When the Kids are the Henchmen
Political hatchet men are a staple of American campaigns. Richard Nixon had Chuck Colson. George H.W. Bush had Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes.
Donald Trump has, well, his adult children.
Most campaigns outsource the nasty work of attacking their opponents to operatives who keep a low profile to maintain distance from the candidate. Even in 2016, Trump kept most of his smear merchants, such as the now-convicted felon Roger Stone, behind the scenes. But 2020 is different. This time, President Trump’s adult children have rolled up their sleeves and are taking on their father’s dirtiest work.
For the last three years, Donald Trump Jr. has made a habit of saying provocative things to stoke reaction—it’s literally his brand. Over the weekend he posted a meme calling Joe Biden a “pedophile.” After which he claimed he was . . . just kidding! Because calling men pedophiles is how people josh around in hardball politics these days. Or something.
On the same day, Trump’s other grown son, Eric, said Democrats were “milking” the coronavirus to “deprive” his father of his rallies. The next day Don Jr., Eric, and Ivanka each pushed the alt-right’s “red pill” meme on Twitter.
All in a day’s work for the Trump family business!
Cynical politicos might say these are hit jobs that someone has to do to take down an opponent and dog-whistle the hounds to victory. And, maybe good help is hard to find these days. After all, Trump’s old bagmen Stone, Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort are all in lockup. And while Nikki Haley and Ron Johnson are willing to do a lot for Donald Trump, calling Biden a pedophile is—at least for now—a bridge too far for them.
Even Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara, is in on the game. She hosts a campaign show on YouTube that exists primarily to deride Biden. At a Women for Trump event she mocked Biden’s childhood stutter: “I’m like, Joe, can you get it out, let’s get the words out, Joe.” She was so callous that Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, a former stutterer, stepped out to condemn the “culture of cruelty” she was perpetuating and ask that she “Stop. Grow up. Show some decency.”
Regretfully, I must inform you, Dear Reader, that Lara Trump and the other members of her family have not. As the old saying goes, the family that slays together, stays together.
On one level, it’s worth wondering why the Trump progeny, with all their wealth and privilege, are willing to throw themselves in the gutter on behalf of their father. But, there’s not enough time in the world to psychoanalyze the dysfunction that has led Trump to put his kids in these roles and for the kids to accept them. Let’s just agree it’s highly abnormal. Most candidates would do anything to protect their children from the perils of campaigning.
Yet, here we have President Trump giving his kids the dirtiest jobs in the entire campaign: smearing Joe Biden and courting the alt-right.
Maybe Trump does it because his die-hard supporters eat it up. They see a loyal, tight-knit family who has selflessly sacrificed their glitzy, jet-set lifestyle to help dear old dad #MAGA. For those of us outside of the Trump bubble? Eeessshh. Ixnay on the idskay. No politician has ever sicced their kids on their opponents, which helps them get away with it.
It’s not like kids don’t have a place on the campaign trail, though. Generally speaking, adult children can be useful surrogates, providing voters with warm, if sometimes awkward, glimpses into the candidate’s personal lives. (Who can forget Alexandra Kerry’s story about her father, John Kerry, giving their drowning family hamster mouth-to-mouth CPR and bringing it back to life. I, for one, have been trying to get that image out of my head for years.)
There’s a big difference, however, between a candidate’s child smiling sweetly during a convention speech and saying, “My dad is the greatest dad ever” and pounding out tweets that his opponent “sounds like a total clown every time he opens his mouth” (as Eric did on Sunday).
In the end, people who are uncomfortable treating the president’s children the same way they would any other campaign operative wind up trying to rationalize the Trumps’ behavior. They pretend the offensive statements blasted out of Don Jr.’s Twitter account are part of his act. They nod along when he says he’s “just joking” about calling Biden a pedophile, saying Kamala Harris isn’t authentically black, or comparing Syrian refugees to a bowl of Skittles. Don Jr. gets treated not like Mike Cernovich with some money, but like an edgy, stealth, right-wing superweapon.
They say Ivanka probably doesn’t even understand what the “red pill” meme means—that she’s likely trying to appeal to Elon Musk’s Twitter followers. They say that poor Eric is just the “dumb one” who takes his cues from the other two.
Because confronting the truth about this family and what they do to themselves, to others, and to our political system is too depressing.