'Owning the libs': how Trump Jr became his father's unlikely political heir apparent

David Smith in Washington
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Nicole Hester/AP</span>
Photograph: Nicole Hester/AP

Donald Trump Jr stood on the flatbed of an 18-wheel truck at rodeo grounds in Williams, Arizona, and made his father’s re-election pitch to a seemingly unlikely audience: Native Americans.

The US president’s campaign claims he has been the “fiercest ally” of the Native American community. Don Jr was here on 15 October to launch the “Native Americans for Trump” coalition drawn from the Navajo, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Lumbee, Zuni and White Mountain Apache tribes.

But Don Jr, 42, had also come to bash Democrats. “They pander,” he said, according to the Arizona Daily Sun newspaper. “They tell you everything you want to hear and do exactly the opposite. They lie to you for years – you guys understand that better than everyone.”

Don Jr’s Twitter feed offers his 5.8m followers little by way of policy but a torrent of Democrat-baiting and conspiracy theories

It was one of numerous campaign stops for Trump’s eldest son, seen by many as the heir apparent to the “Make America Great Again” (Maga) movement. Like his father, Don Jr delivers fiery populist speeches, tweets conspiracy theories and, above all, relishes goading, shocking and outraging liberals on air and online. Like his father, he has come to personify modern Republicanism.

And as Trump continues to trail his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, in the polls, attention has turned to who may take up his mantle after November.

“Trumpism replaced conservatism as the ideological underpinning of the Republican party and, because of that, they don’t really fight about issues any more,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime Republican strategist co-founder of the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project.

“They fight about affect and whether or not they’re winning these ephemeral social media battles and, in that world, the highest order goal is the ‘owning of the libs’. It is a throwaway phrase substituting the validity or strength of an argument with a sort of self-satisfaction that you have been transgressive in some way towards liberals or progressives.”

Wilson added: “Donald Trump Jr is a master of that. He is a post-Republican Republican. He is there only to engage in that performative dickery that is lib owning in the Trump world. It is a political performance art to show your contempt for norms, institutions and education.

“It has become the ideological underpinning of the GOP [Grand Old Party, or Republican party]. There’s no party of ideas any longer. There’s no there there except for sort of the screeching fury of Trumpism.”

After spending some years finding his path, including a stint as a “ski bum”, Don Jr has followed in his father’s footsteps. He is a graduate of his father’s alma mater, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and went into the family business. He is now an executive vice-president at the Trump Organization and a leading campaign surrogate for the president.

Donald Trump Jr attends a book signing at Marriot Hotel to promote his book &#x002018;Liberal Privilege&#x002019; in Long Island, New York, on 18 October.
Donald Trump Jr attends a book signing at Marriot Hotel to promote his book ‘Liberal Privilege’ in Long Island, New York, on 18 October. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Now, Don Jr, whose father worried about naming his son after himself in case he turned out to be a “loser”, is adept at throwing red meat to the base, sometimes with greater discipline and precision than his father. He has written books entitled Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us, and the self-published Liberal Privilege: Joe Biden and the Democrats’ Defense of the Indefensible.

His girlfriend, the former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle, often joins him at rallies and virtual fundraisers. She delivered a memorably raucous speech to an empty room at this year’s Republican national convention, culminating in the stentorian battle cry: “The best is yet to come!”

When a SurveyMonkey poll for Axios in January asked who Republicans would consider voting for in 2024, Don Jr was second only to Vice-President Mike Pence (Ivanka Trump, who had been considered for the role of her father’s running mate in 2016, came fourth).

Asked if he is considering running for political office during an interview last month on CSpan’s Books TV, Don Jr replied: “People have been doing that after the RNC [Republican national convention], ‘It’s Don Jr versus Nikki Haley for 2024!’ I go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, I didn’t even know I was running’.”

He added: “Whether I’m going to run or not, I have no plans on it right now. My goal is 2020. We’ll worry about everything after that but I will stay involved, one way or another, that’s for sure.”

Wilson, author of Everything Trump Touches Dies and Running Against the Devil, argues that Don Jr “speaks fluent Maga” and is in fact the frontrunner.

“What I tell all these Republicans who think they’re going to run in 24 for president – Ben Sasse and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – is they’re not going anywhere,” he said. “They should stop right now, they’re wasting their time and everyone else’s, because the nominee in 2024 is going to be Donald Trump Jr. He will come in, he will have his father’s endorsement and he will promise great feats of lib ownership.”

Donald Trump Jr leaves after the first 2020 presidential campaign debate held in Cleveland, Ohio, on 29 September.
Donald Trump Jr leaves after the first 2020 presidential campaign debate held in Cleveland, Ohio, on 29 September. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Leading exponents of “owning the libs” including Charlie Kirk, founder and executive director of Turning Point USA, a non-profit that wages culture wars at schools and universities, and Candace Owens, founder of the “Blexit” organisation which urges Black people to desert the Democratic party and a sense of “permanent victimhood”.

Their social media point-scoring is symptomatic of an age of negative partisanship in which many voters’ support is motivated more by loathing for the other side than belief in their own. Some Democrats have also acknowledged that their enthusiasm for this year’s election is about voting against Trump than voting for Joe Biden, a 77-year-old white moderate making his third run for the White House.

Conversely, when Don Jr and his father bash Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Biden at campaign rallies, they generate louder reactions from the crowd than when they set out agenda items or achievements. Don Jr’s Twitter feed offers his 5.8 million followers little by way of policy but a torrent of Democrat-baiting and conspiracy theories.

In May he posted on Instagram a meme that falsely insinuated Biden is a paedophile, later insisting that he had merely been “joking around”, though the disinformation has made its way into the minds of voters.

His current pinned tweet is a video that asserts, without evidence, that: “The Biden family has spent decades in Washington DC enriching themselves by selling access to Joe Biden’s taxpayer funded office. Hunter Biden is corrupt. Jim Biden is corrupt. Joe Biden is corrupt.”

Critics say this invective is filling a vacuum where ideology used to be. David Litt, a former speechwriter for Obama, asked: “What does the Republican party under Trump stand for? They don’t stand for small deficits. They don’t stand for the rule of law. They don’t stand for exporting democracy around the world. So they really stand for making Democrats upset.

“The one way you can be sure that you’re a member of the Trump- era conservative movement is that respectable liberals are either scared or appalled or both by some of the things you said. So it becomes this kind of identity politics where the identity is based not on who you are but on who you aren’t and who you make upset.”

Litt, author of Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years and Democracy In One Book or Less, added: “I think Donald Trump Jr is a perfect example of this because he is a white, straight male who is set to inherit hundreds of millions or billions as long as the tax situation works out and, despite all of that, he seems quite certain that he’s persecuted.

“I think that idea of saying the real civil rights movement is the fight for Republican billionaires to be able to do whatever they want has become this strange core tenet of the Trump-era Republican party.”

But Don Jr’s fate could be decided on 3 November. If, as polls suggest, his father suffers a humiliating defeat, he could be thrust into a battle for the future of the Republican party with senators, governors and other political veterans.

Joshua Kendall, author of First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama, said: “It really all depends on the election. There are basically two scenarios. If his father loses, Don Jr and his father might use all those Twitter followers to form some sort of rightwing media empire. If his father wins then Don Jr is going to be front and centre.”