For a young millionaire on Park Avenue with all the predispositions of his peers, little can be worse for the personal brand than an association with a xenophobic presidential candidate feeding off the fumes of white working-class resentment.
Yet Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of Donald Trump, has bound himself to his father-in-law’s drowning dreadnaught of a campaign, demonstrating the depths of either familial loyalty or delusion. He is, by many media accounts, the de facto campaign manager and power broker, investing most of his time and energy into trying to make Trump a palatable Republican. Now that a Trump White House, barring some unforeseen fantastical twist, is fated to remain the stuff of Saturday Night Live sketches, Kushner, all of 35, must be wondering what comes next. He can’t be the Trump machine’s pretty face forever.
I used to work at Kushner’s newspaper, the New York Observer, but resigned not long after I found out our executive editor advised Trump on a major policy speech. I am far from the unbiased observer (no pun intended) and I share unease, along with many in a mostly left-leaning media world, over Trump’s dalliances with white nationalism, the sexual assault allegations leveled against him, and his belief that Muslims should be banned from the United States. I only met Kushner once, and I can attest that he seems to be far more intimately involved in the Trump campaign than he was in running a newspaper, since real estate, prior to his father-in-law’s presidential bid, seemed to be his primary raison d’être. He was always a tall, elegant cipher to me: a rich kid never entirely comfortable in the spotlight.
So I’ve often wondered what is going through Kushner’s head these days. Reportedly, he is trying to establish a Trump-branded television network. On one hand, this makes total sense. Trump, regardless of how much he loses by, has cultivated a core following larger than any he enjoyed in his previous life of kitschy celebrity, and he’ll be ready to monetize this blind passion. There is a slice of the Republican electorate angry at Fox News for their embrace of more moderate hosts like Megyn Kelly and ready for television to feed them red meat, nonstop and unapologetically. The post–Roger Ailes FOX News may resemble National Review TV; there’s an opening for a network to speak to the people who spat in the face of that kind of substance.
But it’s hard to imagine a more unlikely pursuit for Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, than a television network catering to the Brietbart-loving fringe. Ivanka has peddled a luxury brand completely incongruous with the image of a fried chicken–munching strongman. I’m trying to see the synergy between red trucker hats in Appalachia and Claudia Satchel handbags. Maybe all the free publicity has offset the brand damage? Ivanka has mastered the art of saying little while trying to normalize her father. Her husband says even less.
Kushner has been well regarded in real estate circles for turning around the family company after his father, a self-made New Jersey tycoon, went to prison. Since a reckless real estate deal in 2007, Kushner has mostly righted the ship, though slumlord headlines still dog him. People in New York’s demure real estate world say Kushner’s shilling for his father-in-law, who has not been taken seriously as a New York developer in many years, is complicating relationships. Developers, for the most part, like the veneer of bipartisanship that Kushner clearly no longer cares about. The move to TV is also quite risky, as even Oprah Winfrey learned, and could mean he is wandering away from his roots.
Either way, Kushner will have to look himself in the mirror (perhaps he does this already?) and ask himself what kind of image he wants to project to the world in the years to come. Before Trump’s presidential bid, he was known as a fiscally conservative, socially liberal Democratic donor, whose only real burning political passion was Zionism. In that sense, he was just like any other multimillionaire trawling Manhattan, looking to deal.
For how long do the sins of Trump haunt a man so complicit in this crusade? Kushner may not care that people will remember he tried to help elect a man who wanted to keep an entire religious faith out of the United States of America. Money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t buy amnesia.
If Kushner had any political consciousness, Trump’s anti–free trade, anti-immigrant campaign must have rattled him, at least briefly. Or he must have wondered how he could silently stand by after his father-in-law said he would remain “neutral” in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, breaking with the Republican tradition of backing Israel at all costs. Kushner obviously thought being related to the Republican nominee would be good for him, no matter the things said or done. It’s a Trumpian worldview, ultimately: All publicity is good publicity.
But even that policy has its limits. People are now shying away from giving money to the Trump branding empire. Perhaps all things carrying the Kushner scent will be next. There’s only so much cognitive dissonance one family can take, right? Or wrong. Kushner, ever smiling, keeps riding the Trump train. He doesn’t seem to care that the tracks are heading off a cliff.