Donald Trump Jr.’s highest-performing Instagram post of the year (so far) is a piece of misinformation. Shared in March, it’s a black square with “THIS IS A TEST” written in red across the top. “Instagram has been limiting our posts so that no more than 7% of our friends see our posts,” it reads. “If you see this post, please simply comment with ‘Yes’ and then like it.” This exact text—with its specific choice of 7 percent and its ambiguous use of the word our—has been circulating on Instagram since at least the beginning of 2019, when it was debunked as random nonsense. Trump Jr. gave the meme a caption: “Get to work folks,” he wrote.
With more than half a million likes, the post received about nine times the engagement of one of Trump Jr.’s typical posts, according to data from CrowdTangle—a fact suggesting, in itself, that the meme’s premise was unfounded. “I wasn’t sure if the info in the image was correct and based on the amount of engagement this post got, it looks like it isn’t,” Trump Jr. clarified in an update to the caption. “Still, like many conservatives, I’ve seen a huge unexplained drop in engagement over the past few months on here.” This probably did not surprise his 4.6 million followers, as he talks about these sorts of “unexplained” phenomena basically all the time.
“Big Tech Censorship is getting worse,” Trump Jr. likes to tell his fans. The platforms that he loves are run by “tyrants” who pick on him because they hate his father, and are fanatical about fact-checking him even when he’s obviously just joking. While Donald Trump Sr. frets over how unfairly he was treated as a politician—worse than any other U.S. president, including Abraham Lincoln—Trump Jr. worries about how unfairly he is treated as a content creator and brand. In the past year or so, he’s made himself the internet’s foremost Aggrieved Influencer. (His highly aggrieved dad, as a reminder, has been kicked off most mainstream platforms.)
Whether Trump Jr. is laying the groundwork for his own political—possibly presidential—aspirations is unclear, but he’s more than your standard internet attention seeker. He interprets his father’s style of populism by framing likes, comments, and followers as another set of privileges that have been wrested away from regular people and hoarded by liberals and elites. Whatever his end goal, he is succeeding at one thing at the moment: He’s fostering a growing, adoring, monetizable fan base by carrying the torch for what you could call “social-media justice,” a ridiculous but apparently sincere priority for the rising stars of his party.
Trump Jr. did start seeing changes on his Instagram page after the election. The engagement rate on his posts was at a high point in October, then fell off by about 75 percent through February. Whether his account was being penalized on purpose isn’t clear, and Instagram declined to comment for this story. Nevertheless, his metrics’ ups and downs have become a major part of his online identity. He considers quantitative data to be key measures of his personal success—as many influencers do. He also views the platform that provides them as an unfair and putative authority figure with a political vendetta against him. (I reached out to the Trump Organization to arrange an interview with Trump Jr., but did not hear back.)
This attitude “fits into the broader politics of grievance that defines the Trumpist right,” says Caitlin Petre, an assistant professor at Rutgers University who studies media and digital metrics. As a posture, it’s also sort of shrewd. Trump Jr. can’t relate to the material conditions of most Americans’ lives, but he can relate to his followers’ frustration with feeling under-seen on the internet. He connects with them through metrics, and he connects with them as metrics: When the engagement on his posts begins to drop, his followers may feel like they’re the ones who have been silenced, their likes erased like data from a Dominion machine. Trump Jr. tells them that he needs their support in order to continue appearing in their feeds at all, and he often speaks about how unfair the situation is to a broadly defined “us.”
