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How Don Jr. Became the Future of Trumpism

Can the prodigal son keep the party going?


It is someone’s birthday, and everybody is dressed up. At the business end of an expansive buffet, an exhausted lump of beef perspires as if under great duress beneath a heat lamp; a man in a chef’s hat saws flaps from it until guests signal him to stop. A pale tide of mashed potatoes ripples thickly from within a chafing dish; the long-handled spoon that revelers use to serve themselves sits on a little plate in front of it, next to a sign attesting in flouncy cursive that those are indeed mashed potatoes. On a bed of ice cubes, oysters puddle in their shells next to a sliding pinkish moraine of shrimp.

It is quite a room, so painstakingly grandiose that it looks somehow like an expensive stage set of itself. The environs are so ferociously air-conditioned that it could be described as windy. There are columns everywhere, and a huge chandelier squats over everything, leering. The president of the United States is there—this party is not necessarily for him, but it is in every meaningful sense his party—and he moves through the room making strange jokes that mostly scan like insults, about how much the guests have all paid him for the privilege of being there. They don’t mind, and laugh as much out of reflex as anything else. The faces look up at him, powdered or dusty or unaccountably wet, and President Donald Trump lets those people thank him—for his hard work, for saving the country, for whatever they can think of to thank him for in that moment. They don’t really know, and he doesn’t know, either. They are mostly thanking him for being there, in the room with them. Great to see you, he says. Enjoy. And then he moves on to some other pod of swells, all waiting to thank him, too.

The party is the same every time because the sameness is the whole purpose. Everyone there honors Trump not just with their words and applause and fulsome laughter but through the shape their celebration takes. Every bit of venal gossip shared between guests about other people in attendance, every garbled rehash of some vague outrage they saw on television or scrolled past online or heard through the grapevine, every urgent and heated personal taking of offense at some faraway abstraction—all of that is a tribute to Trump. It’s a tribute both because this type of instinctive mirroring really is the sincerest form of flattery, but mostly because every line of that conversation, every toast made ostensibly in someone else’s honor, will invariably wind up being about Trump. The thing celebrated, on Christmas Eve or the Fourth of July or some random Friday in April, is victory, and the ultimate winner—the one no one thought would win, the one they all wanted to lose—is always the same. There’s nothing and no one else to talk about, by definition and by design.

When Trump brings this party elsewhere and shows up gleaming to some swing-state rally, he generally talks about what’s troubling his damp and roiling mind—what he saw on television last, how unfair his enemies are to him, whatever lines that worked last time—and is thanked wherever the pauses fall. At a rally on September 10, when he reached the end of a meandering riff about the miraculous effects of Sending in the Authorities to quell protests in cities around the country, the crowd began chanting, “We love you.” Trump pantomimed wiping away tears and told the crowd they were going to make him cry, then noted that crying would be bad for his image. In its coverage of the event, Fox News described the moment like this: “Trump, who is famous for rarely showing emotion, could be seen taking a step back from the rostrum while he seems to collect himself.” The story also noted that Democrats criticized Trump for holding the rally, at which few attendees wore masks, during the coronavirus pandemic.

This is Trumpism as it exists at the end of Trump’s first term in office. The long victory party continues even as the country is everywhere sickened, burning, drowning, starving, poisoned, bludgeoned, evicted. Actions and their consequences seem to have slipped out of their binaries; there is a level of irresponsibility so profound that it threatens a baseline understanding of causality. The problems are ignored or exacerbated by the state, and the chaos that results is haphazardly leveraged by powerful people for advantage and profit. On conservative television, the very existence of the problems is qualified or dismissed, with a furious but deeply sincere cynicism that reflects Trump’s own, as the dark work of the president’s many enemies. The country is failing in terrifying and undeniable ways, but Trumpism—which is not a politics or an ideology so much as it is the belief that nothing matters beyond how it relates to Donald Trump himself—remains unscathed.

