Donald Trump, Jr.’s Triggered recently became the No. 1 bestselling book in the country at the moment, aided in part by a bump from the Republican Party’s bulk buying apparatus. Because I doubt any of my leftist friends intend to read this book, and because I feel as if there are benefits to understanding what is in this book if you are a leftist, I have hauled myself from cover to cover and would like to offer some observations about its contents.
First, let us assume that he wrote it. In most circumstances, it is reasonable to assume that a person whose name is listed as the author on a book’s cover is the person who sat down and wrote it, but despite the reviews claiming that Triggered is a very bad book, Triggered would in fact be an impressive book for a person who is not a professional writer. In fact, it reads exactly like the kind of book a high level professional ghostwriter would produce, so if Donald Trump, Jr. did write it, he does an excellent imitation of a ghostwriter imitating him. (It is possible that I am cynical in part because Donald Trump, Sr. is known not to have written books that have appeared under his name, and in Triggered Donald Trump, Jr. speaks admiringly of all that Donald Trump Sr. has said and done.) But I must review it as if Triggered was indeed written by Trump Jr., because other than the fact that it reads as if it is by someone who writes books for a living, I have no hard evidence that this is not in fact the singlehanded work of a Trump child.
The first thing you should know about conservative books is that they are simultaneously very bad and very good. They are very bad because much of what they say is wrong and ignorant, they show little understanding of issues they declaim confidently on, and they peddle a worldview that, if accepted widely, would lead to the suffering and death of billions of people. They are also—and this is frequently missed by left critics—very good, because they package their ideological message clearly and effectively, in language anybody can understand, mixing jokes, statistics, factoids, stories, sophistry, quotes from the other side, and emotional appeals. Like the President himself, they are simultaneously dumb and not-dumb-at-all—they are ignorant but have a certain savvy, wrong about nearly everything but right about enough that it’s easy to see how even somewhat intelligent people could come to accept it.
Triggered is partly an autobiography, but it is mainly a book about the “left,” settling scores with the president’s enemies and explaining how Democrats and socialists—the two terms are used interchangeably—are plotting to destroy the America we love. Like many other critics of “social justice,” Trump, Jr. recounts a familiar set of anecdotes: a few times Antifa punched someone, some conservative speakers who were heckled, a Twitter account that got suspended. He then uses these to support the idea that the Democratic Party “is the party of hate, violence, and suppression of free speech.” They have:
…elected socialists to our Congress, allowed anti-Semitism to run rampant throughout our government, and allowed our most important media institutions to be run by angry mobs and leftist activist “journalists” on Twitter… There are stacks of books we’re no longer allowed to read, public figures who are no longer allowed to speak in public, and crucial debates we are no longer allowed to have—all because they might hurt someone’s feelings… Just ask Dave Chapelle [sic], who’s fighting off an online outrage mob as I type these words…
What books are we “no longer allowed” to read? Trump Jr. does not say. Who is “no longer allowed” to speak in public? We are not told. Triggered is another one of those conservative books that argues from a perch atop the bestseller list that conservative books are being banned. He spends a lot of time on one of his pet issues—the “censoring” of conservatives by Big Tech—even as right-wing views flourish all over Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. His father, the President of the United States, has one of the most-read Twitter accounts, and the company has never once suspended the president’s posting privileges. As I have noted before, there are ideas that go unheard, questions that go unasked, arguments that go unmade, but “capitalism is good” and “SJWs are bad” (the core beliefs of Donald Trump, Jr.) are not in that category.
Other things that Trump, Jr. is exercised about include: transgender athletes (he spends considerable time mocking trans people and relitigating the bathroom debate, which to him is when “the left demanded that confused old men in dresses be allowed into the same restrooms as little girls”), Joe Biden’s interactions with the Chinese government (these are the subject of a whole chapter, called “Joe China”), Bill de Blasio killing that groundhog, the press pushing dubious stories about connections between Donald Trump Sr. and Russia, and undergraduates at Yale getting upset over offensive Halloween costumes. Trump, Jr. vigorously contests the accusation that his father once ignorantly overfed some Japanese fish, and defends Roseanne Barr and Kevin Hart over offensive remarks they made. Of course, it’s worth vigorously debunking the nonsense spread about transgender people and “social justice warriors” by right-wingers like Trump, Jr., but it’s also the case that Trump’s book depends for its effectiveness on distracting us with non-issues like “people with the wrong chromosomes running in track meets” and “some possibly mentally unstable person who staged a hate crime,” to avoid confronting serious political questions like how to give everyone healthcare, housing, and good schools. I am happy to concede that Donald Trump Sr. did not feed the fish incorrectly if Trump Jr. will admit that his father displays nearly every existing unpleasant personality trait.
