From 1989 until his death in 2016, Islam Karimov ruled the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan as a ruthless dictator. To improve his public relations with the international community, Karimov sought to soften his image. Instead of being seen as a bloodthirsty autocrat (which he most certainly was), why not try to make people see him as a doting father instead? Karimov began to project his eldest daughter, Gulnara, as an extension of his personalist regime. She was just 17 when her father ascended to power.
Gulnara stood by her father's side as he turned the newly independent Uzbekistan into a totalitarian state, a terrifying autocracy where dissent ensured either a death sentence by torture or a one-way ticket to a barbaric jail cell. In 2003, an inquest initiated by Western governments found evidence that two dissidents had been tortured and then boiled alive. Karimov had the "compassion" to return the disfigured corpses to their families, a gesture that was somewhat undercut by the fact family members could plainly see that the fingernails of their loved ones were missing — haunting clues of unspeakable torture.
Gulnara Karimova was supposed to be the regime's velvet glove. She was Ivy League-educated, a comfortable fixture among the American cultural and economic elite. Back in Uzbekistan, she sought to promote various causes. She organised a marathon for charity. She was a patron of the arts. She launched a new micro-credit project for rural women in farming. To outsiders, she was the heart that her father sorely lacked. And everyone seemed to hope that she could restrain her father's most brutal and misguided impulses.
But while Gulnara was promoting the image of a socially conscious philanthropist filled with compassion, she also took advantage of her position as a despot's daughter. She gallivanted with pop stars and celebrities. She organized a concert for Sting in Uzbekistan. Karimova even became an Uzbek pop star herself, cashing in on her powerful connections to create slick music videos and forge a carefully crafted glamorous cult of personality.
In the process, the dictator's daughter became fabulously rich. Karimova amassed an estimated US$1 billion from telecoms and other businesses in exchange for political influence with her father. With all that wealth secured, she also moved into the world of fashion and jewellery. rolling out a new jewellery line called GULI. Like many despots, President Karimov elevated his family not just to wealth but to power. Uzbekistan's despot wanted his daughter to be seen as an extension of his own presidency on the global stage.
She became a senior figure at the Uzbek delegation to the United Nations in New York in 1998. In January 2010, she was named as the Uzbek ambassador to Spain. Through these posts, she was her father's apologist to the world's leaders, playing up her role as a "modern woman," distant from the medieval aspects of the regime.
Gulnara was everything her doting father hoped for — offering a princess-like, glamorous image of the Uzbek regime, outwardly charitable and well-spoken, the soft edge to his harder brutality. In the public eye, she was a jewellery designer-turned-diplomat, a pop star-turned-political titan. In the shadows, though, she was cashing in on her father's power. And, crucially, she provided political cover for her father's regime on the national and international stage.
Sound vaguely familiar?
Despots run their countries like a family business. Nepotism is a hallmark of authoritarian societies, but an improper stain on democratic ones. Donald Trump has now blurred that line. Of course, Trump's administration is nowhere near the abomination of Karimov's regime. However, there are striking parallels between Gulnara Karimova and Ivanka Trump, the US President's eldest and favourite daughter. Trump sees Ivanka as part of his presidency, a "secret weapon" to be deployed to charm world leaders and highlight the glamour of his administration's "brand". Like Gulnara, Ivanka is Ivy League-educated, a cosmopolitan social butterfly, an occasional model — and the owner of her own jewellery line and a business empire aimed at women. Ivanka mirrors Gulnara in cultivating a charitable persona. And both daughters have perpetually breathed life into the myth that they can soften their father, swaying each president to become more socially progressive.
At the G-20 summit in Hamburg during the summer of 2017, Trump took a page straight out of Islam Karimov's playbook by using Ivanka as a sort of stand-in senior diplomat, allowing her to take his place among the world's most powerful leaders. There was Chancellor Merkel of Germany, President Xi of China, and then First Daughter Ivanka Trump of the United States. Add those parallels to the comically expansive senior role that Trump has given to Ivanka's husband, Jared Kushner, and you've got a full-blown case of nepotism that is usually seen only in the world's royal palaces. If pressed, nobody in the Republican Party would seriously argue that either Kushner or Ivanka Trump would be genuine contenders for advisory roles in any other administration; they are solely employed in this White House because they are related to Donald Trump. This is nepotism personified. And it's dangerous for democracy.