Trump Jr. publicly expressed little interest in politics before his dad’s first presidential campaign. He was also nearly nonexistent on Instagram before 2016. As an influencer now, Trump Jr.’s brand has been defined almost entirely by his stance on various culture-war topics, including the “cancellation” of Dr. Seuss, the existence of gender-neutral pronouns, and other manifestations of “woke” virtue signaling. It’s also been defined by his utter and unsettling loathing, expressed mostly through reposted memes, for Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
These fixations and grudges are core to his brand, and his audience’s interest in them is a reflection of his undeniable talents as an Instagram star. Trump Jr. has a credible claim to authenticity, that prized, elusive quality on social media. “Don junior is loved by the base,” the far-right troll and social-media star Mike Cernovich told GQ in 2018. “He’s accessible, he’s in the trenches, he’s sharing the memes, pushing out stories that other people aren’t.” He’s also an embarrassingly online Gen X dad who reposts the worst memes I’ve ever seen, and the extremely grateful boyfriend of a woman he refers to as his favorite “MAGA princess.” He’s a hunter and a fisherman and a loyal mouthpiece for his dad, dutifully reposting Trump Sr.’s press releases and thanking all his followers for their continued love of “the family.”
He is also startlingly weird, in a way that is compelling not just to his fans but to everyone. Ashley Feinberg, who has written about the former first son many times, explained her fascination to me: “Just when you think that surely he is on the verge of, at the very least, a heart attack, he somehow just gets louder, more performatively angry, more aggressively divorced—whatever it is you want to call it. I don’t understand how it’s physically or emotionally possible.”
Recently, Feinberg observed that Trump Jr.’s speaking voice has grown significantly more nasal and stilted over the past few years, as if it’s morphing into a wan imitation of his father’s. When he talks directly to his audience in videos, he does so in an unnatural way that teeters on the edge of endearing. Leading up to Father’s Day, he was hawking signed copies of his self-published book, Liberal Privilege, on Instagram for $99.99 apiece, and promised that he would set aside enough time to “literally” write each inscription by hand. Then he paused and added, awkwardly: “Hopefully my wrist will be sore.” This summer, he joined the app Cameo, selling personalized video messages to his fans for $500 each. These are often recorded in his living room, with Trump Jr. in a plaid shirt or golf polo, seated in front of a mounted deer head. At the end of most clips, he says he hopes to see the recipient at a MAGA rally “sometime in the not-too-distant future,” and compliments them on their love of his father. Occasionally he gets nervous and offers odder sign-offs, such as “Maybe I’ll see you in the woods or in a stream” and “I hope your family rides you like Seabiscuit.”
Trump Jr. likes to post on Twitter too, where he has 6.8 million followers and exhibits only marginally better impulse control than his father did. He maintains an account with more than 1 million subscribers on Telegram, a messaging service that has become home to far-right extremists. And he sometimes posts exclusive videos to Rumble, the right wing’s answer to YouTube, with titles such as “Here’s Why Communism Always Fails” and “I Just Went Off On The Bidens (Wait Til the End!).” In short, he adores the internet.
But Instagram is where we see the most of his potential as an internet personality. Like any dad, he positions the camera at an unflattering, up-the-chin angle, then leans close to it, laughing. “Let me try this again,” he says. “I appreciate all you guys finally commenting that the sound was off.” Like a very specific type of son, he reposts images such as: his father’s face Photoshopped onto Conor McGregor’s body, his father’s face Photoshopped onto Tupac Shakur’s body, his father’s silhouette Photoshopped to replace the bat in the Bat-Signal. On the Fourth of July, he shared two different images of his father flying over Mount Rushmore, holding a gun, on the back of a bald eagle. A quick glance at CrowdTangle metrics shows that his audience cares most about posts featuring Trump Sr. Among his top 10 posts so far this year, seven are tributes to his father.
Like any influencer with a large audience, Trump Jr. must endure public comments that alternate between unhinged adulation and deadpan cruelty: heart-eyes emoji and also “You and your dad have the same weird shaped bodies.” Responses to photos of his children are mixed as well—they might get “adorable little sweetie” or “future KKK.” Still, he never falters in sharing photos of his life as a family man: making pancakes, making s’mores, relaxing around a MAGA-branded patio table. In March, Trump Jr. posted a meme of a charcoal grill beneath the slogan Come and Take It, and declared his intention to celebrate the Fourth of July “with friends and family” in spite of whatever pandemic conditions might hypothetically discourage it.
