The most scrutinized father-son relationship in American history

Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. have a strange relationship that is unfolding in the public eye

Published July 20, 2017 7:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump; Donald Trump Jr. (AP/Susan Walsh/Matt York/Salon)
Donald Trump; Donald Trump Jr. (AP/Susan Walsh/Matt York/Salon)

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A son in a building emblazoned with his father’s name, at the center of his campaign, and half way through a life spent in his shadow, Donald Trump Jr. took action. What was that action exactly? Trying to gather dirt on a political opponent through a Kremlin-affiliated lawyer. Maybe collusion. Maybe not. Though Trump Jr. claims whatever was done was done without the knowledge of his father — a claim many will contest — that doesn’t mean it done without an implicit endorsement. Whether or not Donald Trump Jr. acted on his father’s initiative or his own, he acted because of his father and because of their relationship.

Horror. Embarrassment. Despair. Schadenfreude. Glee. Pride. Patriotism. Whatever emotions attend the unfurling of the Trump/Russia narrative, there is no question that Americans are scrutinizing a father-son dynamic with a level of interest unmatched in American history. Though we’ve had dynasties before, the relationships behind them have tend to remain private. John Jr. and Caroline were munchkins when they occupied 1600 and the Bushes were a decidedly private bunch. It was never assumed that H.W. pulled W.’s strings or vice versa. Ditto John and John Quincy Adams.

Now, Americans are meeting a son that eagerly plays surrogate to a father who has long made a habit of treating his nuclear family as a group of character witnesses. American may soon be watching his prosecution.

At the heart of the whole treasonous kerfuffle is a tension between familial loyalty, which we prize, and loyalty to the body politic, which we also prize. The Trump family is insular and opaque, but also — and almost paradoxically — maniacally public. The Trump’s close-knittedness makes Chelsea and her parents seem estranged in comparison in pointing out that her mother wouldn’t have had her in a seat at the G20 she pointed towards some fundamental differences in approach). Chelsea has her own vector while the Trump kids spin in orbit. But that’s only half the story. Trump openly relies on his children’s support. They are his most significant backers.

There’s a reason the younger Trumps follow dad. He has led them to wealth and, now, to power. He has not been shy and sees no reason to hide his dynastic impulses. Whether it is Ivanka sitting in his chair during the G20 or handing over to his sons the reins — at least nominally — to his vast business empire, Trump is kingly in both impulse and aesthetic. (There’s an entire other novella to be written about how Trump’s biological sons must feel seeing his father delegate so much so quickly so ardently to Jared Kushner, his son-in-law.) On the one hand, this is exactly the type of selfless behavior we applaud. It is — sharp inhale of breath — the American Dream: Do right by your family and spread the fruit of one’s own work with loved ones.

It is, at the same time, antithetical to democracy. Political dynasties are nothing new. Some are called monarchies and some are called dictatorships. Until now, neither have been forms of government accepted in the United States of America. The country itself was the spawn of the Founding Fathers, not their biological heirs. And yet, voting for Trump has meant voting his children into power.

Leaving aside how this affects the country, this seems to have been a blessing for his family but may prove a curse instead. The pursuit of the presidency, and now the presidency itself, has exposed the entire Trump clan to a level of scrutiny hitherto unseen and hitherto unprepared for. Perhaps they might have figured being a public figure, as opposed to a private citizen celebrity, would entail more and more serious attention paid to whether or not they violated the law. At any rate, it seems to have come as a shock to Donald Jr.

Following revelations of the meeting, and even before that, Don Jr. like nearly all of the Trump family, has been held up to ridicule. This latest blunder with the Russian lawyer — and a response that seemed to affirm that he was willing to meet with Russians to find oppo research on Clinton — was greeted by analysts with a rueful chuckle. The decision to have the meeting was generally considered unwise in the extreme. Don Jr. fucked up. Now it’s a matter of seeing how deep the implications of the fuck up are and to what degree his father will step in to help him post-fuck up.

It is a very public, very intimate scandal. What’s being investigated and will be further investigated is a relationship between a man and his father. What do the American people currently know about that bond? Next to nothing. What will they find out? Less than the whole truth and more than the Trumps might prefer.

It seems almost certain that someone will fall. Will it be the son, who learned from the father? Will it be the father, who brought his son along for the ride without preparation? Whatever happens, whoever falls on the sword, the endgame will test a profound bound. That will be interesting to watch. It’s not something Americans have seen before. It may not be something they see again.

By Joshua David Stein

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