He was sweating and his pupils appeared dilated as he yelled in an empty auditorium for 10 straight minutes on the first night of the Republican National Convention. And while he is always energetic, some wondered if something other than normal partisan passion was animating the eldest son of the president.
Drugs, maybe? Not that it’s a reliable source, but that was the speculation on social media, albeit mostly from critics. It was still enough to get the word “cocaine” trending next to the name of Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter.
“I think they must have me confused with the other candidate’s son,” Trump said in an interview Wednesday morning with RealClearPolitics, repeating a line he delivered earlier on “Fox & Friends” in reference to former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, who has spoken openly about his drug addiction.
“No, I wasn’t on a substance,” Trump told RCP. He also expressed annoyance that the media was not talking more about what he had said, instead asserting “that my eyes were glossy.” While his detractors were spreading baseless rumors about him, he said, they were “giving Hunter Biden, a known cokehead, a total pass.”
He described the apparent double standard “pretty disgusting.” But the tabloid mini-drama that unfolded as the Republicans’ online convention followed that of the Democrats sums up the last four years: While the left has a monopoly on Hollywood star power, the right has the children of the former host of “Celebrity Apprentice.” And though their presence provides plenty of gossip opportunities for their critics, the first family will remain front and center in the effort to reelect their father.
Toward that end, Donald Jr. gave a speech of red-meat substance while his opponents snarked about substance abuse. The prince of MAGA went full populist, branding Democratic nominee Biden “the Loch Ness monster” and railing against so-called “cancel culture.” Speaking in an empty Mellon Auditorium not far from the White House, he did his best to define the race.
Republicans embrace free speech and people of faith, he argued, while Democrats try to cancel their opponents and keep pews empty while allowing the nation’s streets to erupt in violence: “It’s almost like this election is shaping up to be church, work and school versus rioting, looting, and vandalism, or in the words of Biden and the Democrats, peaceful protesting.”
Life will improve and peace will return to the streets, the president’s son told voters through the television screen. They only have to do one simple thing. “It starts by rejecting radicals who want to drag us into the dark and embracing the man who represents a bright and beautiful future for all,” he said. “It starts by reelecting Donald J. Trump.”
It was the sort of bombast that has endeared Junior to the populist right. It also earned him an atta-boy from the president as soon as he stepped off stage. “He was really happy with the way things are going right now,” said the Trump scion. If that’s true, the president can thank members of the first family, who are trying their hardest to make the best of a bad situation for a candidate who misses the campaign trail. He feeds off live audiences. They are trying to substitute that via the television.
“I want big crowds and no script,” Donald Jr. admitted while explaining how he and his father love the same thing. “Let me go up there and have some fun and speak to the people, take the selfies, give the hugs, get in the crowd, mix it up. He truly loves that aspect of it.”
In lieu of that, the president has reverted to the ethos of his reality TV days – get the star on camera as much as possible. He also seems to delight seeing his progeny in prime time. After the eldest son spoke the first night, daughter Tiffany followed on Tuesday, then son No. 2 Eric, and wife No. 3, the stylish first lady. By the end of the convention, all of the president’s adult children will have delivered addresses, including Ivanka, who will have the plum assignment: introducing her father on the final night of the big show.
As Donald Jr. explains it, they each have individual roles to play and all embrace the different personas that they have developed during the Trump presidency. His is that of firebrand. “Unlike so many on the right,” he explained, “I don’t just roll over and die. I’ll actually fight, and I don’t care. I guess because of that I created a brand for myself.”
The extended family has done its part. Daughter-in-law Lara Trump, Eric’s wife, held her own on Wednesday night, spotlighting her root working-class roots. Kimberly Guilfoyle, Junior’s girlfriend, railed against her former home state, calling Democrat-controlled California “a land of discarded heroin needles in parks, riots in streets, and blackouts in homes.” But while Guilfoyle secured headlines and endured her share of mockery for her delivery, another member of the family was missing. Jared Kushner, husband of Ivanka and senior adviser to his father-in-law, won’t take the stage.
“Part of my skill set is being able to be out there to fire up people. That’s not his,” Donald Jr. said. Instead, Kushner has been behind the scenes where he is most comfortable. According to his brother-in-law, that is a testament to his humility — and his value.
Kushner is “a brilliant guy — he gets it done and has no interest in taking credit for the things that he’s done,” he said. “He just puts his head down, and he works.”
Kushner may be trying to work out a question that has consumed operatives and politicos: Who will become the heir apparent of Trump whether he loses in 2020 or wins and possibly prepares for the coronation of a successor come 2024?
The eldest child may now have a bit of a head start. The morning after his convention remarks, Politico proclaimed in a headline that “It’s Nikki Haley vs. Don Jr. for the soul of the GOP.”
Donald Jr. did not miss that story line. “I go, ‘That’s interesting. I didn’t even know that I was doing anything.’ I guess it’s a compliment, but not something I’ve even thought about.”