One reason books like this work is that it’s very easy to find a stack of anecdotes of liberals saying and doing silly things. The book’s subtitle is “How The Left Thrives On Hate And Wants To Silence Us,” but because Trump Jr. doesn’t recognize that liberalism and leftism are distinct, he treats Adam Schiff, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden as indistinguishable from Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. So, for example, in defending his father’s immigration policies, he points out that “kids in cages” “began under Obama,” and “liberals seem to have conveniently forgotten about that.”
Nancy Pelosi calls my father’s actions on the border “barbaric,” but I don’t remember her saying anything like that about Barack Obama’s immigration policy, which included separating children from their parents, keeping the kids in tent cities, and deporting 2.5 million of them! Remember who started this crisis! Funny how no one on the left mentions that, isn’t it?
He cites Hillary Clinton saying that unaccompanied migrant children should be deported. “Sounds just like my dad,” he says, “but when Hillary says it, no problemo.” Well, big problemo actually, and that’s precisely why many of us on the left have been so disgusted by the Democratic Party! Here’s Dan Denvir of Jacobin, for instance, pointing out “liberal rhetoric too often elides the uncomfortably mainstream roots of Trump’s crackdowns” and concluding that “if we want to stop Trump’s deportation machine, we have to confront the key role Democrats played alongside establishment Republicans in creating it.” The correct position is not, as Trump Jr. would have it, that if “kids in cages” began under Obama and was endorsed by Clinton, it is therefore good, but rather that we need to hold Obama and Clinton accountable for their part in building an inhumane immigration apparatus that Trump, Sr. has significantly worsened.
In fact, you can see in this book part of why Donald Trump himself is president. Many of the arguments in here are silly, but some accurate points are made. Trump, Jr. says that: “if you were a liberal in early 2017, the Russia collusion story was really all you had left to cling to. It absolved you and your candidate of all blame for her defeat, and it gave you a perfectly sensible reason to reject the results of the election.” That’s not wrong! He says that pundits are disconnected from the real world, and that in 2016 “they got it wrong because they didn’t get out and talk to voters.” That’s not wrong either, and Bernie Sanders wouldn’t disagree. He says that major unions are no longer democratic and that union bosses have supported a party that doesn’t help working people anymore, which Jane McAlevey would accept. He says that the Democratic Party was once “the reason we have a forty-hour work week, a two day weekend, and benefits programs for workers,” but then “the liberals changed their tune on working class voters” and Democrats became a party of elites. This is true, and it’s exactly the thesis put forward by Thomas Frank in Listen Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? Of course, Frank pins the problem on neoliberal “market fundamentalism,” while Trump Jr. thinks the problem is that the Democrats embraced started “to promote public spending and enormous welfare programs.” Trump Jr.’s position is absurd, since the successful Democratic Party was also the party of new public spending and welfare programs (Social Security, Medicare). But Trump Jr. certainly perceives something that Clintonian liberals do not.
Consider, too, Trump Jr.’s discussion of Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. Does he not have a point when he says:
You want to know a real joke? How about Barack Obama’s nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize just eleven days after he took office. Eleven days! What in God’s name could he have done in eleven days to warrant one of the most prestigious awards in the world? … And how did Obama live up to that lofty distinction? By increasing troop levels in Afghanistan to seven times that of George W. Bush, by overseeing a dramatic increase in drone strikes, and by being responsible for the death and injury of tens of thousands of people in wars across the Middle East.
The paragraph could appear word-for-word in Jacobin, the only difference being that Trump Jr. doesn’t actually care about drone strikes (his father escalated their number, after all). But the failures of the Democratic Party allow Trump, Jr. to make criticisms that a leftist would make, and because leftists are correct, the criticisms land. In February 2016, in explaining why Donald Trump was going to beat Hillary Clinton, I noted that Trump could in many ways “run to Clinton’s left” by emphasizing her support for the Iraq War, trade deals, and Wall Street. (Sure enough, Triggered tells working class people they were sold out by a Democratic Party that gave them NAFTA.) The Democratic Party’s neoliberal turn means that Trump Jr. is able to produce a far more effective book than he would be able to if we still had the Party of FDR, which even Trump Jr. says nice things about. (He admits that the left gave you the weekend!)
