Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, is professor of history at New York University and the author of “Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
It was Christmas as only the Donald Trump family could celebrate it. Outside their bubble, Covid-19 infections soared, millions faced economic hardship, and a bomb exploded in Nashville. The President golfed at the Trump International Golf Course in Palm Beach, Florida, while his oldest son, Donald Jr., worked what could be considered an insult of his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, into their holiday video, posted on Facebook. “I’ve managed to maintain a very low bar with Kimberly. I don’t want her to get too big an ego, or accustomed to kindness. I want to keep her tough,” said Don Jr.
Guilfoyle looked on, her smile frozen, as Donald Jr. went on to describe her as already “probably the toughest.” A former Fox News host and 2020 Trump campaign finance chair, she delivered a fire and brimstone speech to the Republican National Convention in August that showed why she has become a top Trump surrogate. Yet Donald Jr.’s comments – perhaps charitably interpreted as a joke – expose the dynamics of emotional domination, including through public humiliation and grooming people to have low expectations, that have characterized the Trump way of being in political and private life.
Trump senior’s skill at letting even fervent supporters know how little he thinks of them is well known. Not only are his put-downs of top officials and advisers legendary, but he’s repeatedly held large rallies for his often-maskless followers during the coronavirus pandemic, only to leave them stranded – and some needing hospitalization – after they had to wait hours for buses in frigid temperatures.
Yet we’d best become more familiar with the attitudes of the younger members of the Trump clan. Donald Jr. and Guilfoyle are said to have plans to expand their influence within the Republican National Committee, part of a strategy to win back Republican control of the White House in 2024. And Trump, like other leaders that bring relatives into their governments, thinks of power in family terms. He would not be the first head of state to build a political dynasty.
Donald Jr. features in both these ambitions. He is an explosive presence on the Republican political scene, full of bombast as a speaker and quick to rile up his audiences with insults and attacks on the various groups his father has worked so hard to demonize. These include the “radical left,” a category that encompasses mainstream politicians like President-elect Joe Biden and many more. Trump’s son shares his father’s visible delight in cruel invective but would likely be a more vigorously extreme politician. “Donald Jr. is the gasoline on the fire,” Democratic strategist Jon Reinish told the BBC in August.
Guilfoyle, too, has a strong personality given to displays of dominance, as in her strident speech, delivered at full volume, at 2020’s Republican National Convention. As Jane Mayer of the New Yorker reported, Guilfoyle’s former assistant at Fox News accused her of repeated instances of sexual harassment – alleged behaviors that, in general, aim to humiliate and degrade the recipient (Guilfoyle told the New Yorker that she had “never engaged in any workplace misconduct of any kind” during her 30-year career; Fox News paid the former assistant more than $4 million to avoid going to trial, the New Yorker reported.) Guilfoyle is less Donald Jr.’s equal than someone who is often two or more steps ahead of him – a dynamic that seems to irritate Trump’s son. A closer look at the video makes this clear.
Standing slightly in front of Guilfoyle, Donald Jr. starts off strong as he conveys their joint Christmas wishes to the military. But soon his girlfriend chimes in, reminding him of the groups he’s forgetting (“our veterans, law enforcement, first responders”). This causes him to pause and look back at her for a few seconds too long. “That’s right,” he finally says – and then launches into his put-down of her, which starts with him saying he’s “reasonably” thankful for her presence in his life. Later he describes her as the “voice of reason” when it comes to navigating his use of social media, saying she could “probably write the book” on the saved tweets that were written but never sent.
The revealing interaction also points to another probable future trend: the presence and prominence of female members of the family in politics. Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, is reportedly weighing a Senate run in North Carolina. And Ivanka Trump’s impending move to Miami may have caused speculation that she is considering a Senate run in Florida, but her father has long marketed her to the world as a future head of state, even placing her center-stage in an official photo taken of the 2019 Group of 20 gathering.
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What all the Trumps, male and female, have in common is unwavering support for four years of the President’s heartless policies, from holding record numbers of migrant children in custody, to banning transgender individuals from military service, to repeatedly downplaying the severity of the coronavirus, thus contributing to the illness and deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. “It is what it is,” Trump said flatly in a September 2020 televised interview of the nation’s spiraling mortality rate from coronavirus.
No good ever comes to societies when leaders lack empathy. The political and other health of our democracy will be challenged if the next generation of Trumps follow the president in making “toughness” their brand.