During the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump promised his supporters that, under his administration, they’d win so much they’d grow tired of winning.
Triggered, the new book by Trump’s son Donald Jr, shows that promise in a different light. In essence, it’s a story about losing, not so much in the sense of occasionally coming off second best but as an irreversible, almost existential, condition.
“Things have gotten way out of control in this country,” explains Trump Jr in his opening pages. “We’ve elected socialists to our congress, allowed anti-Semitism to run rampant throughout our government, and allowed our most important media institutions to be run by angry mobs and leftist activist ‘journalists’ on Twitter. Worst of all, we have completely ceded control of what we can and cannot say to the left, who are just a bunch of oversensitive babies who find everything offensive.”
If only conservatives could win high office and set things straight! Oh, wait…
The elder Trump promised to Make America Great Again. Nearly two years later, his son portrays the nation as an authoritarian dystopia, one in which, he tells us, “there are stacks of books we’re no longer allowed to read, public figures who are no longer allowed to speak in public, and crucial debates we are no longer allowed to have — all because they might hurt someone’s feelings.”
For the American writer Thomas Frank, culture war works as a game of bait and switch, a variant of the carnival cups and balls routine in which the rube never gets what he expects.
That perpetual disappointment keeps the process going, at least up to a point. Almost by definition, the war can be fought but never actually won.
Like all books of its genre, Triggered (subtitled: “How the Left thrives on hate and wants to silence us”) rails against a liberal elite that’s effete and out of touch — and yet somehow supernaturally powerful, perennially confounding ordinary folk and their billionaire champions.
Naturally, Trump Jr includes himself in the ranks of the anti-elitists on the basis that, as a boy, he often ate lunch (!) with the union contractors and plumbers labouring on his father’s development projects.
“The press [portrays] me as a rich brat from one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country,” he complains, “but they won’t tell you how I spent every summer in communist Czechoslovakia when I was a kid or the manual labor I did growing up for my father.”
Most of the book consists of a rehashing of Fox News talking points about censorship on campus, antifa as the real Nazis, and liberals making up crazy rules about gender diversity.
Yet, after a while, you glimpse a grievance that comes from rather a different place.
Back in 2007, Junior did an interview in which he mused about how his penis measured up alongside his father’s.
‘They’re both pretty substantial,’ he assured the journalist.
While Triggered does not directly address the relative dimensions of two generations of Trumpian organs, the book certainly conveys the impression its author may not be quite so confident in the phallic comparison as he once made out.
In a perceptive review for Slate, Ashley Feinberg notes Donald Jr’s shrill and repeated insistence about how much his father values him.
If Donald Sr asked employees to train his son (rather than doing it himself), that was, we’re told, only to stop the boy feeling entitled. If he didn’t want Donald Jr to campaign alongside him in 2016, it was because appearing together would waste resources. And if he resisted Ivana’s suggestion that the baby take his name (reportedly saying: “We can’t do that! What if he’s a loser?”), he did so merely to show off his fine sense of humour.
“When you’re Donald Trump’s son,” Junior writes, “you get used to that sense of humour.”
Perhaps you do. Or perhaps you tamp your hurt and bitterness deep down, allowing it only to bubble back up as a generalised rage against woke college students, censorious social media companies, sneering journalists and other real and imagined enemies.
American pundits have suggested Trump Jr might eventually make his way into the White House, much as one George Bush followed the other.
The mixture of entitlement and resentment running through Triggered makes that seem depressingly plausible.