2020 Election

The New Trump Documentary Is Mostly Good for Psychoanalyzing Trump’s Kids

6 minute read

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Any given Sunday in Washington, there’s a caste of insiders who stagger their DVRs to make sure they snag even the more obscure public affairs roundtables. They then make a full pot of coffee to power through what is, in essence, a mandatory sixth day of the work week, dutifully watching as Cabinet secretaries and members of leadership promote the party line, 2024 hopefuls hope against hope that they’re ready for their national debut, and the pundit class serves up hyper-distilled truths that busy parents can parrot at soccer practice through the week.

But this week’s Sunday turn on the couch-cum-home office came with a highly anticipated—and sadly disappointing—addendum: a docuseries featuring unrivaled access to the Trump family amid their final push toward the 2020 election and their 2021 escape from Washington. The three eldest kids of President Donald Trump, along with son-in-law-turned-peace-whiz Jared Kushner, and Vice President Mike Pence, all sat for interviews with a British filmmaker, for what became Unprecedented. Documentarian Alex Holder trailed the children, landed Trump’s last White House interview, filmed the failed coup on Jan. 6—and later met with House lawmakers to discuss what he saw.

With the Jan. 6 committee clearly closing in on what it sees as its final landing mark, a lot of Washington checked to see if they were even subscribed to the platform airing Holder’s docuseries. (Discovery Plus is better known as the vault for Ina Garten’s archives than a green room for 60 Minutes.) But for those willing to commit to three hours of reflection from Ivanka, Don Jr., and Eric, there wasn’t a ton of payoff. The end product is an odd combination of a Game of Thrones-like dynastic minefield, a poor parody of House of Cards, and a little bit of Veep as Trump’s offspring fumblingly try to give the MAGA crowds what they want. Even the musical score has echoes of those better-known franchises.

Ultimately, Holder’s project serves three purposes. First, it is a travelogue of the First Children, who undeniably worked their butts off for their father, especially when they had to fill in for him that week in October when the President was ill with Covid. It is also a pseudo-psych analysis of the familial dynamic inside the Trump clan—essentially a lesser episode of Succession, with either Ivanka or Don Jr. presented as heir apparent to the business and political dynasty depending on the scene. (Woefully absent from competition? Eric, Tiffany, and Barron. Also notably ghost-like in this analysis is Melania Trump.) Finally, Unprecedented helps advance a yet unproven—but credible—thesis that Trump and his team paved the way for the Jan. 6 disaster.

The wounds of Jan. 6 are, for a lot of Washington, still too raw. And watching Trump lay the groundwork of grievance for that violent day can be triggering. “Victory or death” chants at Trump events seem far darker in hindsight. One supporter brands the former Vice President as “Joe bin Laden.” Another mimics slitting his own throat while discussing him. The grim innuendos of Trump facing assassination attempts, the outright assertion that Biden and Democrats are communists and socialists, the nutjob conspiracy theories—they all lay the predicate for what came on Jan. 6. It’s tough to blame a mob for simply believing what the President fed it.

There are also moments of sincere weirdness, such as Ivanka Trump half-joking that she had hoped the White House operators could have clued her in on whether her father was calling to chat or her boss was calling about work—20 times in a row. Kids, after all, sometimes send their parents to voicemail but that’s not an option when the President calls. Audiences can have sincere empathy when Donald Trump Jr. admits that, growing up, the kids could have time with their father but “it was on his terms.” Eric Trump calls his dad his “best friend,” but never really rises to first-tier heir. The ex-President’s offspring make no secret that Trump pitted his kids against each other in competitions great and petty, all trying to see who was the biggest winner—and loser.

For audiences hoping for a Rosetta Stone to understand the Trumps, this is not it. There are moments of revelation but never translation. The discussion about how the kids processed their parents’ public—and possibly PR-driven—split merits its own session on the couch. The fact that one can credibly draw a line from a tabloid-soaked divorce to a Big Lie insurrection is pretty remarkable, even by American standards.

The political implications of the project are far from subtle. None of the kids agreed to talk about Jan. 6, revealing their own sensitivities to what their family may have launched—and may yet still launch. The children openly muse about their own futures in politics, be it a Don. Jr. run for New York mayor or another’s White House bid. “Do I think politics is over for this family? No. I can assure you politics is not over for this family in some way, shape, or form,” Eric Trump says. Pence’s own future is teed up, too.

Ultimately, the footage as cut for Discovery Plus suggests the project is as much a sizzle reel for 2024 as a documentary about 2020. The project includes Trump’s last interview in the White House, suggesting he sees value in nurturing this filmmaker in one of his legendarily transactional relationships. Asked directly about his own plans for 2024 during a post-White House interview at his golf club, Trump is as ever the promoter: “Stay tuned.”

It might be good advice for 2024, but not necessarily this docuseries.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com