Donald Trump Jr. was perfectly at home.
It was day three of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, commonly known as CPAC, and hundreds of activists had piled into a ballroom to hear the president’s elder son speak via live-stream. He was slated to have a conversation at Liberty University with the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., though it was unclear, exactly, what that conversation would be about. While most other CPAC speakers were constrained by specific topics, such as “Protecting the Freedom of Jerusalem” and “Deficit Hawks: An Endangered Species?,” Don Jr.’s appearance was headlined on the agenda as simply “Live.”
But that was, in many ways, the point. Over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, Don Jr.’s profile has skyrocketed. Much like his father, his draw has become based not so much on what he has to say, but on his presence alone. The 40-year-old emerged as one of the Republican Party’s most coveted surrogates in the lead-up to November’s elections, headlining more than 60 events throughout 2018. “He’s a great spokesman for his dad,” one rally-goer told McClatchy a few days before the midterms. “He punches back. I love that style and apparently it’s working.”
His CPAC talk on Friday suggested he’s likely to double down on that role ahead of his father’s reelection race in 2020. Wearing a navy suit and pink tie of appropriate length, he seemed quite comfortable on stage, bouncing easily between the kinds of topics that translate as candy to the president’s base—abortion, transgender rights, and socialism, to name a few. For nearly every riff, there was applause; for every quip, laughter. He presented himself as a man who has fully embraced his role as his father’s defender, and is having fun with it, too—meaning voters can probably expect much more of Don Jr. as 2020 draws nearer, and perhaps even beyond the next election.
Don Jr. kicked off his event at CPAC with an excoriation of the Green New Deal, the proposal from Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to transition the U.S. to using 100 percent renewable-energy sources. “Every mainstream, leading democratic-socialist candidate for the presidency of the United States is buying into this, saying, ‘Oh, it’s a great investment, it’s wonderful,’” he said. “It’s just insanity, and it goes to show you that no one here making trillion-dollar decisions … has any understanding of finance … They’re all just preaching some sort of leftist crazy theory.”
And those were some of his more tempered remarks. The discussion—which also included Don Jr.’s girlfriend and former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle; the Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk; and Falwell Jr.’s wife, Becki—veered at one point into the topic of gender dysphoria. Becki Falwell announced that she had a new grandchild, a girl, named Reagan. Don Jr. quipped that he had “lobbied” the family to name her “Trump,” which Becki Falwell then joked was not the “most feminine name.”
“We’re gonna take a page out of the liberal playbook,” Don Jr. then said with mock credulity. “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, we can identify how we want.”
“She’s our granddaughter, and we’re raising her as a girl,” Becki Falwell was quick to clarify. “We’re not letting her have a choice. God makes the choice of what the babies are gonna be. And God decided she was a girl.”
Falwell Jr. added that there was no need to worry as long as she was carrying dolls. “My boys always had guns in their hands,” he said.
“Hashtag me too,” Don Jr. said, capping off the exchange.
It was the kind of loaded culture-wars commentary that President Trump used to great effect on the campaign trail, indicating that Don Jr. is equally capable of deploying it. But he also showcased the ways in which he can make the case for his father better than his father himself can.
Much to the chagrin of congressional Republicans, the president has long struggled to stick to talking points about jobs and the economy—areas in which lawmakers feel this administration has succeeded. Many of the president’s speeches on those subjects have quickly veered into hotbeds such as the ongoing Russia investigation or personal attacks on his opponents. On Friday, however, Don Jr. spent a good deal of time discussing the economy. “The reality is, the results are speaking for themselves,” he boasted. “All-time-low female unemployment, all-time-low African American unemployment, all-time-low Hispanic unemployment—it sort of goes against the narrative.” And when another panelist attempted to segue into the Mueller probe, Don Jr. devoted just one sentence to the topic before swiveling to his father’s foreign-policy bona fides. All of which seemed to indicate that he may be the campaign’s better choice for promoting the president’s strengths, and downplaying his weaknesses, on the 2020 trail.
His remarks ultimately touched on all of Trumpism’s greatest hits, the political and cultural issues the campaign can use to help keep his father’s base intact. That unified support has been called into question in recent months, as the president continued to lose out on opportunities to make his border wall, a major rallying point for his supporters, a reality. But the cheering on Friday afternoon seemed to indicate that, border wall or no border wall, Don Jr. is quite capable of helping keep Republicans loyal.
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