— BOOK REVIEW —
It would be ironic, but not unimaginable, if the only person who can stop Donald Trump from reelection turns out not to be someone named Biden, but rather someone named… Trump.
The president’s only niece, Mary L. Trump, a PhD in clinical psychology, has written one long cri de coeur against her uncle, her grandfather, and several other relatives. Given that her uncle is famously thin-skinned, not to mention pathologically vengeful, one can only hope that she is well prepared for what will inevitably follow. Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, already a mega bestseller, gives us an intimate portrait of the “malignant” family psychodynamics that have been driving and distorting our national narrative for three and a half years.
Donald Trump “meets the criteria for antisocial personality disorder, which in its most severe form is generally considered sociopathy but can also refer to chronic criminality, arrogance, and disregard for the rights of others.”
Many professionals in mental health have tried to put Donald Trump on the couch over the years, but none have done so with the authority and forensic detail offered up here. Mary Trump has spent time working in the admissions ward of Manhattan Psychiatric Center, diagnosing some of New York City’s sickest patients, and she writes that a case could be made that Donald Trump “meets the criteria for antisocial personality disorder, which in its most severe form is generally considered sociopathy but can also refer to chronic criminality, arrogance, and disregard for the rights of others.” Further on in her book she lists other symptoms of sociopathy that sound all too familiar — a lack of empathy, a facility for lying, abusive behavior, and an indifference to right and wrong.
The book’s title is brilliant, pointing as it does toward the greed and overweening ambition that landed Donald J. Trump in the White House, not to mention our nightmares. The title also helps explain this central conundrum: How can a man who is “the leader of the free world,” proud and pugnacious bully boy that he is, be at the very same time a whimpering “victim” who is forever complaining “woe is me” to any who will listen. If too much really is never enough for Donald Trump, then perhaps he does deserve our sympathy — that would surely make him a pitiable human being.
When his father began to falter from dementia, Donald tried to grab it all, putting in front of Fred Senior a codicil to his will that would have put Donald “in complete control of his father’s estate,” including the real estate empire and all his holdings. In a rare lucid moment, the father refused to sign and the plot failed.
The subhead to Mary Trump’s tell-all book is equally deft: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, likes to say, in all seriousness, that for Donald Trump all roads lead to Vladimir Putin. Mary Trump says, with equal conviction, that all roads lead to Frederick Trump Sr., Donald’s father and her grandfather. Indeed, her book offers up the intriguing possibility that these roads actually cross.
Mary Trump’s thesis is that the childhood issues of President Trump have slopped over into the country’s governance with horrendous effect. At the heart of her book is the age-old question, most often framed as a taunt: Who’s Your Daddy? The president’s father, Frederick Trump Sr., was, according to granddaughter Mary, a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac, even a “sociopath,” a cold-blooded oppressor before whom Donald would hide his fear while at the same time trying to prove that he, too, was a “killer” just like dad.
Everyone else in the family,— his sickly mother, his two brothers and two sisters — were people Donald would learn to use, and occasionally abuse cruelly. Fred Trump Jr. — the eldest son and Mary Trump’s father — left, after a few years in the family business, to become a commercial airline pilot for TWA, flying Boeing’s new 707s on the coveted Boston-to-Los Angeles route. Mary writes of her father, “What Freddy achieved in the cockpit made him unique in the Trump family. None of Fred’s other children would accomplish so much entirely on their own.” But in TrumpLand, his new job won him only derision. Father Fred and Donald would join up in ridiculing Fred Jr. for being no more than “a glorified bus driver in the sky.”
Donald would not only wrest control of the family’s real estate empire — while he was at it he would succeed in capturing more than his fair share of the family money. When his father began to falter from dementia, Donald tried to grab it all, putting in front of Fred Senior a codicil to his will that would have put Donald “in complete control of his father’s estate,” including the real estate empire and all his holdings. In a rare lucid moment, the father refused to sign and the plot failed.
Fred Trump Sr., the paterfamilias, would remain Donald’s puppet master until his death — a fact both he and his son took pains to hide so that Donald could peddle the fake story that he was a self-made man. In addition to being a family despot, Trump Sr. was very much a white-collar crook, with heavy emphasis on “crook.”
Son Donald learned at his father’s knee how to pad every government grant, duck every federal regulation, fudge every tax return, and finesse every business obligation. As Mary writes, “Working the refs, lying, cheating — as far as Fred was concerned, those were all legitimate business practices.” Donald for once in his life proved to be an excellent student — he would eventually surpass his master in practicing these dark arts.
The record suggests that a shocking number of Donald Trump’s business commitments have been honored in the breach. To cite but two examples among hundreds, the real estate agent for his sprawling Westside condo project in New York City, Barbara Corcoran, was sitting in her office at the assigned time, waiting for the congratulations and the lump-sum payment due at the end of her work. Instead, a process server came to the door bearing a lawsuit.
