Political dynasties have always been suspect in American politics. George Washington discovered this, to his dismay, when he agreed to serve as president of a new fraternal organization formed at the end of the Revolutionary War: the Society of the Cincinnati. Made up of army officers, its purpose was to assist soldiers’ widows and fellow comrades in need, as well as promote fraternal ties among veteran officers. Unfortunately, the organization also decided that membership should be hereditary, passed on through the eldest sons of its members.
This struck many Americans as antithetical to the new nation’s democratic creed. It was one thing to honor parents for worthy accomplishments, Benjamin Franklin commented, but why should descendants be honored merely because they had been born into a family? Some citizens suspected that the Society of the Cincinnati had placed Washington at its head to insinuate a hereditary monarchy into America’s republican government. The ruckus was loud enough to cause Washington to campaign for the elimination of any hereditary membership. When some state branches of the Cincinnati refused to go along, he gave up his position as president of the society.
Over the past few years there has been grumbling from both sides of the political divide about the prospect of two rival families entrenching themselves in American government. Of course the Clintons and the Bushes are hardly the first to benefit from family connections. Despite the republican suspicion of hereditary dynasties, the second president of the nation, John Adams, was followed into office a quarter of a century later by his son, John Quincy Adams. William Henry Harrison took office in 1841 and in 1889 his grandson Benjamin became president. (The Harrisons were a prominent Virginia family: another Benjamin Harrison had served as governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary era.) Then too, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were distant cousins, though members of different political parties.
In truth, such family connections are common enough in all walks of life, which is why we use the proverbial aphorism about the apple never falling far from the tree. Hollywood acting dynasties are full of mother/daughter or father/son pairs: Kirk Douglas and Michael, Tony Curtis/Janet Leigh and their daughter Jamie Lee Curtis; Lloyd Bridges, sire of Beau and Jeff; Henry Fonda, father of Jane and Peter, not to mention grandfather of Bridget. Often enough, actors beget actors, lawyers bring up lawyers, historians raise more historians. You learn the ropes from your parents.
In terms of today’s political dynasties, Donald Trump threatens to dispatch the hopes of both rivals. He already has put paid to the attempt by Jeb Bush to extend his family’s reign. Whether he will also block the Clintons remains to be seen. But Trump himself has taken great care at the Republican convention to showcase his own family. And that raises the possibility of a Trump dynasty too. Though daughter Ivanka has been active in her father’s campaign, at the convention son Donald Jr. exhibited the most strongly political profile and has admitted he may run for office in the future. "The Donald" and Don Jr. might usefully be compared with another father/son political duo, Ron and Rand Paul. Ron Paul’s aspirations for the presidency never quite escaped their roots in the fringe of the far right, with his gold bug ideology and conspiratorial views of the Federal Reserve. But Rand, now Senator from Kentucky and actually one of two notorious ophthalmologists on the current political stage, has shed his father’s wilder crackpot theories. (The other ophthalmologist, also the junior member of a father/son duo, is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who seems to have forgotten the Hippocratic oath, First do no harm, and instead doubled down on the bloodthirsty practices of father Hafez.)
Will Donald senior prevail over Hillary Clinton? My own hunch (and fervent hope) is that Trump the candidate is not disciplined enough to alter his rowdy tactics of the primary campaign in order to appeal to a broader segment of the electorate. Like Ron Paul, he is just too far out of the mainstream. But Donald junior, like Rand, may rise for a second act as a more traditional representation of the Republican business class, as Jonathan Chait has perceptively speculated.
Whether both Trumps triumph or neither depends in good part on how well they have gauged the mood of the electorate. Republicans have gerrymandered Congressional districts successfully enough to throw a tremendous amount of grit into the gears of government. When one’s philosophy is that government is never the solution, always the problem, being in a position to wreck the government does a good deal to advance your cause. Are enough Americans convinced that “bipartisanship” has failed on both sides of the aisle and a firm leader is needed to set things straight? Father and son may yet both have a chance at the brass ring. But if the Donald flames out, don’t count his son out in the years to come.
When George Washington became president of the Cincinnati, a number of French officers who served with him made a present of the order’s badge, featuring a blue ribbon with bald eagle. It was designed, no less, by Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, who would later supply the master plan for the District of Columbia. The version of the badge presented to Washington was adorned with diamonds and emeralds. The general was mortified enough by the controversy over the Cincinnati that he never wore the medal and kept it hidden away in a drawer. One suspects that Trump would love nothing better than to pin a diamond-encrusted decoration to his chest...and then let his son inherit it.
Update (9/21/16): Donald Jr.'s post convention role increasingly indicates that he inherits a good deal from his father, much of it suggesting that, unlike Rand Paul, the son is not interested in shedding the excesses of the father. At least not yet, according to this overview in the Times.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors