Trump and fatherhood

My colleague Jeremy Mayer recently wrote a compelling article for the American Interest:

Big Daddy Trump

Jeremy points out that the defense of Trump’s candidacy by praising his children is a highly stilted and inappropriate way to evaluate a presidential candidate.  I completely agree — we are not choosing the father of our nation (George Washington had that wrapped up long ago), but someone to negotiate with world leaders, deal with Congress, appoint Supreme Court justices, and develop a compelling vision for an inclusive, fair, and trusted America.  A father who has used wealth and privilege to help his children to exceptional success is not an obvious choice for that role.

I urge you to look at Jeremy’s article.  But I also have some of my own thoughts on why Trump’s family has been a focus of media attention in this campaign.

America is an astoundingly superficial country.  That is, after all, what the Kardashians are all about –a pandering to superficiality.  This is part and parcel of the information overload world as we find it.  Whether on social media or the silver screen, we look for celebrity, whether our own or others.  And those who succeed in the celebrity game, and that includes Trump, get a great deal of presumption for wisdom and talent.

When choosing a president, most people do not have the time or interest to dig deeply into the complexities of policy issues.  They would prefer to leave that to professionals — and rightfully so.  It’s hard for me to explain the consequences of globalization or the global decline of democracy so that I think I understand it, and I spend hours every day thinking about this.  So most people need to find another way to make their choice.  And quite understandably, they look for signals that are easier to grasp to guide them, signals that can be gleaned from simpler questions.

One way to evaluate a politician is asking whether they can be “trusted.”  Another is to say “what are their values?”   In Europe people face the same problem but they have (historically) been more willing to judge on “what has this person accomplished” and “what do other successful and important people say about them.”  Trump would never have left the first primary if these were the key questions in this country.  But they are not —  in America it is “trust” and  “values” that seem most important.

I think these are absolutely legitimate questions — the problem is that it is all too easy to fake or misdirect to answers.  Hilary’s emails are not a true gauge of whether she can be trusted with confidential information or tough decisions in action — but they are an easy media hit for attacking on that issue. And I fully agree that children are not just the image, much less the certain outcome, of their parents; I don’t know how anyone who has had children can think otherwise.  But saying someone is a “good father” seems to imply the right values — thoughtful, generous, selfless, hard-working, fair, etc.  So that too is an easy media hit, especially if you happen to have a jackpot telegenic offspring.

This means that Ivanka Trump is a great asset, and as telegenic as she is, it is understandable that the media dotes on her, and justifies claims that Trump is the right kind of person to lead the nation.

Yet I think the more that Trump’s character is on display in the campaign, the more HE will be seen to be untrustworthy, ungenerous, and superficial in the way he deals with his political opponents and the task of running a presidential campaign.  As we already saw from the plagiarism incident with Melania, family can cut both ways, and the “amateur hour” nature of Trump’s campaign will likely produce further stumbles.

A lot will depend on the upcoming TV debates.  Will Trump appear presidential, calm and skilled in dealing with his opponent?  Or will he appear superficial, excitable, and disdainful?  If the latter, even Ivanka’s halo will not prevent him from crashing.  And if he does crash, given the divisions and disarray within the Republican party, he may lead the GOP to a historic defeat.

At the same time, Clinton has trust issues as well, and the electorate may not be motivated to vote for her either.  This may be one of the first “none of the above” Presidential contests in American history.    The bottom line is that this election, like most of those in America, will not turn on policy issues, but on trust and values. Because of that, it is anybody’s election to lose.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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