So, when Trump Jr. runs through the 2020 candidates, he is able to have a lot of fun at their expense and point out very real problems. Of Kamala Harris: “A whole generation of black men and women were sent to jail while Kamala Harris was in charge.” “Many of those people were nonviolent, even petty criminals.” Fact check: Well, not the entire generation, but she sent a lot of people to jail! Of Elizabeth Warren: “if Warren has no problem being a fake American Indian, why would she have a problem faking anything else?” Indeed, what Warren did is bad. Of Mayor Pete: “Even his own constituents have no idea what he’s done.” True, Mayor Pete’s mayoral record is terrible. Of Cory Booker: “He has an imaginary friend. Not kidding. Look it up.” And if you look it up… well, Booker insists the man was an an “archetype,” not an imaginary friend. Of Amy Klobuchar: “I do have a word of advice for anyone who goes to work for her: Duck.” Does Klobuchar abuse her staff? Is Buttigieg a phony who doesn’t actually care about anything except his career? Did Harris worsen mass incarceration? If the answers here are “yes,” then Trump has good material to work with in 2020. (Of course, the main criticism Trump Jr. has of Bernie Sanders is that Bernie is a socialist, an attack I don’t think is nearly as effective, because Bernie wears the label proudly—just as Trump responds to criticisms by doubling down, Bernie says damn right I’m a socialist and insists he has nothing to hide or be ashamed of. This feels more honest.)
The book is called Triggered, so of course it contains some mockery of trigger warnings: “The term ‘trigger warning’ is used to describe something, say a tweet from my dad, that blows up the fragile sensibilities of the liberal Twitterverse.” Of course, he also believes “cancel culture” is a dangerous scourge (listen to and read Osita Nwanevu for an excellent reply to this) and attacks the concept of “microaggressions,” another favorite target of right-wing scorn. (“Have you ever asked someone where they’re from? Well, according to liberals, you can’t do that anymore. It’s called a microaggression.”) I’ve previously responded at length to conservative misunderstandings of the microaggression concept, and I don’t even know whether it’s worth my explaining the actual debate about putting content warnings on sensitive material—clearly Trump Jr. just knows that by mocking the phrase he will annoy people, and he wants to annoy people and then laugh as he asks them if they have been “triggered.”
There is a common strategy pursued by right-wing trolls, which is that they say something infuriating and horrible and hurtful, and then when people react naturally by becoming enraged, the conservative says that the reaction is proof that the left can’t handle facts and logic and is hate-fueled and emotional. This is what Milo Yiannopoulos did: He made all kinds of bigoted comments and bullied students, then when people reacted by saying that this wasn’t the sort of stuff that speaking invitations to prestigious colleges should be for, he claimed they just found his “politically incorrect” truths too “dangerous” to handle. (In Triggered, naturally, Yiannopoulos is referred to merely as a “a conservative British political commentator.”) Likewise, Charles Murray is a racist pseudoscholar, but if you try to prevent your school from giving pseudoscholars the same prestige as actual scholars, you’ll be accused of being a social justice warrior who hates and fears knowledge.
Triggered also, you will not be surprised to hear, repeats Trumpian anti-immigrant propaganda, trying to terrify readers into thinking that MS-13 is going to murder their children:
Many MS-13 members came into the United States as “unaccompanied minors.” They are children who, during the Obama administration, were sent alone to the border, where the US government was legally required to take them in. According to the Obama administration, not to take those minors in and give them free food and shelter for eternity would have been a severe human rights violation…. Members of Mexican drug cartels will soon be fighting it out on the streets of this country rather than their own. What’s MS-13’s motto? “Kill, rape, control”? Its members specialize in bestial acts. They decapitate victims and tear their hearts out. They sound like wonderful people, right? Yet when my father called them animals, the left lost its mind.”
