The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Donald Trump is talking about parents not loving their kids

Former president Donald Trump speaks with reporters at Quad City International Airport en route to Iowa on March 13 in Moline, Ill. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
6 min

A few days ago, a clip of one of the myriad policy-adjacent videos Donald Trump has produced for his 2024 campaign began to circulate on social media. In it, Trump begins by talking about his efforts to end the estate tax — a tax applied when people with a certain level of wealth die — before taking an unexpected detour.

“Some day, it’ll become time for [farmers] to leave this beautiful earth, and they’ll be able to leave their farm, without taxes, to their children,” Trump says in the clip. “I got rid of the ‘death tax’ on farms so that when you do pass away, on the assumption that you love your children, you can leave it to them and they won’t have to pay tax.”

“But if you don’t love your children so much,” he continued, “and there are some people that don’t — and maybe deservedly so — it won’t matter, because, frankly, you don’t have to leave them anything. Thank you very much. Have fun.”

Setting aside the reflexive “have fun” that seemingly migrated from his day job of hosting visitors to Mar-a-Lago, the broader argument is an unusual one for a politician. Maybe, my fellow Americans, you hate your kids, which is your prerogative! Fair enough, I suppose.

On the surface, the explanation is simple. Trump is trying to make a joke that doesn’t land when offered emotionlessly into a camera. But there’s something deeper here, too: Trump understands, if only intuitively, how much anxiety his base feels about younger Americans, including those to whom they happen to be related.

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That the riff is superficially a joke is fairly obvious. A few days before recording the video, Trump appeared at a rally in Iowa. That’s why he was talking about the estate tax and farms; much of his speech centered on explicit appeals to Iowa voters. And that’s where he first workshopped his “if you don’t like your kids” bit, to decent laughs.

This is how Trump’s speeches work. He tries out material, sees what lands and then either drops elements or lards them up. The “bad kids” bit worked … with a live audience. It didn’t work in the video.

Now we come to the subtext: A lot of Trump supporters really are wary of their own kids and grandchildren.

The roots of Trumpism extend back to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Most obviously, the contest between Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) resulted in the election of America’s first Black president, something that triggered both overt and tacit reactions. But it was also the first election in which the gap in support between older and younger Americans was enormous.

In 2004, there was about an 18-point gap in support between the oldest and youngest age groups in exit polling, itself up from four years before. In 2008, the gap was 42 points.

Nor were younger Americans simply voting for a Democrat. They were voting for someone who was very quickly labeled an anti-capitalist by the right, someone whose politics were framed as reflecting the most dire left-wing rhetoric. The rise of the tea party was ostensibly about the surge in government spending in response to the global financial crisis, but on a personal level, it was often about something very different.

In a 2021 interview first published in my book “The Aftermath,” Harvard University’s Theda Skocpol explained the myriad unsettling factors that powered engagement in the anti-left tea party movement.

“We found that tea partyers were most angry about immigration. And I still find that. When I go out and talk to tea party people now they will stress that,” Skocpol told me. “But the arrival of Blacks in political power is even more threatening, in some ways. And when you combine those two, and you combine it with young people who aren’t doing what their elders expect them to do anymore, all three of those things were constantly present in the way tea party people talked about Barack Obama.”

These young people — in the tea partyers’ own families! — had fallen under the sway of this suspicious (with all of the undertones therein) socialist. What was America coming to?

Trump embraced the tea party and its rhetoric. When he announced his campaign in mid-2015, as the tea party was on the wane, he picked up its central theme as his campaign slogan: Make America great again. Revert the country to what it was well before the kids made Obama president.

This sense of nostalgia, one deeply rooted in the dual emergence of American global power and the massive baby boom generation, is a potent motivator. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a story evaluating the decline in America’s “core values,” explicitly contrasting America Now (bad) with American Then (good) through the lens of a few selected characteristics such as religion and patriotism. The intended takeaway was eagerly presented by Axios’s Mike Allen: “Rot of nation’s core values quantified by single poll.”

The eagerness to present America in decline because things have changed, though, was hobbled in a few ways.

First, as Patrick Ruffini wrote, the methodology used to compare views of those characteristics had changed in the newest set of numbers. (Of only three, mind you.) That change probably affected the responses offered by those participating in the survey.

More unhelpfully, the survey conflates “characteristics that were common in the past” with “characteristics that defined the U.S.” — or, in Allen’s framing, our “core values.” But might there not be other core values that weren’t included in the questioning, such as diversity (addressed only in negative terms) or democracy? Couldn’t there be other patterns of belief that might demonstrate similar erosions (assuming the erosions are valid) without being conflated with being essentially American? Fewer people say having kids is important to them. Fewer also smoke, which was near-universal 100 years ago. Why is the former a “characteristic that defined the U.S.” and not the latter?

The answer is that it fits into the sort of nostalgia and rejection of change that Trump has long leveraged. The country is different than it used to be in a way that is at times jarring for older Americans. Because there are more older Americans than at any other point in history — both in real terms and relative to population — there’s a much bigger marketplace for hand-wringing about change. A market that has stalls for iffy polling and explicit campaign rhetoric.

Trump’s comments about unloved kids was mostly a bad joke. But it did get at something deeper, too, a sense that younger Americans might “deservedly” be unloved by their parents. Maybe your kids are Democrats who voted for Joe Biden. Do you want to give them your farm?

The response here is simple: Those kids probably don’t want the farm anyway.