Every major decision President Trump has made in almost a year in office has been influenced by two relatives with no government experience, no understanding of policy nuance, and no real expertise. He's being advised on counter-terrorism, trade deals, and how to cope with the threat of a nuclear North Korea by people who don't have a clue about any of those issues. Moreover, Trump has placed a dizzying array of important tasks on his son-in-law's plate. Kushner is working on them without proper oversight, giving him wide latitude to make vital government policy without accountability.
Trump is close to his daughter, and she looks up to him. Since graduating from the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, Ivanka decided to try to follow in her father's footsteps. She started working on real estate deals. She formed her own company, selling designer jewellery and fashion items. She modelled on the side. Over time, her business flourished — growing the wealth that she had acquired from birth. That wealth expanded even further in 2009, when she married Kushner, a young real estate and media baron.
By 2015, the New York couple had emerged as "the" powerful couple in Trump's surging presidential campaign. With a skeletal staff and Trump's instincts as the main driver of campaign strategy, close confidants started to run the show. Kushner and Ivanka were increasingly calling the shots, alongside Trump's other politically active children, Donald jnr and Eric. At one point, Kushner's role was so large that the New York Times referred to him as the "de facto campaign manager".
There was also an obvious tension between Kushner and Ivanka's social circle and the campaign they were powering. The New York social elite with which the power couple rubbed elbows tended to be far more socially progressive than Trump's campaign. As Trump called Mexicans rapists and led chants of "Build the Wall!" at campaign rallies, Ivanka and Kushner found themselves increasingly under fire as the enablers and apologists. Indeed, at two critical points in the campaign, they enabled and apologised in ways that would prove crucial to Trump's political survival.
In early July 2016, right before the Republican National Convention at which Trump would accept the Republican nomination, a member of the candidate's staff tweeted the image showing a Star of David and stacks of money alongside the accusation that Hillary Clinton was the "Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!" The tweet prompted outrage from Jewish Americans, who objected to the fact that a man seeking to become President of the United States had shared an image that seemingly originated from a white supremacist website targeting Jews. Nonetheless, Trump did not publicly apologise for the post.
Enter the secret weapon: Kushner and Ivanka. The couple are Jewish (Kushner from birth; Ivanka converted before she married him). Kushner therefore had real standing to speak out in favour of his father-in-law, to defend the indefensible. He published a letter called "The Donald Trump I Know," in which he argued that Trump's team had just made a careless mistake. This implausible letter provided Trump crucial political cover at a vulnerable moment. Journalists moved on.
Ivanka has served the same function when it comes to scrutiny of her father's views on gender. For decades, Trump has been a misogynist who is open about his misogyny. But when allegations surfaced during the campaign, Ivanka stepped in to limit the fallout from her father's alleged sexual misdeeds. When he was publicly accused of groping a woman, Ivanka went on CBS This Morning in March 2016, saying, "He's not a groper. It's not who he is ... he has total respect for women." Her unequivocal defence of her father helped to stop the political bleeding; by the day after this interview, most of the media's Trump stories were centred on his willingness to hold talks with Kim Jong-un of North Korea. Seven months later, the Access Hollywood tape emerged, in which Trump boasted about serial sexual assault. Ivanka pushed her father successfully for a public apology, but Trump went immediately back to dismissing his comments as "locker room banter"; his daughter went straight back to promoting his campaign while claiming to be a champion for women's equality.
When Trump won the election, there was rampant speculation about whether the relatives who had served as key campaign confidants would soon become staff members with top security clearances. At first, the President-elect denied on Twitter that they would. Despite that claim, Ivanka was behaving very much like a senior adviser to her father. She participated alongside her husband in meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and would later dine with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
By the time President-elect Trump became President Trump on January 20, 2017, he had already appointed Kushner as a senior adviser to his White House. It raised red flags with ethics experts and anti-nepotism advocates, but the appointment stuck. Kushner formally became one of the most powerful men in the world by his personal proximity to the President of the United States. He didn't just have the President's ear but also the familial bond and the official title to match.
Then, Trump put him in charge of just about everything. Mockingly referred to as the Secretary of Everything, Kushner was tasked with: bringing peace to the Middle East, criminal justice reform, serving as a liaison to Mexico, acting as a point person for China, solving the massive opioid crisis decimating rural America, and reforming the entire Federal Government.
