The easiest way to understand Donald Trump Jr. is this: He is his father on steroids. With a lot more internet savvy.
As someone who has been following Trump’s eldest son on Instagram for the better part of the last two years, I’ve been witness to a regular parade of memes, deceptively edited videos and other tropes of internet character assassination aimed at everyone from the media to Mitt Romney – and back. In short, if you think the President a troll, his son is king of the trolls.
Which brings me to Saturday when Trump Jr. posted two pictures on his Instagram feed.
The first showed Biden with the words “See you later, alligator!” written over it. Below was a picture of an alligator with these words: “After a while pedophile.” In the comment of this post, Trump Jr. wrote three rolling-on-the-floor-laughing emojis followed by this: “That said, there’s definitely way too many Creep Joe videos out there!” (Note: I am not going to link to the post here since I am not in the business of amplifying false filth. If you want to find it on the internet, trust me you can.)
While the dangerous and untrue charge of pedophilia is the new marker – so far – of how low the Trump campaign will go to smear Biden, it’s far from the first piece of evidence about how the President and his surrogates will conduct the campaign.
But, yeah. Let’s get this out of the way here: There has never been even a whiff of a suggestion that Biden has ever behaved inappropriately with children. None.
When a New York Times reporter flagged the post via Twitter, Trump Jr. tried to say he was just kidding. “The 3 [rolling-on-the-floor-laughing emojis] in the caption should indicate to anyone with a scintilla of common sense that I’m joking around,” Trump Jr. tweeted. Then he added: “If the media doesn’t want people mocking & making jokes about how creepy Joe is, then maybe he should stop the unwanted touching & keep his hands to himself?” – accompanied by several pictures of Biden with kids.
This is a tried and true tactic of the Trumps – father and son. Say something wildly offensive. When called on it by the media, insist that you were joking and everyone knows that – except for the humorless media! And then, as soon as the words of “kidding!” have left your mouth, make sure to double down on the original claim to make sure it gets out into the public bloodstream.
And Trump Jr. was far from done.
“The @nytimes is right. There’s NOTHING CREEPY at all about how @JoeBiden interacts with the kids in this 4+ min long video,” he tweeted Saturday night, with a link to a C-SPAN clip of Biden greeting families as part of his ceremonial role swearing in new senators. “All the touching & hair sniffing is TOTALLY APPROPRIATE & 100% NORMAL. Everyone does it! I’m a bad person for mocking him & thinking it’s disgusting!!!” (This tweet is now pinned to the top of Trump Jr.’s account.)
On Sunday morning, in response to a tweet from CNN’s Jake Tapper denouncing the “unprecedented smear campaign” being run by the Trumps, Trump Jr. tweeted (again with the C-SPAN clip):
“Jake, I’m sorry that you’re more upset (Triggered!) about a joke meme than you are @JoeBiden’s gross habit of touching & sniffing young girls.
“I can’t imagine most parents would be comfortable with Biden touching their daughters in the manner seen below…I know I wouldn’t be!”
In response to Trump Jr.’s attacks, Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement, “No repulsive, manipulative tactic will change the subject from how almost 90,000 Americans have paid for Donald Trump’s coronavirus negligence with their lives and how the booming economy he inherited from the Obama-Biden Administration is now suffering from depression-level job losses.”
The President, too, has launched deeply personal attacks questioning Biden’s mental fitness – most recently in an interview with the conservative Washington Examiner this past week.
“If you asked him who he named, he wouldn’t even know it,” Trump, who you’ll recall recently suggested injecting disinfectants like bleach as a coronavirus cure, said of Biden. “Joe has absolutely no idea what’s happening.” Later, he added of the former vice president: “He doesn’t know he’s alive.”
That’s in keeping with his campaign’s recently-launched efforts to paint Biden, who at 77 years old would be the oldest person ever elected to a first term as president, as senile and incompetent. (Trump is 73; he turns 74 next month.) In new Facebook ads, Biden is shown in a nursing home, being fed by an attendant, with the words “Joe Biden. Too Old?” written on the picture. (Again, I’m not going to help push this stuff into the mainstream by linking to it here. If you want to find it, you can.)
Trump Jr. has been tilling that soil for a while – largely via Instagram, where he has posted memes meant to suggest the former vice president is too old. And there’s lots more.
What Trump and his son are doing here is what they have always done – in and out of politics: Take something with the smallest kernel of truth and turn it into something that it is not in hopes of making profit (political or otherwise) off it.
For example, it is true that Biden has verbal gaffes. He once called himself a “gaffe machine.” But misspeaking is different than being mentally incompetent. WAY different. And there’s zero evidence that Biden’s tendency to put his foot-in-his-mouth is proof of anything other than he occasionally says the wrong thing at the wrong time.
In the case of Biden’s touchy-feely approach to people, there is truth in that too. There’s lots of photographic evidence of it. And Biden himself addressed the issue – releasing a video in April 2019 in which he said that “I’ve always tried to make a human connection. That’s my responsibility, I think. … It’s the way I’ve always been. It’s the way I try to show I care about them and listening.” But he added: “The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset. I get it. I get it. I hear what they’re saying and I understand it. I’ll be much more mindful. That’s my responsibility and I’ll meet it.”
That statement came in response to an allegation from former Nevada lieutenant governor nominee Lucy Flores that, at a campaign event in 2014, Biden held her shoulders, smelled her hair and then gave her a “big slow kiss on the back of my head.”
Earlier this year, a former Senate staffer named Tara Reade accused Biden of sexual assault in the mid-1990s. Biden has unequivocally denied the claim.
Remember that during the 2016 campaign, Trump faced credible allegations of sexual harassment from more than a dozen women. He insisted they were all lying and said he would sue them all once the race ended. He has yet to file any of those lawsuits.
Trump Jr. doesn’t really care about getting to the bottom of any of that. Not really. What he knows is that he can use the internet to plant seeds that Biden is not just old but senile. That Biden is not just touchy-feely but vaguely criminal. He doesn’t need evidence because his goal is not to build a legal, criminal or even journalistic case against Biden. His goal is to push his narrative into peoples’ minds.
Trump’s most avid supporters will believe the worst because they want to – evidence be damned. And people on the fence about Biden? Well, Trump Jr. doesn’t need to convince them of anything. He just need to make sure they are vaguely aware of this stuff. Even if they engage on the facts and dismiss it – as any engagement on the facts will do – Trump Jr. believes he has won because they engaged with it. The thought is in their minds. That’s all he wants or needs.
Trump Jr. won’t be embarrassed into stopping the vileness he is spreading. He left that feeling behind long ago in service of his (and his father’s) broader mission: Winning at all costs.
And that, he quite clearly believes he got from his dad. In response to a positive comment on his “alligator” Instagram post describing the Trump family as “nothing but savages,” Trump Jr. wrote:
“True. Part of that is a response to how they come after us over BS…the other part likely just genetic.”
Like father, like son.