It’s impeachment season, and our president grows increasingly agitated, increasingly isolated, and ever more unchained. Where, in his hour of need, are his loyal foot soldiers? Just a few weeks ago, Trump complained that Republicans in Congress weren’t coming to his defense as aggressively as they should be.
According to the Trump family biographer, the only people Donald Trump will ever truly trust are his own children. And at least for now, that means the offspring of his first marriage to Ivana Trump: the 41-year-old Don Jr., the 38-year-old Ivanka, and the 35-year-old Eric. (The two younger kids are off at various stages of school, so they’re out of the running.) How vigorously and visibly are each of the eldest three Trump children defending their dad? Which one of them, in the endless public competition that defines Donald Trump’s world, is therefore winning the greatest share of the conditionally doled out fatherly love they so desperately crave?
Before we can figure that out, we’ll need to get to know our contestants. First up, both in birth order and in this specific list, is Donald John Trump Jr. Don Jr., who got beaten up in a comedy club in 2002 for allegedly “reacting too enthusiastically to a comic’s ethnic humor,” is the brashest and most outspoken of Trump’s progeny. He’s also shown a particular affinity for the culture-war aspect of his father’s presidency.
Next, we have the president’s darling daughter Ivanka, Trump’s favorite for a number of reasons, though many of them appear to be physical. Prior to moving to the White House (along with her husband, Jared Kushner) to be an adviser for her father, Ivanka had been working on a building a lifestyle brand in between attending functions with New York’s liberal elite. She has not entirely given that up.
And finally, there’s Eric. Of the eldest three children, Eric seemed—at least until recently—to be the one most determined to keep his head down. While both he and Don Jr. run the Trump Organization in title, Eric appears to be the one doing the bulk of whatever work that involves. Until recently, he’s mostly kept to promoting the family business in between some light campaigning.
While there’s a lot of filial flattery to analyze, it appears that this wasn’t winning Eric many paternal points. According to a 2017 City & State NY profile, the bombastic, aggressive instincts that define the Trump clan at large don’t come quite as naturally to Eric, who said that he “probably would stay away from politics,” citing the sacrifices to his family and personal life. Even so, though less of a driving force than his older siblings, Eric has not stayed away from politics. A recent Atlantic profile on the ongoing battle for Trump scion supremacy reported that, while Eric was mostly happy to bury himself in the family business, the shadow of 2020 simply loomed too large:
Eric had been holding back, worried that his father would disapprove; after all, someone needed to mind the shop. But the president encouraged Eric to join his siblings in the fray. There would be plenty of ways to cash in later. This was the family business now.
Eric’s reticence to fully engage in the meme wars, along with his relative lack of experience, might be why contributions like these feel so unnatural:
It’s hard to read these as anything more than halfhearted. The vague Uncanny Valley-ness of the tweets comes from the fact that Eric’s own fits of aggression lack identifiable context. There’s no obvious trigger and no thing in particular to which the tweets are responding. It’s just a show of loyalty for loyalty’s sake.
Ivanka’s tweets fall into a similar trap, though for slightly different reasons.
Before her father became the president, Ivanka took great pains to associate the Ivanka™ name with wealthy, young, perfectly coiffed working moms painted over in soft pink hues. Now that she’s had to rework her brand to be the congenial, comparatively palatable arm of the Trump administration, any fits of politics or paranoid ranting must be executed with care. This tension is most apparent in her elaborately designed Instagram stories:
It’s the sort of coloration and accents one might expect from a toilet brush subscription service for ladies. Donald Trump doesn’t really look at Instagram, though, and so Ivanka is free to push her brand there however she sees fit. Twitter, her father’s medium of choice and one with significantly fewer color palettes, offers less wiggle room. And that seems how to be how we end up with tweets like this:
Here, Ivanka took pains to compare her father to a historic, widely respected president, and his enemies to that president’s enemies, while still managing to not actually be the one casting aspersions. They’re Jefferson’s words, and you love Jefferson—don’t blame her! But then, this tweet is not really for us. No one is under the impression that this tweet is here to change anyone’s mind, and once again, it exists so that she can say it exists.
Yet even Ivanka’s perfectly polite praise, which is not at all incongruous with whatever brand she tries to project, feels insincere.
As with Eric’s tweets, in his evident effort to join the fray, Ivanka’s message seems obligatory. The reader imagines Trump having gone to his daughter to whine about a lack of public support and how it’d be nice to see the family coming to his defense, so that he might do something like this:
Regardless of whether the things they tweet come from places of actual anger or admiration, however, the one thing Trump’s children universally seem to want is their father’s approval. And as the fighting-est, most lib-hating of all of Trump’s spawn, Don Jr.—once famous as the family fuck-up—finally seems to have it.
