When Donald Trump Jr.’s book, Triggered, leapt to the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list a few weeks ago, alert observers noticed something odd—odder even than the thought of Donald Trump Jr. writing a book. Next to the listed title was the image of a dagger. What it signified was unclear. Was it a sly commentary by the Times’ obsessively Trumpophobic editorial staff? I had read the book already and had a guess: A dagger was the first thing readers would reach for when they finished Triggered—something sharp and lethal that could be used to slit throats, our own or someone else’s, to obliterate the experience of having read the whole thing.
Weirdly, I was wrong. The Times explained that the dagger serves as a kind of asterisk. It warns readers that some portion of a book’s sales came in the form of bulk orders by institutions rather than through individual purchases by ordinary, humble book buyers such as ourselves. The implication is to question the book’s status as a boffo smash. In the case of Triggered, thousands of copies were bought by the Republican National Committee and then passed along as premiums to donors. A pro-Trump youth group called Turning Point USA and several Republican congressional candidates did the same, the Times reported in a news story.
The Times couldn’t offer any hard numbers, because, wrote the Times, “the Times does not disclose the methodology behind its best-seller lists,” even to itself.
It’s a trivial point, in any case. No one should doubt that Donald Trump Jr. has the celebrity mojo to move a hell of a lot of units. Indeed, his enormous popularity with a relatively large segment of the electorate is the best argument for looking into his book. As the first son of the most consequential president in a generation, heir in a few years (at most) to whatever political movement his father can leave behind, Don Jr. will likely be with us for quite a while. The book should be more interesting than it is.
Still, Triggered is a small window into the tastes of the Trump family’s most ardent admirers. Don Jr. is as alienated from mainstream liberal society as they are, despite having been born with advantages far beyond the dreams of the average Trump voter in the heartland. The advantages themselves, in his account, serve not as a barrier to understanding the lives of ordinary Americans but as the basis for commiseration, allowing him to relish the same self-pity and sense of grievance that are everywhere indispensable to today’s politics, right and left.
“Being a rich kid from New York,” he recalls of his prep-school days, “got me my ass kicked more than usual.” His very fame can be turned against him. “Even if I tweet something that’s relatively benign—say, a Merry Christmas message, the Twitter mob will find a way to attack me for it.” And of course there is the combustible mix of sex, skin color, wealth, and parentage that severely limits his range of permissible activity: “As the son of a rich white guy living in 2019,” he writes on page two, “I’m essentially not allowed to have an opinion anymore, let alone express that opinion in public.” The point is so nice, he makes it twice, returning to it on page 193: “As the son of a rich white man I know I’m not allowed to have an opinion, much less voice it these days.”
This is an exaggeration, of course—it comes to us in a book that is wall-to-wall opinions—but it’s an exaggeration of a special, Trumpian kind. Just as people often say “literally” when they’re speaking figuratively (“I literally inhaled that Baconator Double in, like, two seconds”), a Trumpian exaggeration is meant to get you to the truth by insinuation, without having to argue for it. The idea that Don Jr. is prevented from publicly expressing opinions is so obviously, transparently false that it has the perverse effect of making you wonder whether it’s an exaggeration of something that’s otherwise true. It isn’t, but fans of the Trumps surely take it this way. The untruth of the exaggeration, in other words, testifies to the underlying truth of what’s being exaggerated. The lie verifies.
It’s not news that our degraded politics has made truth elusive. Yet even seasoned Trump haters may be surprised at how elusive it has become for Don Jr. He recounts a well-worn story about the night of his birth.
“When my mother first approached him with the idea of naming me Don Jr.,” he writes, “my father is rumored to have said, ‘We can’t do that! What if he’s a loser?’ Again, no idea whether my father ever really said this.” I’ve provided the italics for Don Jr., because the source of this often-repeated anecdote is a book called Raising Trump, which was written by his mom.
The alienation Don Jr. and his troops feel from the liberal culture that surrounds them forces them to a poignant furtiveness. They want us to know that while they live in the world that liberalism has made, they are not of it. Or so they believe. In reality they dart in and out, as convenience allows.
The liberal press is thoroughly corrupt, Don Jr. tells us, irredeemable, essentially useless except as a contrary indicator of actual fact. Meanwhile, he is careful to support a large number of his anecdotes and assertions with footnotes—footnotes that cite The Washington Post, Time magazine, USA Today, and other enemies of the people. (We modestly note that The Atlantic alone earns five footnotes.) So, too, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which was a Democratic sham from first day to last. Yet Don Jr. is adamant that any suggestions that he was involved in Russian collusion have been definitely disproved. Don’t take his word for it, he says. Read the Mueller report.
Mueller, in Don Jr.’s estimation, is a “feeble old fool.” He makes this pronouncement several sentences before he writes: “I would actually like to think of this book as offering a reasoned antidote to all the hysterical bullshit that’s flying around right now. That used to be called discourse.”
Precisely when those good old days of discourse began, and when they came to an end, Don Jr. leaves unspecified, but a revealing, and by now legendary, moment in this regard came early on in his promotional tour for Triggered. He and his girlfriend, a former mid-list Fox News personality named Kimberly Guilfoyle, submitted to an interrogation with the hosts of ABC’s The View. Trump held his own and managed to rassle the contest to a draw.
We should stipulate that as an intellectual exercise, a guest turn on The View, confronting the combined exertions of Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, and Meghan McCain, is not exactly a dissertation defense at the Sorbonne. We are not talking about a graduate seminar with Stephen Hawking. What young Trump proved was that he could easily meet the hosts on their own level, bearing the same contempt for them that they held for him. When they brought up unflattering episodes from his father’s life, he brought up unflattering episodes from theirs. When they interrupted him, he interrupted their interruptions. When they got loud, he got louder.
It was, in other words, a nice miniature of the standard political performance art we have come to expect when Republican meets Democrat. Yet it was also something new, according to Don Jr. In his aggressiveness, he said, he was following the lead of his father. “He’s a counterpuncher,” Don Jr. told McCain, the show’s lone Republican panelist. “As a conservative, I would hope that you would appreciate that conservatives haven’t been known for fighting back for a very long time. They’ve ceded ground to the liberals and the liberal elites for decades by not actually fighting back.”
A counterpuncher, of course, is someone who got punched first. We are all counterpunchers now, or claim to be, merely reacting to the outrages that provoked our own—with no referee to ring the bell, and no end in sight.
It was a raucous hour. At one point, Goldberg pleaded with the audience to calm down, and in so doing, made the only statement that was unquestionably true: “The booing is fucking us up.”