On Thursday it was announced that President-elect Donald Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, will be appointed counselor to the president. According to the New York Times, this means that she will be the "highest-ranking woman in his White House" and will have an important role working with Trump on delivering his messaging.
"Kellyanne Conway has been a trusted adviser and strategist who played a crucial role in my victory," Trump said in a statement. "She is a tireless and tenacious advocate of my agenda and has amazing insights on how to effectively communicate our message. I am pleased that she will be part of my senior team in the West Wing."
While the New York Times reports that Conway will have "frequent access to the president," the degree to which she will actually shape policy is uncertain. But what does seem apparent is that she will remain Trump's token female ambassador to the public and will actively bolster the Republican party's faux-feminism. The press release for Conway's appointment—which claims that Trump's win "shattered the glass ceiling for women" because of Conway's role in his victory—makes this clear.
Conway has always gleefully inhabited this position. Katie Baker, a Republican strategist who worked on Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, once said of Conway, "She has created a niche where candidates can check a box and say, well, they've got a woman advising them."
Indeed, before Conway became Trump's righthand woman, she made a business out of helping Republican candidates—like Mike Pence and Ted Cruz—spin their ideas to women voters. This is a crucial, and lucrative, position in right-wing politics: These politicians know how dismal their polices are for women, and finding a spokesperson who can assure the public otherwise is a valuable asset.
In Conway's specific case, she has helped politicians avoid examining, or changing, their positions that are harmful to women by aggressively framing those issues as somehow pro-woman. Fittingly, she has a seat on the board of the Independent Women's Forum (IWF). (She is currently on a leave of absence.) The IWF is a right-wing think-tank with ties to the Koch brothers that aims to "[increase] the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty"; despite its focus on women, it publicly opposes many mainstream feminist ideas.
She has created a niche where candidates can check a box and say, well, they've got a woman advising them.
Members of IWF have said, for instance, the wage gap is women's fault, that campus rape statistics are inflated, and that the Hobby Lobby ruling, which allows corporations with religious owners to refuse to pay for birth control, was "undoubtedly good news." The IWF also does not support paid paternity leave—or even paid maternity leave—or minimum wage hikes, despite the fact that nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers in the country are women.
Conway has used this contradiction to cultivate a false sense of moderation, which she in turn uses to manufacture support for the extreme issues on the Republican agenda from a "disinterested" perspective. Conway's survey group, The Polling Company, is a good example of how this tactic bears out. (The IWF has also hired Conway's Polling Company to conduct surveys for them.)
In October, for example, the Polling Company aided the Republican party's attack on women's reproductive rights by conducting a focus group for David Daleiden's anti-abortion group, Center for Medical Progress, after they released deceptively edited videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood illegally selling fetal tissue. Conway showed a non-partisan focus group clips from the videos, which had been debunked months earlier, as though they were objective, investigative reports, and the participants condemned Planned Parenthood as a result.
Then she made the rounds in the media, describing how participants in the group had come away "betrayed and disgusted." In an article about the survey in the Washington Times, Conway was careful not to portray herself as explicitly anti-abortion while she played up the angle that she was just reporting people's honest reactions to an honest tragedy: "The most important thing that can be done is for more people to see these videos, because most have not," she told the publication. "It's like a magical elixir that shifts the burden of proof onto Planned Parenthood."
This wasn't the first time Conway's Polling Company has done this; it's actually all they do. This summer, Conway conducted a flawed poll for a far-right group that surveyed American Muslims. The results of the poll stated that many Muslims in the US said they should be governed under Sharia law, not US law, and that "the use of violence in the United States is justified in order to make Sharia the law of the land in this country." Though it was in no way indicative of the Muslim population—the survey was criticized as misleading by the organization that sets ethical standards for polling—Conway reported her findings to the media as fact, imploring Americans to "look at the data."
But Conway has been successful. After all, with her help, Trump was able to get 53 percent of white women to vote for him. She is an effective surrogate for a man who has been serially accused of sexual assault and has said he wants to "punish" women who have abortions; she can tweet that Trump "promotes & respects women" and appear genuine to the women who support him. She can even call people who are anti-Trump sexist! It makes sense that he wants to keep her close to him—she's good at making ridiculous proposals look rational.