Two of the most distinctive aspects of Donald Trump’s extraordinary presidential run have been the prominent role played by his children in his tiny campaign team, and the emphasis his campaign has placed on his paternal excellence as a credential. Behind the scenes, his children have apparently been deeply involved in strategy, tactics, messaging—indeed, in all aspects of a modern campaign. At his rallies and most notably at the Republican National Convention, his children have enjoyed a prominence normally reserved for former Presidents and running mates. All of this without any background in politics to justify their power. Bobby Kennedy may have benefited from nepotism during his role in the 1960 campaign, but he at least had more than a decade of Washington experience by then. Two of the Trump progeny are such newbies at politics that they failed to register to vote in time for the New York Republican primary.
Unlike some of the more unsavory elements of Trump’s campaign, like the nativism, racism, nationalism, pro-Russian policies, Palinesque demonstrations of utter ignorance, vicious personal insults, and chronic issuing of untruths, the Father Trump aspect of the campaign hasn’t received nearly enough attention. It represents an apotheosis of the personalization of presidential politics, and an intensification of the “illusions of intimacy” referenced in TAI’s pages by R. Jay Magill, Jr. last year. The emphasis on fatherhood as a credential stands out all the more in Trump’s case, because his policy positions are almost non-existent, lacking in nuance, complexity, or sometimes even a relationship to the physical universe as we know it, such as the nonsensical idea that a border wall will be built with Mexican money.
Trump’s skills as a father are almost the only praise one can find for him in the pages of National Review, a bastion of #NeverTrump that devoted a whole issue to bashing the man. But in a separate issue, Maggie Gallagher, traditional-marriage zealot, carefully went through all the public information about the multiply married Trump, and after briefly cataloging his failings as a husband, laid out why he was such a success as a father in difficult circumstances. He’s a great dad, apparently, because his kids say nice things about him, he didn’t challenge the authority of his divorced exes, he wasn’t late with child support, and those of his kids old enough are married with jobs. None of them are divorced, public philanderers, substance abusers, or so lacking in employable skills that they can’t find a job with Daddy. Vanity Fair proclaims his children “undeniably his best political assets.”
Praise for Father Trump has been constant as he defeated the legion of Republicans vying for the nomination. Early on, influential Christian Right leader Jerry Falwell, Jr. cited his meeting with Trump’s three older children as providing key insight into Trump’s character and Christian nature, even using the Biblical verse “by their fruits shall you know them.” Since his kids are such nice people (and presumably, not “fruits” in the pejoratively gay sense—for if one were, this would of course reflect badly on Trump’s parenting in Falwell’s bigoted view), Falwell believes Trump must also be a good man. Over at Breitbart.com, a media outlet that has been among his most fervent cheerleaders, pediatrician Meg Meeker anticipated the starring RNC role played by Trump’s daughter: “If I were in charge of his campaign I would get Ivanka on the stage as frequently as possible. Because when she opens her mouth to speak, no one can claim that her father missed the boat regarding his most important job: being her dad.”
One of Trump’s top fundraisers, Andy Puzder, when asked by prospective donors why he supports Trump, just said, “The kids…If he’s such an evil villain, how do you explain the kids?… Everybody knows you can’t fake good children. You either have them or you don’t.” No lesser figure than Ralph Reed, a maestro of Christian Right politics, began to reassess Trump only after he was seated next to his daughter at an event. “She was the most charming, gracious, intelligent, beautiful, polite young lady I had just about ever met,” Reed gushed to the Associated Press. So, in a universe in which Ivanka was ugly, awkward, and as impolite and uncouth as her father, Reed would have supported someone else? Helen of Troy’s face may have launched a thousand ships, but Ivanka’s supermodel cheekbones, svelte curves, and glib affability have somehow soothed a thousand Republican nerves.
The entire argument is wrong, root and branch. First, Trump was not a particularly good father, and while his kids seem perfectly nice, their achievements to date are distinctly uninspiring when examined at a distance from Ivanka’s seductive charm. Moreover, I question both underlying premises; that we can quickly judge the quality of parenting by the adult outcomes of children, and, most importantly, that we should even care what kind of parents our political leaders are.
It is remarkable how often the Trump kids are compared to another set of wealthy kids, the Kardashians. Is this really the standard of good parenting today, having a daughter who hasn’t appeared in an internationally distributed sex tape? And while the Trump kids, in their RNC speeches, identified several positive aspects of Trump’s parenting style, the case for Trump as great father is manifestly weak. Some might point to his refusal ever to change diapers, or his strong objections to working mothers, at least when they are married to him. Others might note the lengthy public humiliation of his first wife as he conducted affairs with other women. Does a good father engineer a press campaign in which his sexual prowess with a mistress becomes front-page tabloid news at a time when his children are capable of reading? Trump was, according to Vanity Fair, a work-obsessed father who outsourced almost the entire job of parenting to his wives and ex-wives, their parents, nannies, and boarding schools. Even his kids, who clearly love the man, proclaim that their father, while working “24 hours a day,” was not the kind to play catch in the backyard—their anecdotes center on how he brought them to building sites.
