence would suggest. The fact she converted to Judaism before her marriage to Jared Kushner, is also cited as proof the Trump White House can’t possibly be anti-Semitic. Trump’s eldest daughter is presented as a progressive influence, though her own corporate practices and policy contributions don’t always walk that walk. She certainly looks the part—an attractive, modern, executive mother of three, juggling family and marriage. Her Instagram suggests a photogenic, privileged, charmed domestic life. Oddly, Ivanka’s family—and not the president’s own wife and son—has been employed to lend an air of domestic normalcy to the White House. Her Instagram features video of her youngest child crawling for the first time on a White House rug. In another photo, she’s sitting by a White House window, holding her baby, talking on the phone.
Most chilling, however, is Trudeau’s place in the farcical photograph. Could the prime minister have said, “No, I’m not comfortable with your daughter playing president? or “Why don’t we all stand up?” Of course. But at what diplomatic cost? The resulting image of him smiling in this absurd tableau presents him as biddable, even Trump’s patsy. It is difficult to picture, say, Angela Merkel being asked to do the same. Trudeau’s Washington visit would trigger much media commentary and criticism about how the prime minister extended his “feminist” credentials to Trump, a man who appointed only four women to his cabinet. But Trudeau has long used the “feminist” mantle as his political currency. What we witnessed in Washington was him exhausting it. And this photograph provides proof.
Correction: This post has been revised to reflect the fact that the Prime Minister of Canada is the “head of government,” not “head of state” as previously stated.