Little Monsters

Why does Donald Trump Jr. have a carefully curated “sexy dad” Instagram persona?

Donald Trump Jr. and his Instagram posts with his kids and dog.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Cindy Ord/Getty Images, Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images, and Thinkstock.

Trumpstagram is Slate’s pop-up blog that close-reads Instagram accounts in the Trump orbit.

Donald Trump Jr.’s Instagram is a combo pack of thirst traps. There’s the explicit MAGA stuff, for the politically minded: screenshots of tweets from his dad (or from him), memes about dumb libs, misleading charts about how great the economy is under Trump. For the people in his imagined audience who think he’s kind of hot, there are gym selfies and reports on CrossFit progress and miscellaneous masculinity bait, like snaps of him on mountaintops and with tractors and taking aim at a shooting range. But the most interesting artifacts on DJT Jr.’s Instagram may be the photos of him with his kids.

He has five, to be exact—three boys, two girls. Their mother, Vanessa, filed for divorce in March, after 12 years of marriage. The two are publicly friendly, exchanging Mother’s Day and Father’s Day greetings over social media, and Vanessa swears she’s OK with his new girlfriend. And on Instagram, Junior’s a committed dad, posting endless iterations on a theme: “Family time!” In weekend photoset after weekend photoset (the man rarely posts just one kid image), the Trump Jr. kids frolic on manicured golf courses and in fishing boats. They glow with health and good fortune. And their dad is at the center of it all, a little bit wry, a little bit at their mercy; calling them “monsters” and “Smurfs” and bearing their Nerf assaults with good humor.

Junior seems to want to frame himself not just as a normal dad but as an aspirational dad—a model of rugged, all-American fatherhood. “Get your kids outdoors early and often … you won’t regret it,” Junior captions a collage of “adventure” photos of him and Donald III, on his son’s ninth birthday, posted a few months before his divorce was announced. There are campfire photos (#outdoors #weekend #kids). These are not wussy, liberal, REI–Gore-Tex–CamelBak outdoors pics; Dad and kids are always garbed in camo or neon orange, and there are usually dead fish involved.

Commenters’ responses to these photos indicate that Junior’s representation of family togetherness is landing exactly as intended. For most people who follow Junior and comment on his pics, it seems that these photos are indeed both #relatable and sexy. Many respond with variations on a theme: “Somebody is a great father!” Kai, his 11-year-old daughter, styles his hair in more than one post, and the commenters go wild over the messy look: “You’re seriously the best dad!” Moms laugh with recognition, making comparisons between these children and their own, remembering how they felt about their own dads. Don Jr. and his kids are a hit. In one post, the kids are driving gas-powered all-terrain vehicles, and a commenter applauds, “This is what turns kids into patriots that love America.” Another commented on a compilation of wood-chopping photos, “These kids are going to know a lot about outdoors and life in general.”

Like his sister Ivanka, Junior never lets the labor of running the family show. “I have the monsters all to myself this weekend,” he wrote in November, eliding the presence of the inevitable nannies or housekeepers. (Do you think Junior really made breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks for five kids for two days? Please.) An early-morning photo of a destroyed play room, upended by Spencer and Chloe the night before while the household was sleeping, gets laughs from some (“I think all parents can appreciate this picture!” “All kids do this, what fun.”) and only one comment from a skeptic: “They won’t have to clean it up. They’ll have their underpaid maid do it.” Most people seem to swallow the fantasy of the five-kid, no-nanny family without trouble. “Don’t know how you do it,” one comments on a photo of the seven of them, together in better, pre-divorce days. “I have three and that’s a challenge.”

The photos of the five kids, plus Dad, get family-solvency props, but mostly, the kid photos are about Chloe. The blonde, blue-eyed preschooler is the star of the most popular posts. Take Chloe’s “rather unique rendition” of “Happy Birthday,” or a photo taken on “Daddy daughter date night”—a showing of Peter Rabbit, with a big bag of popcorn and an Icee. Commenters lose their minds when Junior puts up a Chloe pic. They think Chloe looks like Ivanka, or, rarely, Vanessa: They think she’s precious, adorable, a sweetie; they love her blue eyes and tell each other, “Chloe gives me life.”

There’s something melancholy about the degree to which Chloe dominates the feed. She is the youngest and seemingly most affectionate (“Clo-bug heard me come in and ran right to me,” Junior captioned one reunion photo), and it’s likely he posts more photos of her than the others because they are the best-received. Social media loves a “cute” preschooler who seems innocent to our world, and indeed this particular Trump child is doing more work than her siblings at convincing the internet that the Trumps are decent and charming. It doesn’t hurt that she has the face of a tiny pageant queen—a perfect specimen of the white American child.

In the context of the Trump family, the beloved daughter who becomes a human shield for her male relatives obviously has a history. “She’s in training for Ivanka’s job,” one apt commenter writes on a video of Chloe. Junior makes a special effort to post photos of the girl with her grandfather, and to underline their close relationship. “Whenever he’s around she runs right over and just wants to be carried around … it’s very cute,” he captions a photo of Chloe with the president. “She really loves her #potus,” he writes on a photo of the two from Easter.

In May, he posted a complaint about “a crazy drop off in new followers,” which he blamed on the fact that a search of his name returned a pop-up warning message from Instagram: “Posts with words or tags you’re searching for often encourage behavior that can cause harm and even lead to death.” (USA Today and Newsweek were unable to replicate the event, and Instagram refused to comment.) “@zuck this is insane,” Trump wrote. “I get that my 3 year old Chloe can be pretty aggressive as are a few of my humorous memes, but this is ridiculous.” There’s Chloe again, helping Trump make the claim that his “humorous memes” about stupid liberals and MS-13 “animals” are just dad jokes—dinner-table jabs, offensive only to the triggered. It’s his Instagram’s M.O. in a nutshell: an ongoing argument against the wrongful vilification of the Trump family, using his kids as props. This combination of family schmaltz and Trumpian political agenda might be an even more toxic brew than Junior’s conspiracy-theory-loving Twitter feed. His kid-Instas present themselves as a haven from politics, but they’re doing hefty political work, just the same.

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