Trumpism’s most fundamental attribute is that it cannot ever change. As it exists up and down the culture, Trumpism is in its various guises a hair-trigger fan community and a deliriously servile online cult, a shared metonym for a suite of musty grievances and a television programming strategy, a gaudily gilded aesthetic sense and a perverse family business. But for all the things it is, Trumpism is not complicated. It is a graceless, gloating, recursive celebration of power, an endless, dreary party thrown in power’s own honor, emceed by Donald Trump—the same Donald Trump who will, in what promises to be a highlight, be presented later in the evening with the Donald Trump Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence, by none other than President Donald Trump himself.

If Trump has achieved anything legitimately historic as president, it is that his annihilating ego has so thoroughly filled the polite vacuum at the center of American politics. Everything really is about him, now; the defining question in the upcoming election is nothing more complex than “Do you like Trump or hate him?” and both parties seem convinced that their answer is the winning one. In a nation beset by any number of ongoing, unattended, worsening calamities, many millions of people will turn out to vote more or less on that issue.

This was all so much easier than it should have been. The political party Trump so readily made his own found that its euphemized double-banked expressions of Trumpian sadism didn’t work as well as the more overt version he offered; the party opposing him seemed to believe that opposing him was enough; everything just kind of tumbled from there. Trump has taken the fatuous showbiz obsessions of his first life as a cartoonish celebrity-at-large—box-office figures and ratings, status and gossip and attention—and entirely remade American politics in that image, although this may just be him stripping the vestigial veneer layered over the original rot. Whatever the case, the density of his crudity and the planetary scale of his vanity have pulled a whole wobbling system entirely out of alignment and forced it into a chaotic new order; every satellite is now pinned into a decaying orbit around this collapsing star. In lieu of coming up with a platform for 2020, Trump’s party instead issued a resolution pledging that “the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

This overwhelming mindshare is precisely what Trump sought when he ran for president, and thanks mostly to the sheer persistence of his immovable self, it is what the presidency has become. Trump is America’s most thought about and talked about man, the one who is on television the most, the person whose name everyone knows. If his presidency has an ideology beyond the expression of his various lifelong bigotries and the pursuit of his personal feuds, it is the maintenance of this status quo. Trumpism is primarily about perpetuating and justifying the centrality of one man.

But while Trump is the most important person in Trumpism, he is also an avatar for something both greater and smaller—a long spate of complaints and a certain sour cast of mind, a relentless and unappeasable grievance, and an idea of power that is wholly negative, that exists only to blame and punish and deny. It’s a liberation movement, of sorts, at least in the sense that Trump’s bottomless demand for more has empowered an untold number of similarly unappeasable Americans who consider themselves entitled to the same service. The urge at the heart of Trumpism won’t go away with Trump, and his protracted victory celebration won’t necessarily end even if he loses in November.

And look, now Donald Trump Jr. is getting up to make a toast.

“I think my children will be meeting them,” Donald Trump told the British tabloid The Sun in 2019 about a “next generation” confab between his children and Princes William and Harry ahead of his state visit to the United Kingdom. “It would be nice.” This was not exactly a full-throated endorsement of a Trump dynasty. Trump has never been enthusiastic about sharing what’s his with anyone else. Neither has he ever been comfortable with his eldest son, with whom he shares a name. When faced with the prospect of another Donald Trump roaming around the world, he famously worried, “What if he’s a loser?”

“When you’re Donald Trump’s son, you get used to that sense of humor,” Trump Jr. later wrote. The relationship between Trumps Junior and Senior was for many years distant and strained, even by the low standards of Donald Trump’s relationship with the rest of humanity. Trump Jr., who for a long time seemed more attached to his mother, Ivana, reportedly spent his young adulthood in quasi-exile from the Trump clan’s seat of power in New York, feeling sorry for himself and getting blotto. “For a while, he didn’t even want people to know his last name,” an old college acquaintance told The Atlantic.

That is clearly no longer the case. The three adult children from Donald Trump’s first marriage all work for their father in some capacity, but Donald Trump Jr. is in the family business in a way that neither his sister Ivanka, who is a White House adviser and is married to another, nor his brother Eric, who oversees the Trump Organization’s holdings, quite seem to be. Trump Jr.’s official title is executive vice president of development and acquisitions at the Trump Organization, although it’s not a job that seems to consume much of his time. His only real job, it would seem, is to campaign for Trump. And because Junior is so convincingly able to replicate his father’s signature moves, from puzzlingly moist-looking television appearances to constant multiplatform shitposting, he has become something more than a surrogate. If Donald Trump Jr. is his father’s political heir—as many Republicans now believe him to be—it’s because he’s also his foremost impersonator.