But his most common topic of discussion is his own diminishment by the tech overlords. “Hey @instagram why are you crushing my reach right now?” he asked last year, filming from the back seat of a car and accidentally focusing the camera on a headrest for the first few seconds. “I normally get 5 to 10 times the amount of likes I’m getting.” The following day, he was horizontal in bed, watching his “algorithms get crushed” and practically moaning, “I guess I did something to piss off the Instagram gods.” He appears genuinely deflated. He appears to be a genuine guy.
As a rule of thumb, the Aggrieved Influencer does not make a distinction between their posts being removed by platform moderators and their posts being seen by fewer people than they think is fair. Both are “censorship.”
Isabella Riley, a 22-year-old TikTok creator who works with the right-wing nonprofit Turning Point USA and considers herself a libertarian, told me she doesn’t personally think that social-media platforms—as businesses—should be obligated to promote content they don’t want to promote. Still, she recognizes the value that others find in complaining about them. “Big Tech censorship is obviously a trending topic, and a lot of people are frustrated about it,” she said. “It’s kind of a way to rally your crowd and motivate them to interact with your posts. Saying ‘Oh, I’m being censored,’ I think that does guarantee you some sort of audience.”
The major social-media platforms “tend to really restrict and silence conservative content,” says Craig Strazzeri, the chief marketing officer of the right-wing media nonprofit and influencer network PragerU. When I asked him whether posting about being censored could actually be good for an influencer’s engagement—as was the case with Trump Jr.’s “THIS IS A TEST” post—he was annoyed. “This is a common talking point from those on the left and a lot of people in the media,” he said. “If we had a video that had 1 million views that otherwise would have reached 10 million if they didn’t throttle it, restrict it, block it, slow it down—that is still censorship.”
For a long time, right-wing personalities have done very well on social media, and they expect that to continue, Petre, the media researcher, told me. If it doesn’t, they’ll feel like something has been taken away from them. “The way that somebody interprets a particular metric tells you something about what a person wants, or what they feel entitled to,” she said. This is Trump Jr.’s internet philosophy in a nutshell: The algorithms are shrouded in mystery, therefore nobody knows how popular someone might be if the system weren’t biased against them. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year, he declared Big Tech bias “probably a top-three issue” for Donald Trump’s national base. In Liberal Privilege, he expresses his eagerness “to help voice the frustrations of so many Americans” who have watched “the Left” take over television, newspapers, and, “even more flagrant these days,” social-media platforms.
His freedom to have lots and lots of people look at his social-media content has been flipped around and made into a broader cause: the freedom of his fans to do that looking for themselves. If he’s being censored, then aren’t they, sort of, too? Former President “Trump’s parting gift to Washington,” Mother Jones’s Tim Murphy wrote in June, was a GOP that has become “a party of shitposters,” made up of politicians less interested in public service than in “churning out an endless stream of takes, memes, stunts, and podcasts.” That may be a stupid priority for a political party, but it’s a great angle for an aspiring influencer. When you help Trump Jr.’s stature grow by following, liking, and commenting, you are also helping the cause of free speech.
At times, the numbers seem even more important than the politics. After suffering through those months of attention deprivation, relief for Trump Jr. came in March, a week after he posted the “THIS IS A TEST” meme. He appeared in front of the camera, standing upright, glowing in the Florida sun, palm trees swaying behind him—more affable influencer than culture-war firebrand. Grinning, he thanked his followers for being “awesome” and “sticking around.” His engagement numbers had bounced back, and he would not speculate as to why they had ever gotten so bad. “I’m not accusing,” he said. He didn’t want to posit a theory and be “dinged” by Instagram’s fact-checkers—if the fact-checkers even had anything to do with why he lost so many views in the first place, which he couldn’t say.
He said again: “Who the hell knows what caused it?” And now who cares?! He seemed humbled, happy, and reassured. His sense of grievance was, for a moment, on pause.