“Good evening. I’m Donald Trump Jr. Thank you. I’m the father of five young children, from two-year-old Chloe to Kai who just turned nine. I’m the husband to Vanessa, an amazing wife and mother, and the son of a great man.”

–Donald Trump Jr., before the Republican National Convention.

For decades the Republican party has trumpeted the importance of “family values,” as part of a more general strategy of using so-called “wedge” issues — race, gender, ethnicity, religion — to appeal to largely white working class male voters. With the candidacy Donald Trump, the Republicans have reached new heights of familiarism and familiarity. They have nominated one of the most notorious womanizers in our popular culture, someone who has deliberately promoted his image as a Casanova, and who at the same time has resolutely promoted his own children, setting them up in businesses bearing the Trump brand, and thrusting them into the public eye. The role of the four adult Trump children in their father’s campaign and in the Republican National Convention is unprecedented. It is also an exceptionally savvy move conceived by a master showman and Realty Television Personality. Whenever a challenge arises, the Trump children are pressed forward as personifications of Donald’s essential goodness. In recent days practically every journalist on the cable news networks, including Rachel Maddow, has gushed about how poised, bright, good-looking, and impressive are Donald, Jr., Ivanka, Eric, and Tiffany, and about what this says about Donald Trump the man, a line repeated by the Trump children themselves: our father is a wonderful man and a devoted father who has raised us to be upstanding American citizens.

Melania Trump fits rather uneasily in this narrative. We can put the plagiarism question to one side. In recent weeks and months we have been treated to an endless series of photo ops of “the Trump family” — Donald, the four adult children, and the wife, Donald’s third wife, who is mother to none of the four adult children, and who is a mere 8 years older than Donald’s eldest son. Picture perfect perhaps. But perfect? Unlikely.

Let us also put to one side the obvious and common tensions that exist between children and fathers who remarry much younger women, and between those children and their new “stepmothers.” Let us imagine that the master of The Art of the Deal has managed to do some wonderful deals with his children. Let us imagine them relatively happy among themselves.

But there is something missing from this happy picture: the actual mothers of the adult children. The eldest three children are the children of Ivana Trump, Donald’s first wife. The youngest of the adult children, Tiffany, is the daughter of Marla Maples, the actress with whom Donald conducted an affair that led to the breakup of his first marriage and the excommunication of glamorous Ivanka in favor of the younger Marla. This is a blended family if ever there was one. It is possible to look at the family together and wonder “which one is the wife.” Is it possible to look at the four children together and imagine a beautiful harmony, in spite of the fact that young Tiffany apparently was raised by her mother in California, far away from Donald and the others in New York? What was that like for her? One can only wonder.

There are so many things to wonder about here. It could be said, rightly, that these are private matters, unrelated to matters of politics or policy. In a way this is true, and it seems wrong to probe into the lives of these young people, each of whom has their own life to live. On the other hand, it is their father who has made them who they are — something they seem very happy to prate about — and who has thrust them into the public eye, and presented them as evidence of his manly virtue and family values, and, bizarrely, as his closest confidants. So the questions are unavoidable.

As I listened to Donald Jr. give his speech last night, I was struck by that opening statement, about being “the son of a great man.” Did Donald actually birth his namesake, I wondered? Or perhaps Jr. sprung from his father’s ample forehead, as the goddess Athena was said to have sprung from the forehead of Zeus? In fact, as we all know, Jr. has a father and he also has a mother. His mother was once a young model from Eastern Europe named Ivana. Then she bore children, and aged. And the rest is history.

I point this out not to judge the private affairs of these individuals, but to judge the public spectacle that the media are buying hook, line, and sinker. It is only possible to look at the Trump family and see a wonderful assemblage of wonderful people by choosing to simply ignore the history of adultery that led to this moment in the life of Trump, and to simply forget the fact that the wonderful children who appear before our eyes were not raised by their self-absorbed father, but by mothers who are now relegated to historical oblivion.

These things quite obviously have little to do with the many important reasons why Trump ought to be feared by all who believe in liberal democracy.

But they are indicative nonetheless, of the hypocrisy with which Republicans trumpet “family values,” and the brazenness with which Trump will manipulate the media to project images of himself, and the sexism that is so manifest in every aspect of the person and the persona that is Donald Trump. These features of the Trumps are not matters of public policy. But they reflect attitudes that bear heavily on policy, and even more heavily on the narcissistic and authoritarian personality of the paterfamilias himself.

May he be kept far away from political power.


3 thoughts on “Mothers and Their Children: Further Thoughts on Trump and “Family Values”

  1. Just add this to the myriad reasons why Trump is not fit to be the President. I hope we will soon view this asshattery in our collective rearview and, years from now, muse: Wasn’t that really weird?

  2. Thanks for this. As you rightfully point out, the Trump family tableau demonstrates the hypocrisy of the GOP family values mantra. We could also discuss how actual policies endorsed by the Republicans (anti-gay families, anti-women, deporting families) demonstrate this hypocrisy, but I like the focus on the narrative in this piece.

    I am reminded of the Obama family, as well. For good or bad, Obama made family a central element of his political persona. From his memoirs to his speeches, he frequently referenced families as a way to push his brand of liberalism. The success of this interpretation of family values will be determined in the future. Though Obama remains committed to a troubling respectability politics, his embrace of familial liberalism could open up the possibility for a diversified family values that is less rooted in postwar norms and more reflective of actual families. Such a politics would require a greater focus on income inequality, gender parity, and familial diversity than anything on offer from the GOP.

    The comparison between the Trump family and the Obamas provides evidence, I think, that political affiliations around “the family” might be changing.

    1. Obama’s family is strong and Michelle stood by him— but he did the same in return. If you think about any family in office in my lifetime, the Obama family may be one of the strongest. There was no choice politically but at the same time, class act. His family man thing is genuine and not rooted in liberalism as much as it might be in race.

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