In an appropriately transactional bit of Trumpiness, Trump the Younger has built a political brand of his own in the process. Unlike his father, Trump Jr. actually seems to enjoy some of the signifiers of conservative politics, from hunting to fishing to growing the kind of beard that suggests an affinity for hunting and fishing. This brand could also land the younger Trump in jail, if a motivated group of prosecutors in a post-Trump world were to get serious about his well-documented role in trying to orchestrate Russian interference in the 2016 election, but what branding strategy doesn’t involve a healthy quotient of risk?

People say nice things about Donald Trump Jr., now, which is both something that didn’t used to happen very often and a reflection of the extent to which his personal star has risen among the Republican Party’s professional sycophant community. This fluffing is intense enough—Florida Representative Matt Gaetz told The New York Times that Junior was “the most dynamic voice that you hear in American politics other than when it’s preceded by ‘Hail to the Chief’”—to suggest that the party’s more forward-thinking toadies have some sense of which way the wind is blowing.

But there is also something incisive buried in Gaetz’s otherwise heroic bit of sucking up. It’s not that Trump is a political or rhetorical visionary any more than his father is. It’s the “voice” part that means something, the way in which Trump Jr. convincingly inhabits his father’s singular and uncanny style. That emotional register is indignant to the point of instability; the first paragraph of Trump Jr.’s 2019 book Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us is, in its entirety, “I’m not mad.”

Other Republicans have tried to emulate the voice in the years since Trumpian grievance displaced everything else in the party, but it stands to reason that Trump Jr., who has never been anything but his father’s selfish and thwarted son, would be much more comfortable with a mocking cry-laughing emoji or quicker with a deep-fried meme than self-important debate club prigs like Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley. Those ostensible conservative thought leaders built careers pretending to care about a whole clownish menu of pseudo-ideologies and mastering the respectable kinds of rhetorical bad faith they demand. Trump Jr., for his part, has never really pretended to care about anything but pleasing his awful father and his right to prompt service. And so the moment came to him.

Like his father, Trump Jr. maintains a rigorous online posting schedule. Junior’s various social media feeds are hugely influential and widely followed, defined by a hectoring and ultra-fervid tone that’s pure Trump, right down to his idiosyncratic punctuation and bizarre capitalization choices. Like his father, Trump Jr. has a knack for plausibly deniable retweets of some truly vile shit. The crucial difference is that where his father’s clammy culture-war grifting is mostly in service of his abiding and only area of interest—Donald Trump and What People Say About Him on TV—Trump Jr. may actually believe some of this dreck.

There is a sort of game to all this, where the Trumps are concerned. Trump’s people have always tacitly encouraged the idea—now a popular online conspiracy—that his otherwise preposterously fatuous tweets are actually coded signals sent to secret audiences. Trump Jr. has been a bit spicier and more overt than his father in this regard. Past decisions to boost the signal of someone like the antisemite Kevin MacDonald could easily enough be explained away as accidental—this was in 2016, and the retweet in question was a bit of unremarkable speculation about the Clinton Foundation—but could also be understood differently by those inclined to do so. (A Twitter user with a Pepe the Frog avatar and the truly cursed handle of @Harampepe exulted, “Donald Trump Jr retweeting Kevin MacDonald will send some (((people))) bananas. Cheers!”) That these are just memes from who knows where, or just images whose broader significance or salience is unknown to the poster, deftly obviates the need for apology or retraction. (“As for the Biden-as-pedophile posts,” Jason Zengerle wrote in a profile of Trump Jr. for The New York Times, “Trump Jr. maintained that he was just ‘joking around.’”)

