Friday, July 14, 2017


When that much-mocked NYT Style article about Donald Trump Jr. - you know, the one with him looking wistful, in flannel, on a tree stump - appeared, I couldn't believe my luck. My book had just come out, and here was this perfect example of the phenomenon that motivated me to write the thing in the first place. For here was a man who had benefitted from absolutely everything - rich, white, male, etc., but also Trump's son, and the one who shares his first name at that - but whose self-conception was so thoroughly that of the underdog. A scrappy, misunderstood everyman. And how did he make that case? By presenting himself as uncomfortable with city life, preferring the simple country life. A preference that manifests itself as incredibly high-end-sounding hunting trips all over the world, the likes of which make the hunts the aristocratic families on British TV shows go on to seem positively low-key. But does Donald Jr. see it that way? Didn't seem like it:

“For some people — you see that in New York a lot — they go hunting once every other year and they talk about it at a cocktail party for the next two years until they do it again,” Mr. Trump said in an interview. “For me, it is the way I choose to live my life.”
Rather than (accurately) presenting his hunting hobby as a highbrow diversion, he uses it as evidence that he's a man of the people. That his Manhattan childhood was somehow authentically American, in a way that more typical middle-class urban childhoods (without second homes or even, in NYC, first cars) are not.

Donald Jr.'s self-presentation as Mr. Ordinary - set against a backdrop of millions of not especially posh Americans getting cast as out-of-touch elites, just for living in cities - struck me as the epitome of the right's embrace privilege discourse. To be privileged, for the right, isn't about being rich, white, male, and well-connected. It's about whether, on "Frasier," you'd be more a Niles or Martin Crane.

(I have an unfinished thought about the relative indignation caused by Donald Jr.'s safari slaughter and - sorry, I know I said I wouldn't bring this up, but here we are - Lena Dunham rehoming and still financially supporting a rescue dog she adopted but couldn't properly handle.)

All of this was back in March, before this summer's big Donald Jr. revelation. There's sitting on a stump like a decadent aristocrat and being generally unpleasant, then there's colluding with Russia to get your father elected president of the US.

When something is indefensible on that level, the excuses are bound to be pathetic. And the excuse that 39-year-old Donald Jr. is a "kid" is plainly ridiculous. (I'm about to turn 34, and while I wish youth extended that long, I'm confident it does not.)

The question I'm stuck on is how much the ridiculousness of the just-a-kid excuse is about white male privilege, how much Trump privilege, and how much the two can even be disentangled. And yes, I'm thinking of the Bustle piece headlined "The Defense Of Donald Trump Jr Reeks Of White Male Privilege." In it, Dana Schwartz writes:
Don Jr. might be, by all accounts, an idiot. But then he’s also a 39-year-old, grown-ass man idiot. This enormous benefit of the doubt is conferred upon him thanks to the tremendous privilege of being rich, white, and male.
Schwartz gives examples of white women and people of color getting torn apart for far less, and of young white men getting relatively generous treatment. All true, and all very important to point out. (One white man she mentions, Brock Turner, has long struck me as an unambiguous case of privilege in action.) My concern is that there may be a downside to attributing gentle treatment at the level received by Donald Trump Jr. to his broad demographic categories. Why a downside? Because most 39-year-old white men wouldn't experience anything close. They'd have it easier than their female and non-white equivalents, but not on that scale. If we instead limit this to rich white men, we're getting closer, but... I still think what Donald Jr. can get away with is closer to what Ivanka the First could, than to the experiences of rich white men generally.

My issue with the framing is, it becomes all too easy to point out - and be right! - that typical white men aren't quite as privileged as Donald Jr., and in doing so, to dismiss the very real injustices that exist in the general (non-Trump) population.

Then again, Trumpism is certainly about the fantasy of being the sort of white man who could get away with anything, and that's a fantasy with disproportionate appeal to white men, very much including ones for whom that'll never be the reality. So, who knows.

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