And of course, it is worth noting that Chelsea Clinton’s paeans to her mother’s maternal excellence occupied a major role at the Democrats’ lovefest in Philadelphia. Both parties play the parent card whenever possible. But no one has done it to the extent that Trump has, if only because so few prominent Republicans were speaking at his convention: into that lacuna marched his children (along with Scott Baio and the head of the Ultimate Fighting Championship).
But I frankly don’t care if Trump was a good father, or if his children are moral paragons. Suppose one of the Trump kids were in prison, or had been in and out of rehab, or had been a public failure in his non-Trump career. Or suppose that Donald Trump, Jr. were estranged from his father, as Winston Churchill’s alcoholic son was from him at a similar age. This would tell us precisely nothing about Trump as President, and perhaps only a little more about Trump as father. As a son and father myself, I’ve come to believe that parenting is a percentage game. You decrease the probability that your child will end up in the gutter or in prison if you are a “better” parent, but parenting is far from a science, and what works with one child may put another at risk. And maybe the very best parents in America are the ones whose kids are the least “successful,” the addicts, the mentally ill, and yes, the criminal, because these parents are often blameless in the poor life choices of their offspring, and yet, bound by love, duty, and social expectations, have to continue to support their children, emotionally and financially, for far longer than they ever imagined. No one can read this heartrending elegy to George McGovern’s doomed alcoholic daughter and doubt that fine parents can have an addicted child, or that the job of the parent of an addict is anything less than monumental.
But it is the increasingly popular assumption that we need a President who is a good parent to which I most strenuously object. Some, such as journalist Joshua Kendall, go so far as to make silly claims like “what you see in the parent is what you get in the President.” Voting for Trump or Clinton on the basis of their parenting style or success is among the least rational things a citizen might do. The U.S. presidency is littered with great leaders who were poor to middling fathers, and this should be expected. These have been men with, in most cases, extraordinary drives and ambitions, that often left little time for even the minimal, sexist expectations of fathers of their eras. Ronald Reagan was cold, distant, and even failed to recognize one of his sons at his child’s college graduation, greeting him like a constituent. FDR’s children had to make appointments to see their father at some points. And would our worst Presidents somehow have improved if they had gone to parenting classes?
Indeed, great fathers may make less successful Presidents. Our current President earns extraordinary, and justified, praise for the way he has raised his two daughters. Among the most famous commitments he made to his family was to be home for supper five nights a week. This admirable policy is probably the envy of many top politicians, executives, college presidents, editors, and others with high-pressure jobs who struggle to balance family and work. Even some of us college professors don’t always manage it. But it has arguably made Obama a less-successful President. Consider that at his first Inauguration, the Democratic Party had the House, the Senate, the majority of governorships (28) and state legislatures. With the exception of his own re-election, Obama has been an electoral disaster for his party, so that as he leaves office, the GOP controls the Senate, the overwhelming majority of governorships and state legislatures, and has a margin in the House larger than any in the last eighty years. Republicans completely control governorships and both legislative houses in an extraordinary 23 states, while Democrats cling to just 7 such states. These down ballot defeats for Democrats will last for years, affecting congressional redistricting and the development of future political leaders. Perhaps if Obama had put one fewer night a week into his family, and devoted it to fundraising and campaigning for Democrats not named Obama, his party would not have experienced such an epic shellacking during his two terms. They certainly would have had more money to spend.
There is one final reason to lament the rise of parental skill as a criterion for presidential candidates. What about the lousy parents who would make great Presidents, who will fail to get the nomination or fail to win in November based on the public’s asinine faith that a good parent will be a good President? Are there men and women out there holding back from running because of the looming prospect of amateur psychologists in the media pouring over their adult children’s mistakes and failures? Is the presidency more difficult to get if your daughter isn’t pretty and chaste, or your son isn’t attractive and sober? I’m old enough to remember the media’s not too subtle discussion of how Bob Dole’s dowdy, single, middle-aged daughter was a drawback to his campaign. Today, those whispers and read-between-the-lines stories would be all over Politico and Buzzfeed.
We are long removed from the days when the spouses of Presidents were allowed to be non-political. I have elsewhere lamented the rising political power of the presidential spouse as a monarchical tendency in a putative republic. But I hope someday to have a presidential candidate push back against the expectation that fitness for the presidency includes aptitude as a parent. A childless woman now leads Great Britain; it says a lot about the maturity of our electorate that such a thing is currently unimaginable in our own nation. But at some point, the public will realize we aren’t hiring a nanny, we are electing a chief executive. If the best thing you can say about your candidate is that he or she is a great parent, you fundamentally misunderstand what the presidency is about, or you have a remarkably unqualified nominee, or both.