Like his father, Don Jr. often quote-tweets others and calls attention to the specific people committing specific actions against him and members of his family, specifically. It’s usually immediately clear what triggered one of his tirades, and so it feels less forced. He loves memes and, as a longtime Republican and avid hunter, he easily slips into the language of his father’s most devout followers.
And as the elder Donald Trump spirals further with every passing day of his presidency, his predilection for Don Jr. appears to grow, at least based on his outward shows of affection (which is to say, Twitter).
During his presidency, Donald Trump has quote-tweeted Ivanka a total of eight times (six of which consisted of him praising his eldest daughter). He has quote-tweeted Eric a total of eight times (five of which consisted of him praising his middle son). And he has quote-tweeted Don Jr. a total of six times (a mere one of which contained some sort of personal praise for his eldest child and namesake).
From those numbers alone, it might seem like Don Jr. comes up short, but separate the data by year and a different trend starts to emerge.
Almost of all Trump’s Don Jr. signal-boosting has come relatively recently. Prior to this, Ivanka was understood to be the clear favorite, but according to Vicky Ward’s book, Kushner, Inc., Trump has grown increasingly weary of his daughter’s presence. What’s more, Don Jr. has proved to be the more adept campaigner, at least when it comes to Trump’s base.
In August, Trump quote-tweeted Don Jr.’s attack on Joe and Hunter Biden.
Our data pool here is admittedly smaller than ideal, but the numbers do seem to indicate a general, if gradually less pronounced, preference for Ivanka and an increasingly bullish Don Jr. market—as the president’s overall quote-tweet engagement with his adult children drastically increases, with more examples in 2019 than in the prior two years combined.
Fortunately for our analysis, Trump is considerably more generous with the less-labor-intensive retweet.
Through the three years of his presidency so far, Donald Trump has retweeted Ivanka 52 times, Eric 37 times, and Don Jr. 33 times. This leaves the eldest once again in last place, in the aggregate.
But as before, the year-by-year data tell the opposite story. Don Jr. got three retweets from his father the first year, 0 retweets the second year, and then—as his father’s offspring-retweeting activity surged to unprecedented levels—a whopping 30 retweets so far this year, more than any other Trump child in any year. Eight of those retweets were from September alone.
Twitter is just one of Donald Trump’s obsessions, though. His first (and perhaps true) love is and will always be cable news—Fox News, specifically. We know Trump watches it religiously and that he encourages as many people as he can to do the same. So it would make sense that his kids might use the medium to cozy up to their otherwise unavailable father.
Finding his eldest kids’ cable news hits was not easy, and as such, I can’t be sure this data is complete or entirely accurate. I did, however, spend hours poring over the Fox News and Fox Business YouTube channels, and Twitter feeds, as well as the feeds of the kids and anything else Google might have been able to pull up. This also doesn’t include cable hits outside of Fox Business or Fox News proper, and I should note that Ivanka appears to frequent outside networks far more than her brothers. All that said, the results were curious.
Eric consistently came out on top, which makes sense considering he neither has a job in the White House to tend to, nor does he travel as much as his older brother (who is often out on hunting trips or campaign trail duty). Ivanka rarely does interviews at all, and since she has a direct line to her father in the White House, she doesn’t necessarily need TV for face-time purposes. Don Jr., however, seems to have ratcheted his appearances up the most, with Eric only slightly increasing over the past year.
If Eric is playing the game because he’s duty-bound, then based on the most obvious marker of his affection (Twitter), Trump’s not particularly impressed. Ivanka had a head start, and her recent efforts to join her brothers on the cable circuit seem to indicate that however much she may hate to taint her brand, she cares more about losing her prized spot next to her dad. Because as it stands now, the previously most despised Trump scion, the one whom Trump described to everyone who would listen as having “the worst judgment of anyone in the world” (at least according to Michael Cohen), is the one who, by the public record, is giving his father more and more of what he wants to see.
This may be meaningful outside the circle of the Trump family. Till recently, despite Don Jr.’s best and most desperate efforts (see several Halloweens ago, in which he dressed up as a superhero version of his own dad), Donald Trump has happily ignored his firstborn son, just as he has for most of his life (save the time he tried to use Don Jr. as a bargaining chip in his first divorce before realizing that neither he nor his ex-wife really wanted the boy).
Now we can see the elder Donald turning to the younger, an unprecedented situation. Throughout Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, as his misconduct and failures emerged and multiplied, and his list of boasts and threats and incomprehensible nonsense grew ever longer, the nation has grappled with one all-important question: Is he getting worse? Or is what appears to be a progressively melting brain simply the same broken bits we’ve been goggling at for years?
In the ebb and flow of intrafamily tweeting, we see at least one indicator that something truly has changed. That, perhaps, Donald Trump really is more desperate than he’s ever been, and he’s willing to go to any lengths in his quest for solace, even if that means publicly praising Donald Trump Jr.
For now, though, congratulations to Don Jr., who—if things keep going his way—might even be allowed to touch his father one day, every son’s dream.