Donald Trump Jr.'s celebrity-villain divorce: Forgive yourself for staring

Yes, it's news! Celebrity culture and politics are ruled by the same principle: Live by the sword, die by the sword

By Erin Keane

Chief Content Officer

Published March 16, 2018 6:59PM (EDT)

Donald Trump Jr. (Getty/Drew Angerer)
Donald Trump Jr. (Getty/Drew Angerer)

The New York Post broke the news that Vanessa Trump filed for divorce from Donald Trump Jr. this week, and public response has run the gamut from delighted scorn to handwringing over the spiritual utility of Schadenfreude in these ugly times. (OK, maybe that's just me.) Even some journalists, of the ilk that both Donalds Trump, junior and senior, constantly insult, have found themselves on the side of The Mooch here. “Really weird and upsetting to see folks acting gleeful at the Don Jr. divorce news. It’s his private life and he has five kids,” tweeted Sam Stein of the Daily Beast. “Leave it alone.” MSNBC host Chris Hayes agreed, calling Stein’s tweet a “100% Correct Take.”

These are admirable defenses of a fellow human's feelings. As a person who has been trying to combat within herself the discourse-rot that Junior and his father have encouraged over the last few years, I sympathize with the desire to just “leave it alone,” lest I let myself be tempted by the meme-ification of someone else’s sorrow.

And yet Donald Trump Jr. is undeniably a public figure. If the Clintons and the Obamas embraced the celebrity culture surrounding the presidency like none since the Kennedys, the Trumps have exploited it, ruthlessly and with unprecedented efficacy, all the way from Fifth Avenue and NBC into the Oval Office. As the old chestnut goes, live by the sword, die by the sword, and nowhere is that maxim honored more thoroughly than in politics and celebrity culture. Just like his father and his sister Ivanka, Junior has wholeheartedly embraced both cutthroat worlds.

Anyone's divorce has a way of dredging up our own feelings about the end of relationships — disappointment, heartbreak, humiliation, regret, relief, hope, the whole messy ball of human emotions. But high-profile divorces take that to the next level, and can easily turn into a collective exercise in projection. When a celebrity couple splits up — Anna Faris and Chris Pratt, to cite a recent example — it can trigger an irrational sense of introspection from strangers. They seemed so perfect for each other; they looked so happy — is anyone actually happy? As someone who's been through a divorce, I get it. Nobody knows the truth about a marriage except the two people in it, says conventional wisdom, and humans rather like knowing things. When there’s a villain in the mix — via infidelity, abuse, Scientology, general haterade, whatever — the public can rally around the innocent party. Cue the Gloria Gaynor — maybe we will all survive!

I’m not saying divorcing a Trump is exactly like leaving Scientology, but the slice of Americans who were genuinely sad that those crazy kids Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise couldn’t make it work is likely small and very sheltered.

To most of America, Donald Trump Jr. is first and foremost a reality TV personality, having appeared regularly on “The Apprentice” for a decade. If a Real Housewife gets divorced, few question whether the headlines are earned. And if said Housewife has crafted a heel persona, all but the most sanctimonious pearls are going to remain unclutched. Even before his run as the head large adult son of the Trump presidential campaign, before he “out West”-ed himself to the New York Times style section, and even before his whopping seventy-three appearances on “The Apprentice,” Trump Junior displayed, after a period of laying low in early adulthood, a taste for the limelight to rival his old man’s. In 2004, he recreated his proposal to Vanessa, in what the Post called “a taste-deprived ceremony,” at the Short Hills Mall in New Jersey in exchange for a free engagement ring. Paparazzi and TV crews were the only “invited” guests, according to the Post. Look, if I know which mall you got engaged in and you didn’t skip geometry with me in 10th grade, you’re definitely a celebrity.

Between his current iteration as “not here to make friends”-style Twitter brawler and Fox News guest to his past as the face of elephant slaughter, the case for Junior’s famous-villain status among the haters is solid.

Vanessa Trump, on the other hand, has kept a fairly low profile as spouse and parent during Big Papa’s political ascendance. She hasn’t helped herself to a White House fiefdom like Jared Kushner or a chair at the Trump propaganda organ like Eric’s wife Lara. The ghastly incident in which Vanessa had to be rushed to the hospital after opening an envelope of white powder sent to her home — a despicable act of terror against anyone, I don’t care what your politics are — appeared to be even more unfair, if that’s possible, when we consider her status as a relative bystander in the Trump political spectacle. Meanwhile Donald Jr., who’s supposed to be running the family business, continues to fling himself into every spotlight he can find — which I suppose is part of his job description, in a way.

There's long been a mandate to leave the children of presidents alone, even though it's been broken time and again, and across partisan lines. Neither Chelsea Clinton nor the Bush twins deserved the media scrutiny, often mean-spirited, that their fathers' jobs brought them. The tide seemed to have turned in the Obama administration, when a GOP staffer had to resign after her snark about Sasha and Malia during the 2014 Thanksgiving turkey pardon went viral. Barron Trump should absolutely be free to grow up as normally as he can in the White House without fear of unwanted media attention, too.

But an adult son of Donald Trump's who worked tirelessly — "if it's what you say, I love it" — to get the president elected and is in possession of an IMDB rap sheet a mile long enjoys no such freedom in America. He may be working toward a classy and conscious uncoupling from Vanessa, and, having been through this as a kid, he will likely do a better job protecting his kids than his own father did. But Junior shouldn't be surprised if a narrative emerges in the wake of Vanessa's filing casting her as the Katie to his Tom. Vanessa could end up becoming an accidental Resistance icon, no matter who she votes for. After all, she's pulling off something more than half the country only dreams of doing — she's divorcing a Donald Trump.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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