Donald Trump Jr. is 39 years old. He has five children. He and his brother Eric currently run the entire Trump Organization, a conglomerate with over 22,000 employees and a reported revenue of $9.5 billion in 2016. And, as recently revealed through bombshell emails, during the 2016 election, he seemed to willingly attempt to collude with a foreign power to help his father to become president, with the full knowledge that Russia intended to sway the United States’ democratic process.
Until July 10, speculation that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia was just that: speculation, though based on multiple suspicious links. But Donald Jr., in a show of either complete obliviousness or false confidence, tweeted out a full email thread to corroborate the New York Times’ story from the previous day. Meet with a Kremlin-linked government agent who wants to help your father win the election? “I love it,” Donald Jr. wrote.
Donald Jr. might be, by all accounts, an idiot. But then he’s also a 39-year-old, grown-ass man idiot.
And yet conservative pundits seemed unwilling or unable to acknowledge just what an incredible revelation this is. According to Fox News pundit Jesse Watters, Donald Jr. “is the victim” in all of this. The Washington Post quoted a friend of Trump Jr. as saying, “The kid is an honest kid.” The Rupert-Murdoch-owned New York Post published an editorial with the headline “Donald Trump Jr. is an idiot," which managed to acknowledge his wrongdoings and absolve them simultaneously. “Democrats and the media are frothing to find something criminal in it all, with the most unhinged talking treason. What it clearly was was criminally stupid,” the editorial argued. In short: The meeting was bad, sure, but just a mistake.
The Post’s framing became the go-to strategy for the growing Russia scandal among the pro-Trump media now that — thanks to Donald Jr.’s self-released emails — campaign coordination could no longer be outright denied as “fake news.” Donald Jr. never should have been working on the campaign at all. He didn’t understand what he did was wrong. He’s new to politics. Come on, he’s just a kid. He was just an idiot.
Donald 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.
Men, especially white men, get almost endless chances to be awful before it affects their career.
In direct contrast to conservatives’ interpretation of Donald Jr.’s behavior is the vilification of Hillary Clinton, particularly with regard to her private email server. It doesn’t matter that other secretaries of state employed similar systems, or that an FBI review cleared her of wrongdoing; according to adversaries, Clinton’s use of a private server wasn’t just careless, but sinister and calculated. It was part of her master plan to hide things from the American people. They brand her with the long-standing cultural stereotype of women, especially exceptional women, as cunning and manipulative. Women carry not only their own faults but the faults that have been projected on women for centuries.
The double standard was beautifully articulated in a Harper’s Bazaar column by Jennifer Wright titled “Why Women Are Never Allowed to Mess Up.” Kathy Griffin made a gauche, off-color video in which the comedienne held the decapitated head of Donald Trump. What followed was best described a public flaying, the 21st-century equivalent of being locked in the stocks in the middle of town. “Meanwhile, liberal comedian Bill Maher mimicked Trump having an incestuous relationship with his daughter last month,” Wright pointed out. “That did not stop him from appearing on TV this month to declare himself a ‘house n----r.’ He’s not going anywhere.”
Men, especially white men, get almost endless chances to be awful before it affects their career. Case in point: Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women by the pussy, and then was still elected president. His supporters dismissed sexual assault as “locker-room banter,” framing a 70-year-old man as a teenage boy trying to impress his friends. Donald Jr. is similarly removed from culpability. He’s just a dumb kid who didn’t know what he was doing.
It should be stated that obviously, ignorance of the law is not a legal defense. “But officer, I didn’t know the speed limit was 20!” will never get you out of a ticket. Unless, maybe, you’re white. Donald Jr.’s whiteness is inherently linked to the presumed pretense of naive youth; he's been infantilized into innocence. Meanwhile, a 12-year-old boy like Tamir Rice, actually innocent of any wrongdoing, was painted as a thug and a threat — a man, not a kid. Black children become men the moment a white person claims to be scared of them.
Maybe when men in power see a man from a similar position of privilege about to fall, they see themselves, or their sons.
After 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, the New York Times described a series of shoplifting incidents and dabbling in drugs and alcohol. “Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel,” the Times wrote, as if behavior that’s common for nearly all teenagers in America — even celebrated as charmingly rebellious among wealthy white teenagers — implied the possibility that his death was justified.
But the conservative response to Donald Jr.’s potentially criminal behavior and subsequent idiocy is one of aw-shucks good ol’ boy “what did those Duke brothers get into this time?” resignation. It’s the same reaction that so often emerges when rapists look like Brock Turner. They’re just young guys who made a mistake, not criminals. Maybe when men in power see a man from a similar position of privilege about to fall, they see themselves, or their sons. The miserable truth is we live in a patriarchy, and a white patriarchy in which the dominant institutions — the government, the courts, the press — emerged from foundations drawn by white men.
And every time those in power selectively forgive the crimes of white men who look just like them, they give themselves and the system that supports them more power — and make the rest of us that much more powerless.