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The narratives surrounding Chelsea Clinton and Ivanka Trump are a case study in political hypocrisy and media double standards.
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As the FBI closes in on Donald Trump’s Russia ties, and his daughter Ivanka violates longstanding norms in an undefined role that comes with a West Wing office and top security clearance, a Washington Post op-ed zeroes in on Chelsea Clinton, suggesting: “The best thing Chelsea Clinton could do for her political future is to disappear.” Clinton hatred would seem laser-focused on the bright and accomplished former First Daughter at the moment, even as the dangerously corrupt tweeter-in-chief and his family and associates seek to destroy the foundation of our free society. Indeed, as Chelsea has become more outspoken on Twitter about the dangers of the Trump administration, the calls for her to quiet down get louder. Not unlike when her mother saw her approval ratings plummet whenever she sought public office, the roars for Chelsea’s silence increase now that there looms whispers of a possible congressional run.
Hey, guess what! Chelsea is being criticized when she isn’t running & has no policies. So don’t ever tell me that this isn’t about sexism.
— Molly (@isteintraum) March 19, 2017
Now that she has essentially been exiled from national politics since losing her presidential bid, Hillary haters on both sides of the aisle are finding it near impossible to engage in political discussions without using her as the proverbial fall guy. Perhaps Chelsea Clinton is suffering the misfortune of inheriting the criticisms that have long been wielded at her mother since her years as a First Lady. Though Chelsea has been praised for her candor for challenging the Trump administration, the trolls have most certainly come after her for her book deal, her new board seat with Expedia, her “Lifetime” achievement award (as in the TV network Lifetime, not an actual lifetime achievement award). Recovering anti-Hillary folks are meeting Chelsea’s voice, which she is using more and more to promote the issues closest to her heart—with suspicion.
Alt left & right hate Chelsea Clinton so much they tripped over themselves to confuse a Lifetime TV award w a lifetime achievement award
— Marcus H. Johnson (@marcushjohnson) March 22, 2017
When Clinton Derangement Syndrome meets inability to distinguish between capital and lower-case letters pic.twitter.com/WpkYmMvG42
— Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) March 22, 2017
Business Insider senior editor Josh Barro illustrated this Chelsea ire by facetiously tweeting last week, “Chelsea Clinton wants you to know you can thrive even if only *one* of your parents was president,” implying that a woman with four degrees has achieved success only due to her family. Ironically, Barro’s father is a Harvard professor and Barro just so happens to be an alumnus of the Cambridge-based university as well. If you’re keeping track at home, benefiting from your dad and/or mom’s accomplishments is acceptable as long as you’re a man, but not if you’re a female Clinton.
And apparently it’s not okay for women to benefit from her parents’ success, but totes cool if a man does… pic.twitter.com/Jk8UeL4Utp
— Sarah Lerner (@SarahLerner) March 18, 2017
And this is where the dog whistles over Clinton nepotism get interesting. As the Barros of the world dial up the heat on Chelsea—a private citizen whose role with the Clinton Foundation was under heavy fire ahead of the 2016 election —these same folks have kept their mouths shut on Ivanka Trump, who, with no official job title, is getting an office in the White House and security clearance while her husband, Jared Kushner, is already serving as a senior adviser to the president, in spite of nepotism laws that forbid this arrangement. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Daniel Koffsky explained conflicts in January by way of asserting that nepotism regulations only apply to executive agencies, of which the White House is apparently not a part.
Nepotism is illegal — but the Trump administration has decided it doesn’t apply to the White House. https://t.co/J1ZAEAq3Nz
— Vox (@voxdotcom) March 22, 2017
The political press largely bought these flimsy rationales, a scenario which would be highly unlikely if the “Clinton Rules” were applied here. Gene Lyons coined the term, describing the double standards imposed upon anyone in the Clinton orbit by the press. As Vox’s Jonathan Allen further outlined, these rules are as follows: Everything is worthy of full investigation, every allegation is believable until proven utterly false, assume Hillary Clinton is acting in bad faith unless hard evidence suggests otherwise, every tidbit about the Clintons is considered newsworthy, and everything Clinton does is politically calculated. In essence, it is the court of opinion’s outlook that the Clintons—especially its female members—are guilty until proven innocent. And in fairness, if a Clinton or any other high-level official operated in the manner that the Trumps are, these moves should be highly criticized—hiring family members is a hallmark of authoritarian states, not longstanding democracies. With this set-up, the president’s daughter and her husband will continue to enjoy unfettered access to foreign dignitaries, all while her business interests are entangled with the government and not held to account. As conservative commentator Amanda Carpenter laid out in Cosmopolitan:
“The double standards are dubious. Now Ivanka wants us to believe, as she said in a statement, that she will ‘voluntarily follow all ethics laws placed on government employees.’ That statement, however, only reinforces the central problem. Ethics laws are not voluntary for other government employees; compliance is required. Plus, she’s already shown she doesn’t understand the rules by using a 60 Minutes appearance with the president to promote her jewelry line. The next time this happens, will she ‘volunteer’ to face punishment, which, depending on the violation, could even include jail time? That’s not a hard question to answer.”