In 2008, when Deutsche Bank demanded at least some of the $640 million that Donald Trump had personally guaranteed for his hotel in Chicago, Trump came up with kitsch instead of cash, suing the bank for $3 billion while arguing that the Great Recession had been an “unforeseen event” that absolved him from debt. Apparently these sort of antics are what made Donald Trump a “killer” just like dad.
“So, I think I’ve done more for the Black community than any other president,” he opined in a recent Fox News interview, “and let’s take a pass on Abraham Lincoln, cause he did good, although it’s always questionable…”
No doubt Father Fred would have even been proud of Donald’s fake Trump University (since shut down), or his son’s use of the family charitable foundation (since shut down) for self-serving fraudulent ends, or his creative use of the courts. Throughout his life, Trump has been a one-man employment bureau for the country’s lawyers. (For more on that, read James D. Zirin’s Plaintiff in Chief: A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits.) Donald Trump also learned from his father his considerable gift for self-promotion. Mary writes of Fred Senior, “He had a propensity for showmanship and he often trafficked in hyperbole — everything was ‘great,’ ‘fantastic,’ and ‘perfect.’” Here again, Donald would surpass his father, displaying far greater gifts on the public stage.
Mary Trump’s reference to the family habit of “gaming the refs” seems particularly apt at this moment given the stunning final act of the prosecution against one the president’s more unsavory sidekicks, Roger Stone. Donald Trump had gamed the refs since the very beginning of Stone’s criminal case, publicly and repeatedly attacking the prosecutors, the judge, and even the jury. In one tweet the president said of the jury foreperson, “There has rarely been a juror so tainted … She was totally biased … Miscarriage of justice. Sad to watch.” Sad to watch, indeed. When the prosecutors and the jury found Stone guilty in spite of the president’s hysteria, Trump simply commuted his sentence.
There has rarely been a juror so tainted as the forewoman in the Roger Stone case. Look at her background. She never revealed her hatred of “Trump” and Stone. She was totally biased, as is the judge. Roger wasn’t even working on my campaign. Miscarriage of justice. Sad to watch!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2020
What the Trump family has modeled across generations is this same “too much and never enough” template, greed, hostility, and cut-throat competition always seem to foreclose any possibility of grace, civility, or moral code. Early on, as “the bus driver in the sky” anecdote demonstrates, Trump displayed a knack for ridicule that in time has become one of his signature traits. No “friend” is exempt, no ally safe. The title to the first half of Mary Trump’s book reads — “The Cruelty Is the Point.”
Donald Trump’s vituperations extend even to other presidents of the United States, beginning, of course, with Barack Obama, and tracing all the way back to George Washington. Recently, Trump even managed to throw shade on Abraham Lincoln, while of course bragging upon himself. “So, I think I’ve done more for the Black community than any other president,” he opined in a recent Fox News interview, “and let’s take a pass on Abraham Lincoln, cause he did good, although it’s always questionable…” He trailed off, without finishing the thought, as he is prone to do, but it was clear he was referring to Lincoln’s legacy of saving the union and freeing the slaves.
Donald Trump’s surpassing arrogance and even his misogyny manifested themselves early on:
By the time he was twelve, the right side of his mouth was curled up in an almost perpetual sneer of self-conscious superiority … Any attempt at discipline by [his mother] was rebuffed. He talked back. He couldn’t ever admit he was wrong; he contradicted her even when she was right; and he refused to back down … He refused to do his chores or anything else he was told to do.
Within his own family, and later within his company, Donald Trump displayed the kind of “kiss up, kick down” mentality that has defined the sort of “worst boss” many of us have suffered under, someone who is obsequious to those above, like his father Fred, and scornful to those below, a boss whose employees learn little under his tutelage other than the art of kissing ass.
Reading Mary Trump’s book, along with John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, one gets the impression that Donald Trump created, first in the family real estate business, then on his family TV show, and finally in the White House, a veritable daisy-chain of sycophancy. “You’re Fired,” once the signature punch line of The Apprentice, serves nicely as the motto of the current federal government, such is the head-spinning rapidity and viciousness of the turnovers. The only difference between the TV show and real life is that Trump never delivers those words to anyone’s face, resorting instead to surrogates, Twitter, or Fox & Friends to deliver the news.
Indeed, the line between The Apprentice and the Trump administration has at times blurred even for key players. When it seemed clear that Chief of Staff John Kelly was about to quit in disgust near the end of 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joked to National Security Adviser John Bolton, “This whole thing could end up being the Donald, Ivanka, and Jared show!” Just another family affair.
Before Mary Trump’s explication of Uncle Donald’s daddy issues, we could only marvel at the President’s odd behavior on the world stage. Why the friendly face for the world’s worst autocrats — many of them murderers — while our NATO allies, some of whom fought alongside us after 9/11, are more often treated to the scowl and the fish-eye?
Perhaps it is because autocrats are stand-ins for Father Fred, whom he truly feared and respected, while our allies are stand-ins for his siblings and relatives, whom he dissed and dismissed. Mary writes that much of Trump’s behavior has nothing to do with “strategies” or “agendas,” as some have speculated, but rather has to do with pathologies that have been hardwired since childhood.