Over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, Don Jr. has emerged as his father’s top surrogate and potential political heir. As one prominent neo-Nazi said, “Donald Trump Jr. has the capacity to actually become the God Emperor for real.”
Gregory Pace/BEI/Shutterstock

These blundering rhetorical sleights of hand have led some to conjecture that Trump Jr. might represent a more virulent strain of Trumpism, one more thoroughly committed to the goals his father only gestures at flirtatiously. Pizzagate conspiracy theorist turned One America News Network correspondent Jack Posobiec deemed Trump Jr. “redpilled [as fuck].” In correspondence with HuffPost’s Luke O’Brien, Daily Stormer founder and neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin named Junior as the member of Trump’s orbit most sympathetic to his site’s ideas. “We meme Trump as the God Emperor,” Anglin wrote, “but Donald Trump Jr. has the capacity to actually become the God Emperor for real.”

But there’s also a sense in which any such speculation misses the point. If it were not for Trump the Elder’s impact on American politics, there’s no way that his eldest son’s passion for posting pharmaceutical-grade cringe about his dad all day long would somehow be read as evidence of an ideological worldview. If Trump Jr. is Trumpism’s future, it is because of how thoroughly he is both a creature of its restless, desperate, miserable present and guided by his father’s oppressive legacy. No one could understand better than a Trump just how important it is that the party continue as usual. He is a wealthy, divorced father of five, deep in a twitchy second childhood, facing a future in which his job is going on television or onstage or online and complaining about all the things they won’t let you do nowadays. It’s hard to say whether it would be more or less grim if he really were as upset about all these cynical idiocies as he appears to be, but his name finally has the ring of prophecy. It’s the job he was born to have.

As the election nears, and as he increasingly seems to view his father not just as his model but as a figure he might one day replace, Trump Jr. has made it his mission to be upset about the same things, with the same urgency and in the same tone, as his continually affronted dad. As president, Trump Sr. is incapable of talking up his own successes without collapsing into gripes about how little credit he gets. Trump Jr.’s social media activity is a testament to the way in which his father’s foremost tic has been upgraded to something like a central element of his appeal.

For a political movement so grounded in both dealing out and taking offense, it fits that its foremost figures are both wealthy men who have lived their lives in a hermetically sealed zone of zero accountability—one a perpetually aggrieved nullity whose only personal ideal is doing whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it, and the other the son who grew up being denigrated and demeaned by that man. “Mr. Trump had frequently told me and others that his son, Don Jr., had the worst judgment of anyone in the world,” Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen told the House Committee on Oversight and Reform in 2019. As Trump Jr. clamors for his father’s legacy just as it approaches maximum toxicity, it’s hard to argue that last bit.

The ancient injuries and biases to which President Trump is so helplessly captive, and which he so assiduously leverages, are old and stubborn. A sizable portion of the electorate—not a majority, really, although they are very advantageously distributed where Trump’s interests are concerned—had built an entire system of being and belief around them before Trump slapped his branding on it and put it all up for sale. The way in which Trump governs, in fits of spite and sudden blistering sadism and skeins of wild self-pity, is unique to Trump, but the fundamental nihilism at his core isn’t really out of keeping with the way that Republicans have behaved over the last couple of generations.

Furthermore, the overt politics of grievance that Trump rode to power does not just belong to him anymore. While he is loath to share anything with anyone, this aspect of his appeal will surely outlast him. It is difficult to imagine Trumpism replaced by the starchy euphemisms in which the GOP formerly communicated its preference for what is, in the end, more or less the same program of predation and punishment and smash-and-grab appropriation that Trump has advanced. The electorate and the world have seen its face. Putting the old mask back on isn’t going to convince anyone, and while there’s a bleak comedy to watching superannuated elected conservatives try to cop the free-jazz bluster of Trump’s style, in truth they no longer have to pretend to care about anything but white injury and white power, at least when it comes to ruling the Republican Party.

For all the hopeful sounds that Democrats make about working with Republicans in the future, it might be that the Republicans have dispensed with masks and euphemism forever, and will set themselves to openly taking what they want from people they believe don’t deserve to have anything. There is a darkly comforting misconception that the sound of jackboots will give away fascism as it approaches. The sound of that is unmistakably audible at this moment, rattling the windows in the cities where various cadres of state violence do Trump’s work by night behind riot shields and truncheons and indiscriminate clouds of gas. It rings through the dehumanizing and blearily apocalyptic rhetoric that Trump has turned to on the campaign trail in response to the threat of electoral defeat in November. But while Trump and his acolytes thrill to all this—the drama, the action—what they truly celebrate together is their own impunity. It’s the right to say and do what they want without consequence, while armed state agents do the dirty work necessary to keep the party going and ward off any gate-crashers. The bar is open and busy, but only for invited guests.

