But Don Jr. is also something else to his father: He is useful. He can serve as a distraction, a bulldog, a trusted political surrogate. He can say things that his father wants to say, but without the scandal that would attend the president’s utterance.
Trump Jr. may be the most famous son in the United States playing this role (with apologies to Eric Trump), but he is just one of several men doing similar work for their authoritarian-inclined fathers around the world. From Brazil to Israel to Saudi Arabia, the sons of autocrats are both extensions of their powerful parents and separate from them, meaning they can speak on behalf of Dear Old Dad while also going further than he ever could. They represent what their fathers really want to do and, crucially, where things are going. If you want to see how autocrats would comport themselves if they were truly unrestrained, look to their sons.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is no stranger to brash, outlandish and deeply offensive statements. (He holds that black activists are animals who belong in the zoo and said he would be incapable of loving a gay son.) But his son Eduardo may relish riling up supporters (nearly 2 million of whom follow him on Twitter) and offending opponents even more than his dad does. This month, the younger Bolsonaro, 35, said that, to quell the left, Brazil might need a new version of Institutional Act Number Five, a December 1968 decree from the country’s military leaders that quashed unrest by shutting down Congress and curtailing free expression and assembly. At the time of Eduardo’s interview, journalists were asking about the Bolsonaro family’s ties to organized crime. For a president who campaigned against the corruption of his predecessors, this was a liability. So Eduardo’s proclamation was useful: It changed the subject, refocusing the national political machinery on something else. Eduardo also recently assumed leadership of the Social Liberal Party in Brazil’s lower house of Congress — after his father pushed him for the job. He is now in a position to ensure that the party, from which he promptly removed deputies who opposed him and his father, will carry out the elder Bolsonaro’s wishes.
In Israel, Yair Netanyahu, a son of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is mostly famous for getting into trouble online on behalf of his father, his country and himself. He once tweeted that there is no Palestine because there is no “P” in Arabic. He declared his support for right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Brexit champion Nigel Farage, among others, before the European parliamentary elections in May. Facebook briefly suspended him last year for several posts, including one in which he wrote: “Do you know where there are no terror attacks? In Iceland and Japan. Coincidentally there’s also no Muslim population there.” And he got into it online with Israel’s president, who had defended Arab citizens’ civil rights.
Recently, the younger Netanyahu spoke at an event put on by Hungarian historian Maria Schmidt, who minimizes the uniqueness of the Holocaust. She has been linked to Orban, who pushes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories blaming the Hungarian-born Soros for society’s ills. Yair openly peddles these theories himself: “George Soros’s organizations are destroying Israel from the inside. Soros’s organizations are working day and night in order to rob Israel of its Jewish identity,” he reportedly said at Schmidt’s event. (In 2017, he posted an image to social media that depicted critics of his parents as controlled by Soros.) And the 28-year-old has charged that the Knesset speaker and the country’s president were (separately) plotting coups against his father and accused left-wing politicians and media outlets of treason.
The prime minister, who this past week was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, credits his son with helping his party, Likud, achieve its come-from-behind win in the 2015 elections. In 2016, a top Likud official told Haaretz, “Yair’s power has surged since the last election.” And the same article quotes a senior government official as saying: “He’s on his way to becoming the strongest person in the country. He is much more dominant than people think.”
The single deadliest son is arguably Mohammed bin Salman, the 34-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia. After wresting the title from rivals to become heir apparent to his father, King Salman, Mohammed styled himself as a modernizer, winning praise from American pundits. Then he locked his rivals up in a luxury hotel, reportedly to torture them, and ordered the 2018 murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to U.S. intelligence. The country’s monarch could have regarded the ensuing worldwide condemnation as a millstone. “It’s not hard to imagine one or two of [the other royals] sidling up to King Salman and telling him that his son is out of control,” wrote a CNN analyst in December 2018. But if that happened, it didn’t seem to matter. The king may not believe that his son isout of control — or at least not enough to knock him out of line for the throne.
Mohammed was reportedly WhatsApp buddies with Trump consigliere Jared Kushner, which highlights a related category: surrogate sons-in-law, whose roles are typically less about pandering to the base and more about making sure positions of power are held by those who are loyal, if not up to the job. These men, in the United States and Turkey, are entrusted with large portfolios they are not qualified to run, simply because they are married to a leader’s daughter. Kushner, who had previously worked in real estate and bought a media company, was tasked with formulating a Middle East peace plan. He also reportedly met with Saudi and Emirati leaders — without then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — about their plan to impose a blockade on Qatar, leaving the secretary to try to de-escalate after the 2017 cordon took effect. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erodgan named his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, as finance minister. Previously, he was energy minister, during which time power companies reportedly ran up billion-dollar debts while government caps on energy prices hurt their bottom lines. His appointment as finance minister was thus surprising, and in that position so far, his performance has “appalled” foreign investors, who panicked when Erdogan put him in place, removing other finance officials in the process. But the point wasn’t to appoint someone who could attract investment or right the Turkish economic ship. It was, by all appearances, to have a loyal family member in the job.
These children seem to walk a fine line between defending their fathers and doing them harm. However, they are a useful barometer for what their dads think but may be reluctant to say or do. The sons have no such restrictions and, presumably, no fear of the consequences for incendiary, deceitful, corrupt behavior. They are, after all, following an example — the one set by their fathers.