Take the case of Vladimir Putin, around whom Trump acts like a French poodle in the presence of an Alaskan malamute. On the face of it, the president of the United States would have no reason to tuck in his tail before the president of Russia. It is an unequal relationship in every sense, in which Trump would seem to hold most of the cards over his diminutive Russian counterpart. The relationship has been so disquieting to watch that people have been tempted to draw theories out of thin air.
Just last week, the website Law & Crime revealed that shortly after it was known that Russia might be paying bounties to have American soldiers killed in Afghanistan, President Trump, against all advice, “directed the CIA to share intelligence on counterterrorism with the Kremlin despite no discernible reward.”
Perhaps Putin is blackmailing Trump? Perhaps the Kremlin really does have a videotape of Trump in Moscow with Russian prostitutes. For a spell I thought that might be possible — after all, the prostitutes were allegedly peeing on the bed where President Obama once slept, and we are all too aware of Trump’s unfathomable pathology about his predecessor. Or perhaps it was that Putin had in effect “bought off” Trump, coming to his rescue with all those laundered Russian rubles flowing into his condos, his golf courses, and the Trump Soho hotel in New York when he could not get money anywhere else. Or perhaps it was simply the fact that Putin knew exactly how much he had helped Trump in the 2016 election and could prove it, if need be.
Mary Trump’s book offers a more plausible explanation — Donald was brought up to cower in front of absolute power. It is nothing more than Pavlovian behavior. The curious dynamic between Trump and Putin was most keenly on display during their 2018 meeting in Helsinki, but examples continue to pile up. Just last week, the website Law & Crime revealed that shortly after it was known that Russia might be paying bounties to have American soldiers killed in Afghanistan, President Trump, against all advice, “directed the CIA to share intelligence on counterterrorism with the Kremlin despite no discernible reward.” Was this more co-optation? More sociopathology?
We knew long before Mary Trump’s book that the president desperately craves approval. He is simply the greatest, biggest, and best that the world has ever seen or ever will see, even if he has to say so himself. Trump once decorated the walls of his golf clubs with fake TIME covers of himself, while, out on the course, he awarded himself every “gimme” putt and bestowed upon himself every one of his course championships.
Have we ever before had a president who openly cheated at golf? For chapter and verse on this particular perfidy, read Commander in Cheat by the incomparable Rick Reilly.
Then again, Mary Trump reminds us, as if we could ever forget, that for Trump “cheating is a way of life.” On his very first day in the White House Trump had the government photoshop pictures of his inaugural crowd size to make them bigger than Obama’s, and then went on a PR blitz to prove it so.
Mary Trump explains in her book: “Donald is not simply weak, his ego is a fragile thing that must be bolstered every moment because he knows deep down that he is nothing of what he claims to be.” She goes on to explain that his “deep-seated insecurities have created in him a black hole of need that constantly requires the light of compliments that disappears as soon as he’s soaked it in.”
Perhaps this insecurity explains why Trump has seemed visibly uncomfortable amongst his true peers on the international stage, duly elected leaders of the free world like Angela Merkel, Teresa May, or Emmanuel Macron. Trump knows he is a fraud and he suspects that they know it as well.
By contrast Trump can’t seem to get enough of autocrats. He rags at his cabinet and staff: How soon can he meet again with Putin? When can we bring him into the G7? Have you read Kim Jong-un’s latest love letter to me? What else can we do to appease Erdogan, besides betraying our allies the Kurds?
According to Bolton’s book, Trump likes to brag about his “personal relationship” with China’s dictator Xi Jinping, to whom he sends handwritten notes that have the White House lawyers “climbing the walls.” It is one thing to ad-lib your way through an hour-long speech to flag-waving supporters at a MAGA rally. It is another to send personal mash notes, unvetted and poorly written, to the other most powerful person in the world.
Based on Mary Trump’s book, it would seem that autocrats are simply the people around whom Trump feels most “at home.” They tend to fake everything — their histories, their press reports, their popularity, their riches. And what they can’t fake they cover up — their past, their crimes, their corruption. No wonder Trump feels comfortable around them. This is the very world into which he was born, and the world in which he has always operated.
During her most recent trip to the White House, for a family birthday celebration in April 2017, Mary Trump noticed a photograph of her grandfather displayed on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. His long shadow continues to cast its spell. Mary writes that her brother took a photograph of her sitting behind the Resolute Desk. “When I looked at it later, I noticed grandfather hovering behind me like a ghost.”
Her book about the “malignant” Trump family is but one more reminder of the importance of the vote coming this November. Either Fred Trump Sr.’s photograph will be packed away with the rest of the mementos, and the inmates will be liberated from the psych ward, or the family freak show will go on for another four years.
I would like to give Mary Trump the last word. She sums up the trajectory of Donald Trump’s entire life this way: “Nobody has failed upward as consistently and spectacularly as the ostensible leader of the shrinking free world.”