What are generally understood as the aesthetics of fascism—“The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death,” as Susan Sontag put it in her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism”—are more a reflection of its aspirations than its mundane and deceptively familiar essence. The public expression of Trump’s fascism is butched up in all the old Sontag-ian ways. Think of the logo of the Marvel Comics antihero the Punisher worn on a policeman’s riot gear, or of police in Cincinnati replacing the American flag with a Blue Lives Matter flag. Or think of Donald Trump Jr. posing with a $2,000 customized AR-15 that had the Crusaders’ Jerusalem cross on the magazine well and an image of an imprisoned Hillary Clinton on the magazine itself. Trump himself delights in the dark fantasy of other people doing violence on his behalf, and has talked about it for years with undisguised giddiness. “I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough,” he told Breitbart News in 2019. “Until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

But the ideology that has assumed Trump’s image and energy—and, in the process, effectively replaced the coded version of it that was once understood as conservative politics—is grounded in a very specific and very deep sense of entitlement. Where conservative politics formerly wrapped that entitlement in layers of facile meritocratic rhetoric and free-market mysticism, Trumpism more aptly made his demands at gunpoint. It is the divine right for those with means to take and keep everything that they want, and it is the demand that everyone else deal with it without complaint or recourse. Trump didn’t invent this worldview, but he did inhabit it better—and, hilariously, more honestly—than any other conservative politician. He succeeded in co-opting the Republican Party simply by hammering away at the text instead of dutifully nuancing the subtext.

After four years in power, Trump is, characteristically and axiomatically, unchanged. He is what he has always been—a creature made merciless by his inherited privilege and stupid appetites, a slave to vanity shoved haphazardly into an expensive suit, a dim country club gossip who watches too much TV and wants to be famous. Trump’s most ambitious son shares that curdled understanding of who he is and what he deserves, and is just as relentless and just as hungry.

They are telling the rest of us, everywhere and every day, what they want and how they intend to take it. At bottom, this is nothing more than the plump, pink privilege of all the people at Mar-a-Lago getting righteously wasted off toast after fulsome toast, because those seething and freshly liberated burghers are what Trumpism is and whom it is for. Trump is an aspirational figure in the sense that he promises his acolytes the right to be as brutally free and unaccountable as he is. That is all his movement is. For all the talk about making America great again, his project has transparently always been about keeping this tenuous and untenable moment from tipping into any kind of future; it is about maintaining control, whatever that means and at whatever cost; it is about every dying and unworkable thing remaining exactly as it is.

Donald Trump can only be himself, and he just so happens to be the perfect avatar of every rancid revanchist American impulse that made his celebrity and ultimately his presidency possible. The combination of Trump’s sincere desire to have and keep and control everything in the world, and a nation too confused and too weak to tell him no, has been catastrophic. His brutal legacy is secure in all the worst ways, and the mere fact of his presidency will make any number of treasured old falsehoods about this country impossible to believe in the future. His most ambitious son clearly wants some of what his father has, but it’s unclear whether he is more than just another follower—one of the many faces in the burgeoning crowd of Americans who no longer feel compelled to honor anything but their own appetites.

The future that Trumpism offers is, at bottom, a ritual repetition of Trump’s own personal endless present. In this sense, Trump himself may be the biggest obstacle to his son’s ambitions. His is a party in honor of nothing but itself, and only that, for as long as he can hang on. All of America, some in notably more comfortable seats than others, is trapped together in a gilded ballroom, watching this hideous family toast their overweening patriarch over and over again. Trump is served a big piece of chocolate cake and everyone cheers. Something is burning outside. There are thin, insistent sheets of seawater sneaking under the doors now. But this is all they’ve got, and they are going to keep raising their glasses to the brutal moment they’ve made until it is pushed into the past. They do not want to go home. Until they are kicked out, they won’t.