For many concerned citizens of the world, the scariest part of Donald Trump’s election wasn’t that a lying, authoritarian know-nothing was about to become president. It was the fact that around 63 million voters wanted him to.
This is an accurate analogy for the dispiriting phenomenon that is the Skimm, a wildly popular “news” newsletter that comes out every day except on weekends because, as the welcome email states, “we're a company that respects brunch.” Founded by two 20-something women in 2012, the Skimm summarizes all the big stories of the day for people—women, mostly—who can’t or won’t pay attention to the actual news. The newsletter keeps readers’ attention by peppering serious news items with conversational quips, like a thirsty high-school history teacher rapping about current events. Imagine if Politico’s Playbook were translated by a chatbot that learned the English language from The Simple Life, Daily Mail headlines, and Nick Jr.
Here, for example, is how the Skimm recently broke down a bit about Syria: “Former President Obama came thiiiss close to military intervention. Until everyone said ‘whoa whoa whoa let's talk things out.’” This is also how a future ripped-from-the-headlines Berenstain Bears book will cover Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons use.* Every blurb is painstakingly neutered of political slant or analysis, and boring (read: important) stories are loaded with conspicuous snark about how uninteresting news can be. “Don’t fall asleep,” the newsletter warned of a paragraph on Trump’s plan to cut the corporate tax rate last month. “You’re still hearing a lot about Michael Flynn. Right…who’s he again?” another entry quipped, as if women move through their days osmosing names here and there, but never turning their attention away from their Birchboxes long enough to hear the end of the sentence.
The Skimm treats its readers like they’ve never read an article, looked at a map, or accidentally seen a CNN segment in their dentists’ waiting rooms. Its patronizing tone assumes that female news consumers tune out anything of import if it's not processed through verbal eye-rolls. The very existence of such a service, especially one marketed specifically to women, is insulting. But it’s also scary as hell, because millions of people subscribe to this thing. More than 1 million people open the newsletter every weekday. That’s the equivalent of the entire state of New Hampshire getting its news, on purpose, from a source that sells itself with the following promo copy: “There’s a lot of stuff in the world. It’s confusing.”
Recognizing this truth forces non-Skimmers to grapple with the fact that dangerous people—people who think both political parties are equally at fault for the mess our country’s in; people who love the Affordable Care Act but hate Obamacare; people who can’t bring themselves to read about Trump’s Russia ties unless it’s in a Skimm segment called “WEIRD SH*T FROM RUSSIA”—do not only exist in the narrow space between shut-down coal mines and Waffle House parking lots. They jump in and out of Ubers in progressive coastal cities. They wear expensive shift dresses and eat at trendy restaurants. They can contribute enough proper nouns like “Michael Flynn” to a conversation to seem reasonably well-read. They look like they’re catching up on work email on their bus commute, but they’re actually reading a newsletter that explains populism’s surge in the European Union as “Hunger Games minus JLaw.”
In this way, the Skimm is a lot like Ivanka Trump. Like the president’s oldest daughter, the founders of the Skimm were educated at fine institutions of higher education (Tufts University and the University of Pennsylvania) that would seem to set them up for careers of greater intellectual heft. Ivanka and the Skimm both have a friendly-yet-hollow everywoman shtick that’s the key to a mass appeal that makes them very, very frightening. And they both have a knack for making tin-eared comparisons that offend the sensibilities of people with hearts and brains.
On Wednesday, the Skimm introduced the story of Chelsea Manning’s release from prison with this: “What to say when your friend asks what time you can get drinks after work... I’ll be free earlier than expected. Just like Chelsea Manning.” Wait, what? I was having happy hour with a friend, and then—a trans woman responsible for a major leak of classified national-security information, who the federal government imprisoned in a men’s facility, who’s attempted to kill herself multiple times, is getting out? Some stories weren’t meant to be viewed through a lens of bottomless sangria.
That’s a lesson Ivanka could stand to learn, too. Her new book for moms with full-time help, Women Who Work, uses a Toni Morrison quote about the lasting traumas of enslavement as an inspiring segue into a rumination on how hard it is to answer all those pesky voicemails. “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another,” wrote Morrison. Ivanka Trump’s interpretation: “Are you a slave to your time or the master of it? Despite your best intentions, it’s easy to be reactive and get caught up in returning calls, attending meetings, answering e-mails.” Imagine that line from Women Who Work as the intro to a Skimm blurb on human trafficking, except the Skimm version would find some god-awful way to reference Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U.”
Just like Ivanka, the Skimm delves into political issues in the least political way possible. In a guide entitled “WTF Is Going On With Russia,” the Skimm summarizes the investigation of Donald Trump’s alleged wrongdoing with a shrug. “It’s going to take a looooong time before there are any real answers. Hint: years,” the site reads. “There are many, many questions that remain unanswered. The only thing that’s for sure at this point is this is a very tangled web.” Ivanka, too, makes a habit of brushing off real abuses of power as issues too complicated to truly understand. The Skimm’s summary of the 2014 midterm election: “Everyone can agree on one thing: no one’s happy. Both parties blame the other. And voters blame Congress.” In that same email, the Skimm surmised that “Hispanics aren’t as loco for the Dems this time around,” a ghastly reference to Latino voters that could have come from the Trump family stylebook entry on “brown people.”
One gets the sense that neither the Skimm nor Ivanka Trump grasp the basic gist of any political issue. Ivanka took America’s unconscionable lack of federal paid family leave policy and boiled it down to “The most important job any woman can have is being a mother.” The Skimm’s election guide, meanwhile, illustrated “education” with a ping-pong ball caroming off a Solo cup, “climate change” with a pair of Jared Kushner’s Ray-Bans, and immigration with a goddamn picket fence. Millions of readers learned about the most important challenges facing this generation from a free-association game played with a sentient throw pillow from an Ole Miss dorm room.
Now for the terrifying part: Those people can vote. With links in its emails, the Skimm managed to register more than 110,000 people to vote before the 2016 election. That’s a truly admirable thing! It should be way easier to register to vote, and everyone should do it. But something tells me that if and when Ivanka runs for president, which I fear this entire Donald Trump presidency thing was conceived to set up, the Skimm and its several electoral votes worth of readers will be all in for her. The newsletter’s logo—a stick-thin woman in pearls, a pencil skirt, and pumps—may as well be Ivanka’s silhouette. Its tagline, “the Skimm makes it easier to be smarter,” is the perfect bait for the in-between voters who’d make up Ivanka’s base: People who don’t take pride in their ignorance, per se, but who also don’t particularly care about gaining a nuanced understanding of politics and policy. Brains, in their world, are a means to an end, whether it’s saving face at a smarty-pants cocktail party or getting to sit in the Oval Office—and smarts only have to go as deep as it takes to convince other people you have them.
*Correction, May 17, 2017: This post originally misspelled Bashar al-Assad’s first name. (Return.)