You may have noticed that when the three eldest Trump children (and occasionally Tiffany, if she’s lucky) speak in public about the president, which is quite often, they nearly always refer to him as “father.” That shouldn’t be such a weird thing—Donald Trump is, clearly, their father—and yet when they do it, it is weird. Why?
Trump’s kids generally refer to him with eerily matching degrees of formality, which isn’t something the children of other politicians necessarily do—others might be nudged to broadcast folksy, average family relations, or, alternatively, to stay out of the spotlight. But the Trumps have always made clumsy attempts to perform wealth and prestige, and this habit seems to fall under the same gold-plated umbrella; in effect, rather than conveying some aristocratic, Kennedy-esque attitude, they sound more like the cyborg descendants of a Romanian crime syndicate.
Pronunciation is another key reason why something feels off here. The grown children of Donald Trump—Ivanka and Donald Trump, Jr. in particular—say the word “father” like it has up to three A’s and at least one U, and also like they can only breathe through one nostril. It’s almost as though they are subconsciously trying to develop their own Habsburg-ian defect, or perhaps they’re trying to extend the word beyond its natural endpoint, a small but fitting tribute to America’s beloved God-King.
“I’m not in every interaction my faauther has, but he’s not a groper,” Ivanka smiles.
“For my fauuther, impossible is just the starting point,” Don Jr. smirks.
“My faughther pays a tremendous amount of tax,” Eric whines through chapped lips.
The pronunciation issue, my colleagues agree, may be partly physical.
(Privately, Kelly noted to me that “I also think it has to do, on some level, with wolf behaviors.”)
But I wouldn’t be so struck by the fact that the Trump kids always call their dad “father” or the deeply cloying way they pronounce it if I weren’t hearing them do it so frequently, and with a propagandist’s touch. We don’t typically expect the children of a public servant to become aggressive spokespeople, repeatedly seeking the spotlight in order to spin, mischaracterize, and mythologize on that parent’s behalf—especially when two of them are also busy running his supposedly separate global business empire. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that Trump’s adult children recognize some of his flaws, but that recognition can only go so far when those problems seem to be largely inherited. And besides, who would Trump’s children be without him? He’s created a universe, one that all of us, increasingly, have to live in, in which the signature and rather overpowering ingredient is himself.
In Ivanka Trump’s Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules of Success, she mentions her father 17 times—not a surprising number for her, but a fairly man-oriented take on the women’s career empowerment genre. In between bland anecdotes that, for example, reframe a chummy job offer from Anna Wintour as a challenging career moment, we find sentences like, “My father has always said, if you love what you do, and work really, really hard, you will succeed,” and, “my father always says, if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you may as well be thinking big.” The guy who kibitzed about her boobs with Howard Stern doesn’t seem to make an appearance.
From an observer’s perspective, a central tension for Ivanka has been that the professional identity her father’s name and money helped create is being eclipsed by the same person. Ivanka’s vigorously groomed public image, which recently included her unironically lamenting the unexpected “viciousness” her family has dealt with, sees her straining comically between the divergent pressures of familial duty and preventing her personal brand from disintegrating into a teeming mass of orange goo. Don Jr. and Eric, meanwhile, are a bit more of a straightforward case: the president’s second and third-favorite children have lustily adopted the role of political attack dogs, with Eric recently informing Sean Hannity that Democrats are “not even people” and Don Jr., a conspiracy-minded, slightly greasier carbon copy of his name’s original owner, appearing to live-tweet the Comey hearing on his father’s behalf.
Reporting on the Trumps has suggested an unusual family dynamic—that the president’s children lavish attention on him, rather than the reverse. This unsurprising setup was hinted at in an October 2016 New York Times profile of Tiffany Trump:
She said she saved all her report cards because she treasured the “sweet notes” he wrote on them, even though more often it’s the parent who holds on to memorabilia. She recalled that when a beloved relative died (her grandmother’s fiancé), he was the first to phone her.
Apparently, the telephone is the paternal umbilical cord when growing up Trump. In interviews and digital campaign ads, Ivanka, Don Jr. and Tiffany describe how engaged and loving their powerful, busy father was by saying he always accepted their calls at the office. To outsiders, however, that may seem faint praise given Mr. Trump’s lifelong alacrity for getting on the phone with reporters.
“I can say with real confidence that he spent virtually no time with them when they were young,” Trump biographer Tony Schwartz told the Times. “On the rare times Ivana brought one or two of the children to his office, he couldn’t have been less interested.” Tiffany’s mother Marla Maples countered that he occasionally carried her daughter around, and confirmed to the Times that she was named after one of his favorite deals.
We’ve spent the past two years hashing out Donald Trump’s cartoonish narcissism, which is unlikely to have developed out of thin air. A framed photo of the vain and ego-driven Trump patriarch faced his son Donald on his desk at Trump Tower. In the 1999 New York Times obituary for Fred Trump, whose substantial earnings and connections paved the way for his son’s wealth, Donald Trump expressed gratitude that his dad hadn’t expanded his business into Manhattan. “You know, being the son of somebody, it could have been competition to me,” he said.
Today, our 71-year-old president demands that those in his orbit tend to his most spectacular delusions, and there’s no reason to believe his children are entirely exempt from this. And eventually, they’ll go down with the ship, because it’s the biggest, most tremendously durable ship ever constructed in the history of ships, and they couldn’t possibly get chopped up into tiny little pieces by its rusted propellor.