Now, I recommend reading my college Brianna Rennix’s excellent coverage of immigration in this magazine for a better understanding of what actually happens to unauthorized immigrants in this country and why the left does not see indefinite “free food and shelter” for children fleeing desperate situations as inherently ridiculous. Trump Jr. does not see how describing MS-13 members as “animals”—and then making people afraid that every unaccompanied migrant child is a potential MS-13 member—could have the effect of dehumanizing migrant children, which is precisely what has happened—children are kept in horrific conditions every day in this country, and most people do not give a damn, because people like Trump Jr. do not care about the consequences of their rhetoric or think that you deserve basic human dignity if you crossed the wrong geographic line in violation of The Law.
Trump half-assedly grabs a handful of statistics to show that “illegal immigration and its by-products take the very lives of our children” and make the case that Democrats disregard “the American lives that illegal immigration endangers, the strain on our health care system illegal immigrants cause, or the jobs the illegals take.” I say half-assedly because of things like this:
According to a recent report by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a supposed media watchdog that is actually fair only to the left, taxpayers “shell out approximately $134.9 billion to cover the costs incurred by the presence of more than 12.5 million illegal aliens, and about 4.2 million citizen children of illegal aliens.” The real number might be $250 billion. Forget about a wall; with that kind of money we could build a dome! The bottom line is that the cost of illegal immigration is unsustainable.
Unsurprisingly, that quote is not actually not from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, but from a different FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigration group founded by a eugenics-promoting white nationalist. (A quote from the man: “One of my prime concerns is about the decline of folks who look like you and me… [F]or European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”) Trump Jr. wants us to take the number seriously because it comes from a left-leaning source, but it actually comes from racists. (I’m sure the statistic has colossal flaws—the case is overwhelming that immigration is good—but also I don’t really care whether it’s true because I have little sympathy for rich countries complaining at having to supply some meager welfare benefits to immigrants.)
Trump Jr. insists he wants a “merit-based” immigration system, which sounds reasonable until you think for half a second about the consequences: The people immigration would most benefit might be the ones most likely to be excluded. What “merit” does a child fleeing violence have to offer? Trump Jr. uses statistics that mean nothing: “about 90 percent of all heroin consumed in the United States comes from the same three or four cities in Mexico”—all this tells me is that American consumers like heroin and therefore have created an industry in the next-door country (and that we should probably stop the Drug War). He tells us all about the horrific violence in Mexico, but instead of encouraging us to examine our role in creating a violent black market through colossal demand for drugs, he sees it as a sign that we need to build a higher wall so that we don’t have to think about the corpses piling up on the other side. (He even speaks of “the violence in faraway places such as Mexico and El Salvador,” though there is literally no distance between Mexico and the United States.)
But one thing Trump Jr. says on immigration is worth listening to. Of Democrats he says: “They want to be seen as the compassionate party, welcoming illegal immigrants with open arms, but they don’t want to be the ones who have to take care of them.” Indeed, there is much hypocrisy among Democrats, and the response to Trump cannot involve a “left” anti-immigrant position and has to entail a serious commitment to actually caring about what happens to the lives of people from other countries.
While much of what Trump Jr. discusses in Triggered should have no interest for any morally serious person who is capable of staying focused on the issues that matter, sometimes he does find himself commenting on issues that have consequences outside of television, such as climate change. He is scathing about the Green New Deal, for instance, saying that:
AOC and her socialist pals want to spend what would be the equivalent of about fifteen years of the U.S. government’s revenue to stop cows from farting, eliminate air travel, build an underground tunnel from California to Hawaii, and fund people who don’t want to work.
One reason Trump Jr. is able to make the Green New Deal sound ridiculous is that he doesn’t talk at all about climate change itself. If you’re totally unaware of the problem, then of course you’re going to laugh at the scale of what is proposed to address it. This is actually a new kind of climate denialism sneaking in on the right: No longer do they call global warming a hoax. Instead they simply don’t talk about it, and completely ignore the existing science, so that they can laugh at climate activists as if they are responding to something that doesn’t exist.