A counterargument that is floating around, in regards to Ivanka’s role, is that Hillary Clinton once did something unprecedented for a president’s family member, too—she transformed the role of the First Lady, from not only fulfilling many of the traditional First Lady duties, but also political ones, attending campaign strategy meetings, getting an office in the West Wing (she was the first, and so far only First Lady to do so), and pushing health-care onto the agenda. In famously pushing back against housewife caricatures and cookie-making, as well as boldly declaring in China that women’s rights are human rights, Hillary challenged patriarchal notions of what a female partner of a Commander-in-Chief could be. And while her health care reform push ultimately fell short, Clinton paved the way for future presidential wives to be more active in their husbands’ respective administrations
And therein lies the difference: There is precedent for a First Lady to have certain privileges; Hillary merely changed the calculus of a largely ceremonial figurehead by empowering wives to take up more political space in the White House. The principal problem with Ivanka is that, while some posit that she is essentially filling in for Melania Trump, who still resides in New York and has yet to act as First Lady, as Trump’s daughter she is still very much twisted up in her family’s business conflicts, which have largely been left unchecked ever since Trump entered office. Ivanka claims to have stepped down from her fashion line and Trump Organization, but she continues to profit from soaring sales as her brand is promoted alongside government activities. And with the Emoluments Clause in violation every day of this presidency, the question isn’t if the Trumps will enrich themselves from the highest office of the land, but by how much.
Maybe the left could go after Ivanka Trump and not Chelsea Clinton. Ivanka is sitting in on White House meetings while running a business.
— Molly (@isteintraum) March 19, 2017
So between First Daughters Chelsea and Ivanka—who were at least at one time close friends —why is most of the wrath directed at the former, a private citizen, and not the latter, a de facto White House staffer installed as a result of nepotism? For one, Ivanka does not pose much of a threat to a white male patriarchal system. Although Ivanka positions herself in “feminist” terms, whether it’s promoting a #WomenWhoWork campaign or semi-advocating for limited paid leave reform, she ultimately reinforces the oppressive dominance to which men like her father desperately cling. Along those lines, Ivanka’s carefully crafted image tends to highlight old-fashioned ideas of womanhood, instead of the forward-thinking principles she so claims to represent. Ironically, even keeping her last name—which only 7 percent of married women do—can be interpreted not as a feminist stand, but as a branding technique, as she increases and benefits from her father’s capital. It’s a symbiotic relationship in that way, as men like Donald Trump narcissistically view their daughters’ potential through a prism of their own power. As Jill Filipovic wrote in The New York Times:
“Changing gender roles look less threatening when it’s [men’s] children who benefit. According to a survey published by Maria Shriver’s Shriver Report … Two-thirds of men want an independent daughter, but only one in three wants an independent wife…Men have often given their female offspring more opportunities than their female partners, perhaps seeing their children as extensions of themselves.”
And although Chelsea is Bill’s daughter too, the fact that she might be following in her mother’s footsteps, those of a woman who has climbed the highest up the patriarchal political ladder, is enough to spook a nation that has yet to elect a female president. And that is the double-edged sword of being Chelsea: Her parents’ legacy affords her opportunities that others might not have, but her last name also serves as a scarlet letter that will follow her everywhere, especially in the political arena. Even without so much as hinting at a political run herself, Chelsea is already being ordered to exit the stage, in the midst of relatives of other political families like Rep. Joe Kennedy III and Caroline Kennedy being exalted. Both Kennedys are indeed beloved, but it will be interesting to see if Caroline, who the New York Post describes as a “baggage-free Hillary Clinton,” falls victim to the same gender-based attacks as her female peers who seek power (my guess would be yes). That’s the conundrum of being a Clinton, especially a female one: damned if you do, well, almost anything. In spite of that, it would not surprise me in the least to see Chelsea throw her hat in the ring in the near future, and—despite the intense public opposition that will surely follow—ascend to the position or even positions she seeks. With more women running for office than ever before and a dearth of female representation at every level of government, Chelsea may very well ride that new wave of change, even as her last name pulls her desperately back to the past.
Every single anti-Chelsea Clinton post makes me want to volunteer to work for her, should she decide to run for office. The hate is absurd
— Jordan ️ (@_Jordan_J_) March 23, 2017
By contrast, Ivanka Trump has tied her own personal brand to her family name, inextricably, and appears to be more than happy to continue along that avenue. From appearances on The Apprentice to helping run the Trump Organization to her new role in the White House, Ivanka will ride those patriarchal coattails as far as they will take her. But with the elder Trump embroiled in an FBI investigation, and with paths to impeachment looking more likely by the day, the question is whether Ivanka will suffer collateral damage or if she’ll be able to extricate herself from the potential rubble. As Anne Helen Petersen posited in BuzzFeed:
“Ivanka’s force field is composed of her innocuous image, her carefully cultivated figure, her children, and her silence. Together, they compose a particularly 21st-century propaganda aesthetic—one that attempts to blind us to the discrimination and destruction committed by her father and performed in the name of rebuilding America. That aesthetic, of course, also excuses Ivanka: Her social media is her plausible deniability, constructed with the same sort of precision as a criminal crafting an alibi.”
In our current political climate, where there is a distinct possibility that our president may be beholden to a foreign power, it is almost unfathomable that Chelsea Clinton would appear more threatening than Ivanka Trump, a corrupt accomplice to her father’s fascist, grifting regime. But when one (former) president’s daughter actively challenges white male dominance while the other upholds it, the result is altogether unsurprising: Tear down the former at all costs, let the latter pass go and collect $200.
Patriarchy is as old as time, and it will always find ways to reinforce itself. Even, it would seem, as our republic burns.
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