Even the most seasoned political operator would have found the scope of his portfolio impossible to manage. For a young political novice whose experience in government wouldn't stack up favourably against that of a junior postman, the entire thing was laughable — or it would have been if the stakes weren't so high.
The White House announced in March 2017 that Ivanka would be given a security clearance and a West Wing office, but would not be an official member of the administration; a week later, she announced that she would, in fact, have a formal (unpaid) title — all of which the Trump transition team had insisted would not happen. Ivanka now had an office next door to Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell, who had previously served as a senior diplomat at the top levels of the State Department under George W. Bush.
To those working in the White House who had devoted their lives to decades of public service, the appointment of Ivanka, the glamour princess of Trump Tower, had to be a striking insult. After all, Ivanka was so inexperienced in politics that she hadn't even voted for her father in the New York primaries. She and her brother Eric had forgotten to register before the deadline. And yet, the businesswoman with no government experience who hadn't even registered to vote is now one of the most powerful women on the planet, advising her father on decisions that have life-changing consequences for billions of people.
But, as Gulnara Karimova of Uzbekistan has shown us, nepotism isn't just about becoming politically powerful. It's also about becoming richer in the process. When Ivanka introduced her father at the 2016 Republican National Convention, she wore one of her own fashion items: a blush "studded sheath dress" that retails for about US$140. Soon after, her official personal account tweeted out "Shop Ivanka's look from her #RNC speech" with a link to the dress for sale on Macy's. A week after her dad had been elected as the next president, she was interviewed on the CBS programme 60 Minutes. Shortly after the interview aired, Ivanka Trump's brand circulated a "style alert" along with an image of her wearing "her favourite bangle" during the interview. There was a prominent link to purchase it for $10,800, a direct attempt to profit from the political power bestowed on her father.
For a person as rich as Ivanka, however, the real way to translate political power into wealth isn't one bangle or dress at a time. In April 2017, Ivanka and Kushner joined Trump at his exclusive Mar-a-Lago club with President Xi of China. As they dined and ate "beautiful chocolate cake", Trump informed his Chinese counterpart that he had just ordered an attack on Syria. That same evening, China approved new trademarks so that Ivanka could sell "handbags, jewellery, and spa services" in China.
Peter Riebling, a trademark lawyer in Washington DC, told National Public Radio that the approval of these trademarks was highly unusual in how quickly they were processed. In other words, for a businesswoman who didn't share a last name with the US president, the same trademark would likely have been languishing for many more months, or even years.
China has serious leverage over Ivanka, meaning that they have serious leverage over the Trump administration. If you buy a pair of Ivanka Trump shoes, odds are that they were made in a factory in China. The direct link between Ivanka's personal wealth and her business operations in China makes her vulnerable to foreign influence. If the Trump administration helps China, she might profit more. If the Trump administration angers China, it could dent her personal bank account.
Since her father took office, Ivanka has made at least $12.6 million. Kushner failed to disclose more than 70 assets on financial disclosure forms, and did not disclose roughly US$1 billion in debts. He has amended his financial disclosure form at least 39 times so far. The couple have taken minimal steps to separate themselves from their business empires and the conflicts of interest that accompany them. Ivanka has objected to that accurate characterisation in interviews, arguing that she put assets in a trust — not a blind one, as is typical with presidential divestment, but one run by her in-laws. As ever in Trump world, it all somehow stays in the family.
Trump's reliance on Ivanka and Kushner in the White House pushes his administration toward sultanism. In those regimes, what matters is not expertise, official roles, or bureaucratic procedure; instead, what matters is your relationship to the president. On this count, Trump is a paragon of the regime type. As Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post argues, "One of the things that distinguishes rule-of-law democracies from personalised dictatorships is
their reliance on procedures, not individual whims, and on officials — experienced people, subject to public scrutiny and ethics laws — not the unsackable relatives of the leader. That distinction is now fading."
Ivanka believes (probably accurately) that in the White House hierarchy, she is on par with the Chief of Staff. When General John Kelly was appointed in late July 2017, Ivanka tweeted that she was looking forward to working "alongside" him. Coming from any other White House adviser, that tweet would rightly be seen as insubordination toward a superior. For Ivanka, this is just the way she has always been with her father — exceptional.
Edited extract from The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy, by Brian Klaas (Scribe, $28).