Donald Trump Jr. is both intensely unappealing and uninteresting. He combines in his person corruption, ineptitude, and banality. He is perpetually aggrieved; obsessed with trolling the left; a crude, one-dimensional figure who has done a remarkably good job of keeping from public view any redeeming qualities he might have.
There’s a case to be made that he’s worth ignoring, except for this: Don Jr. has been his father’s chief emissary to MAGA world; he’s one of the most popular figures in the Republican Party; and he’s influential with Republicans in positions of power. He’s also attuned to what appeals to the base of the GOP. So, from time to time, it is worth paying attention to what he has to say.
Trump spoke at a Turning Point USA gathering on December 19. He displayed seething, nearly pathological resentments; playground insults (he led the crowd in “Let’s Go, Brandon” chants); tough guy/average Joe shtick; and a pulsating sense of aggrieved victimhood and persecution, all of it coming from the elitist, extravagantly rich son of a former president.
But there was one short section of Trump’s speech that I thought was particularly revealing. Relatively early in the speech, he said, “If we get together, they cannot cancel us all. Okay? They won’t. And this will be contrary to a lot of our beliefs because—I’d love not to have to participate in cancel culture. I’d love that it didn’t exist. But as long as it does, folks, we better be playing the same game. Okay? We’ve been playing T-ball for half a century while they’re playing hardball and cheating. Right? We’ve turned the other cheek, and I understand, sort of, the biblical reference—I understand the mentality—but it’s gotten us nothing. Okay? It’s gotten us nothing while we’ve ceded ground in every major institution in our country.”
Throughout his speech, Don Jr. painted a scenario in which Trump supporters—Americans living in red America—are under relentless attack from a wicked and brutal enemy. He portrayed it as an existential battle between good and evil. One side must prevail; the other must be crushed. This in turn justifies any necessary means to win. And the former president’s son has a message for the tens of millions of evangelicals who form the energized base of the GOP: the scriptures are essentially a manual for suckers. The teachings of Jesus have “gotten us nothing.” It’s worse than that, really; the ethic of Jesus has gotten in the way of successfully prosecuting the culture wars against the left. If the ethic of Jesus encourages sensibilities that might cause people in politics to act a little less brutally, a bit more civilly, with a touch more grace? Then it needs to go.
Decency is for suckers.
Translating the teachings of Jesus into public life, and figuring out how they ought to influence the duties of the state, is a complicated matter. A decade ago, I wrote a book with Michael Gerson, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, in which we dealt with that issue, among others. But what we heard from Donald Trump Jr. was something very different. He believes, as his father does, that politics should be practiced ruthlessly, mercilessly, and vengefully. The ends justify the means. Norms and guardrails need to be smashed. Morality and lawfulness must always be subordinated to the pursuit of power and self-interest. That is the Trumpian ethic.
The problem is that the Trumpian ethic hasn’t been confined to the Trump family. We saw that not just in the enthusiastic and at times impassioned response of the Turning Point USA crowd to Don Jr.’s speech but nearly every day in the words and actions of Republicans in positions of power. Donald Trump and his oldest son have become evangelists of a different kind.
Their approach hasn’t been embraced by all Republicans, of course. There are GOP governors and others in the Republican Party who embody a very different ethic, and for the sake of their party and their country, I hope they gain influence. But it would be naive and irresponsible to pretend that what we have seen since Donald Trump left office is the revivification of ethical standards and demands for moral excellence within the Republican Party.
Liz Cheney voted with President Trump more than 90 percent of the time but is now persona non grata in the GOP because she is willing to defend the Constitution and the rule of law and stand against a violent assault on the Capitol and an effort to overturn a free and fair election. When Liz Cheney is more despised in the party than the crazed Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert, Jim Jordan, Madison Cawthorn, or Donald Trump Jr., you know that the GOP has lost its moral bearings.
I understand that many Americans, including some number of Republicans I know, would rather we move on from the Trump family. But the Trump family and MAGA world won’t let us. And they’re playing for keeps.
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.
This article originally appeared in The Atlantic on December 26, 2021.
Photo by Gage Skidmore