There has been something missing in the battery of bathos and wide smiles Donald Trump’s children have brought—campaign-savingly, perhaps—to the podium at the Republican National Convention this week: actual anecdotes. Specifics. Those times, conveyed to us, when their dad swam into definitive, parental view for them.
On Wednesday night, Eric Trump continued the family tradition of speaking powerfully in favor of his father without offering any personal sense of parent and child, and what they may have shared, and how that experience had shaped Eric himself.
And so, while the RNC audience lapped up the praise for a man “who doesn’t need the job” of president; who would do all he could so we could celebrate Christmas, unthreatened by that boo-hiss specter of “political correctness”; and who would give the American dream back to those “it has eluded for so long,” we still didn’t have any idea what kind of parent Donald Trump is.
His children have spoken glowingly of him, for sure, but oddly not personally. They love him, they say, but in the lack of specifics of what they have told us about him, more questions are raised about Trump-the-parent than warm and cuddly answers.
Eric Trump told us all about the New York ice rink his dad helped build, and he trashed everything from the EPA to “illegal immigrants” stealing American jobs, but all this is Republican-by-rote: What he and all the Trump children have failed to do so far is tell us about Trump as a father.
However, so far the candidate’s family has proven this week’s most enhancing hallmark. On Wednesday night Trump sat between daughter Ivanka and son Don Jr. as Eric spoke about him. On Thursday night, as on the day he announced his bid for the Republican nomination, Ivanka Trump will introduce her father—now as the Republican Party’s official nominee.
Ivanka is her father’s close adviser, who along with her brothers and half-sister bring at least a veneer of “pretty” and civility to an otherwise ugly and extreme campaign. She also, with her two brothers, is looking after the Trump Organization day to day, while running her own clothing and lifestyle brand.
There have been no sterling political speakers, no visionary thinkers at the convention this week, just a relentless, sometimes violently so, stream of invective against Hillary Clinton.
And so, in the absence of specific policy and politicians (beside scream-smiling Mike Pence and Newt Gingrich, in ameliorating, post-Ted Cruz booing, make-nice mode), Trump HQ has done what comes most naturally: pushing the family brand, shamelessly.
This is politics as glossy-haired and outfitted Dynasty, complete with all the ostentatious furnishings—gold throne chairs, private planes—that chez Trump can muster. Trump’s putative administration, presently denuded of any real politicians, has looked very close to home over the last four days; his most active proponents are all from Trump Tower.
Besides the lunacy of the week—the ugliness of what has been said, Melania Trump’s plagiarism scandal, the baying mob calls of “Lock her up” for Clinton—what has been most memorable is the pronounced presence of Trump’s children.
The extremity of the other speakers’ words has been offset by the attempted warmth Trump’s children have sought to bring to their father’s toxic and divisive public image.
The children’s presence has been the opposite of decorative: Every night in prime time, Trump’s offspring have become their father’s biggest, and most voluble and valuable advocates.
No matter that Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, had contributed predominantly to Democrats (just like her father), Eric Trump to both Democrats and Republicans, and Melania Trump to both too. In the New York primary, Ivanka and Eric were not even eligible to vote for their dad.
But now, all the Trump family ducks have been lined up in an orderly fashion: Trump may not be able to command unity within the party he now represents, but not so his family. His children—executing their speeches as convincingly as they can to aid the softening of their father’s image—have been tasked with humanizing their father, and of making someone so outlandish seem everyday and intelligible.
“Please excuse me if I seem a little nervous,” Tiffany Trump began her speech earlier this week. Her languorous ease at the podium suggested she was not in the least bit nervous. She told us that her father was a good man, that his desire for excellence was contagious, that he always helped her be her best self. She said she had kept all her report cards from schools, and it was fun to see his comments on them. But what were they, and why was this significant? The anecdote melted to nothing.
When someone close to her had died, her dad had called her. He helps people find their own way, she said, teaches them that fear should never hold them back; he was friendly, considerate, funny, and “real.”
The real-er speech here, the one off the page and left unsaid, was what was it like for Tiffany, growing up with her mom, Marla Maples, detached from the main Trump dynasty.
Both mother and daughter have said Tiffany was raised by Maples as a single mother, with financial aid from Trump, so when exactly and how did this close relationship with Trump take shape?
The speech of Donald Trump Jr. was more pugnacious. Full of odd pauses and lapses in intonation, this was more attack dog than warm and fuzzy. He vowed America would, under his father, be returned to some pre-existing fantastic state that it now is not.
In a telling error, he praised his father for hanging out with regular guys on his staff who “poured sheetrock.” Oops, he said quickly, “who poured concrete and hung sheetrock”—showing Don Jr. is perhaps not as blue-collar adjacent as he went on to brag.
Next came some Hillary-bashing, with more “lock her up” from the audience, and then the familiar staccato braying of his father’s name when he invoked who should be president next.
“My mentor, my best friend, my father,” Don Jr. called Trump.
The loyalty, like Ivanka’s, is fixed and unyielding. However present or not Trump was as a parent, the super-rich code of family honor remains.
When I interviewed her for Town and Country magazine—this back in November when her father’s campaign hadn’t yet spanned the poles of extremity it went on to—Ivanka told me of her father, “His focus is on politics, and he is running for the highest elective office in this country, and arguably the world, and so from a business perspective I’m busier than ever. My brothers and I are running our business. But it’s amazing to see how his message has resonated and what he’s been able to accomplish as a non-politician with a very strong point of view.
“He’s my father and I love him and I fully support him. I’m always there for him if it’s helpful.”
Donald Trump emailed me to say that Ivanka inherited from him “a certain business ability and a vision into the future.” She was also “always a great student without having to work hard, a person everybody liked right from the beginning. And yet I could always see an inner strength or toughness.”
This compliment is outweighed in the public imagination by his far grosser thought that were Ivanka not his daughter he would be attracted to her. On The View in 2006, she sat beside her father with a weary, he-just-said-that smile on her face when, to the collective gross-out of the co-hosts, he remarked, “I’ve said that, if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, I’d be dating her.”
Ivanka told me she thought her father was a feminist and that she could voice her disagreement with him.
As the campaign has gone on, her and Kushner’s roles have increased: it was Ivanka, it is said, who was key to the firing of controversial campaign manager Corey Lewandowski last month.
But now it is not just Ivanka and her father. The family, as the convention has shown, has grouped together to fight as one.
On Thursday night, expect Ivanka to come out once more and steadfastly advocate for her father. How far that loyalty will stretch should their father’s campaign become ever more extreme remains to be seen. If Trump’s children join him in the spotlight, they will be asked the same questions as he is. Will they parrot him, or seek to remain loyal and maintain a degree of distance?
In supporting their father, the challenge for the Trump children will be to not damage themselves, their own families, or the businesses—his businesses—they are now the caretakers of.