I could begin picking apart Trump Jr.’s nonsense about the Green New Deal, but it would take ages and I sense Trump Jr. is not interested in a serious debate about climate policy. So why not just read Bernie Sanders’ website, which explains in detail what the plans are, and then come back and tell me whether it bears any resemblance to Trump Jr.’s characterization? Like many on the right, Trump Jr. is able to be so confident only because he has failed to read carefully or listen, because he has heard one thing and that’s enough for him. (E.g., “cow farts,” which he repeats over and over again, as if that’s all you need to know about climate change.) My friend Dan Walden defines a core feature of conservatism as “reverence for tradition without understanding it,” and I think you see clearly here the deep ignorance at the heart of right-wing “thought.” On every issue, the right knows what it believes before it has done any careful listening or empathizing. Of course, I am sure Trump Jr. would point out that this is true of liberals, too, and I don’t disagree: That’s why leftism—a political tradition which Trump Jr.’s book about “the left” is not even aware of the existence of—is the way to go.
Most of the rest of the book is autobiographical. It is about what it was like to watch his father run for president, how proud he is of his dad, etc. Trump Jr. is very concerned to dispel public perceptions of him as a brat, what he calls the “fake narrative” that “we are all spoiled rich kids.” He insists (twice) that he got into Wharton on his grades rather than because his father went there. He talks about manual labor he has done, and the summers he spent in Czechoslovakia as a child. He says that when he was at the prestigious Hill School as a youngster, he was conscious of class differences in the area. (“The juxtaposition was not lost on me. Here you had a wealthy boarding school up on a hill surrounded by the modest homes of blue-collar workers, many of whom were out of work.” This is the sort of passage that makes the cynic in me wonder once again whether Trump Jr. had a bit of help with the writing, though the quality of the actual arguments makes it clear that a professional ghostwriter, if they did participate, did not put in much time or energy.)
Triggered is wrong about so much, but it is wrong in a very dangerous way. It accomplishes what it sets out to do: It humanizes Trump Jr. by telling self-deprecating anecdotes about his life and making him more than the two-dimensional “rich kid” figure of media portrayals. It points out genuine problems with liberals and the Democratic Party, in a way that is often funny and hits its targets. And it gives a coherent narrative about the problems with America and how they can be fixed. That narrative is scary: It denies climate change, it believes in more militarization of the border, it has little empathy for people fleeing violence, it rewards rapacious plutocrats with ever-greater ownership over our lives, and it fosters fear, paranoia, and a hatred of leftists. When I read Dinesh D’Souza’s The Big Lie, I was chilled by the conclusion it drew about the necessity of stopping leftist “fascism” by any means necessary: “Anyone who says physical force is out of bounds does not know what it means to stop fascism.” Likewise, when Trump Jr. tries to convince people that Democrats are “the party of hate, violence, and suppression of free speech,” when he says of Antifa that “the sheer force of their numbers is shocking,” and when he says that “they have allowed hate to spread at a rate we haven’t seen” since the Jim Crow era, one can easily reach the conclusion that idealistic young socialists (such as myself and millions of others) are the enemies of the state and should be given no mercy. I do not want to see the kind of society built by people whose politics are formed by this book, and I worry that unless we on the left provide a clear and powerful alternative, we will see millions radicalized by this kind of propaganda.
So ultimately, it is not enough to fact-check Triggered. There is plenty to mock—Ashley Feinberg in Slate points out that Trump, Jr. mistakes a conservative parody of “social justice” writing for the authentic article (not the first conservative book I have seen do this, actually. Many on the right are so detached from actual left arguments that they cannot tell the real thing from crude parody, though of course their spin would be that the reality and parody are indistinguishable). But we need to pay a bit of attention to how these appeals work, because, after all, Donald Trump is the President of the United States, and that is no laughing matter. Trump Jr. spends much of this book saying that “the left” spoke with complacent derision about Trump voters and warning that they will keep losing if they keep showing this kind of contempt. I certainly don’t think “the left” did that—Bernie Sanders speaks to Trump voters with compassion and tries to give them an alternate, less monstrous narrative. There is debate over whether one’s time is well-spent trying to “convert” the sort of people who would buy and read a book like Triggered, and I do think apolitical types who have never spent a moment thinking about Donald Trump, Jr. are higher-priority targets for left organizing. But it’s important that we understand why this book is not just garbage, why it is effective propaganda that can easily take people in. And it’s important that we have something better on offer: something just as clear, just as willing to point out and make fun of hypocrisy and just as sharp in its criticism of Democratic elites, but that has a moral core and isn’t ignorant of the most important political issues facing the planet. This book should be treated as worthless, because it is, but we need to earn the moral high ground by offering a far better competing vision of what the world ought to be like.