President Trump often casts himself as a victim of countless enemies in the media and in government who are eager to do him harm. As he declared with his characteristic hyperbole a few months after his inauguration, “No politician in history ... has been treated worse or more unfairly.”
In her explosive portrait of the Trump family, Mary Trump, the president’s only niece, traces Donald Trump’s fear of persecution — along with what she terms his various other insecurities and pathologies such as narcissistic personality disorder — back to its source: his severely emotionally damaged parents. As the trained clinical psychologist stresses, the president received nary an ounce of love from either his father, Fred Trump Sr., or his mother, Mary Anne MacLeod Trump. “It is an epic tragedy of parental failure,” she writes, “that my uncle does not understand that he or anybody else has intrinsic self-worth.” Yet remarkably, the name-caller-in-chief has rarely uttered an unkind word about either of these agents of betrayal. And last week, a White House spokesperson reaffirmed his alternate reality, noting that the president’s “father was loving and not at all hard on him as a child.”
By artfully recounting anecdotes both juicy and ghoulish, Mary, whose father, Donald’s elder brother, Fred Trump Jr. (known as Freddy), died of alcoholism at the age of 42, documents how early neglect and abuse formed (or deformed) the president’s character. She begins “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man” by narrating a harrowing incident that occurred in the Trump mansion in Queens when Donald was just 2½. One night, his sister Maryanne, then 12, let out a scream when she found their mother lying unconscious on the bathroom floor in a pool of blood. Over the next six months, the mother of five was repeatedly hospitalized due to the serious postpartum complications associated with the birth of her youngest child, Robert.
The often unstable materfamilias never completely recovered from this string of illnesses, which included severe osteoporosis and fainting spells. The long-term effects on Donald were profound, Mary Trump writes. Effectively abandoned by his primary caregiver, the toddler naturally turned to his father for affection. Unfortunately, Fred Trump had no interest in helping his second son learn how to regulate his emotions. The distress of others typically elicited in Fred indifference — if not annoyance. As Mary reports, whenever her frail grandmother expressed discomfort or pain, her grandfather cut her off, saying, “Everything’s great. Right, Toots? You just have to think positive.”
The owner of a real estate empire in Brooklyn and Queens, Fred made his fortune by cutting backroom deals with New York City politicians who rewarded him with lucrative tax breaks and federal housing grants. Lying and bullying were the central ingredients of his business plan. And Fred, a crass bigot whom Mary calls “a high-functioning sociopath,” prided himself on his ability to swindle others in negotiations. Unburdened by a conscience, Fred believed that “financial worth was the same as self-worth, monetary value was human value,” notes Mary.
Fred ran his family just like he ran his business, Mary Trump observes. He saw his three sons as valuable assets that he was entitled to exploit however he saw fit. He expected his first-born, Freddy, to be his successor. When his namesake rebelled by becoming a pilot soon after finishing college, Fred struck back, belittling him “as a bus driver in the sky.” After less than a year, a humiliated Freddy crawled back to his father for a job. But Fred stuffed Freddy into a double bind. While he wanted his son to be “a killer,” he also assigned him menial tasks and demanded obedience. Freddy ended up being too broken ever to be of much use to Trump Management.
Unlike his elder brother, Donald managed to curry favor with his father by emulating his ruthlessness. Son number two also turned cheating into a way of life, and never apologized to anyone, the author writes. This lawlessness elicited kudos from his father, who elevated him to president of the family business in 1971. For the next couple of decades, Fred worked behind the scenes to bankroll all of Donald’s reckless business endeavors. While Fred harbored no illusions about Donald’s competence, he enjoyed being his puppeteer, as his son achieved a level of fame that had been unattainable to him.
Donald succeeded in getting the press to believe that he was a self-made man, but nobody in the family ever bought into this myth. Soon after he announced his presidential run, his sister Maryanne dismissed him as “a clown” whose main accomplishment was his five bankruptcies.
Mary Trump’s compelling saga of one very unhappy family does more than just provide probing insights into her uncle’s disturbing inner world. It’s also a first-rate primer on the chaotic inner workings of an administration that has shocked the world by failing to take the basic steps required to keep Americans safe during the coronavirus pandemic. As Mary contends, the president is incapable of formulating and executing coherent policies. “Donald today,” she writes, “is much as he was at three years old … unable to regulate his emotions, moderate his responses, or take in and synthesize information.”
Just as Donald lacked a dependable parent at a key stage of his emotional development, the nation lacks a dependable leader at a critical moment in its history. And Mary’s eyewitness account, bolstered by her professional expertise, highlights how the president’s pathologies now pose a direct threat to the lives and livelihoods of millions.
By Mary L. Trump
Simon & Schuster, 240 pp., $28
Joshua Kendall’s most recent book is “First Dads: Parenting and Politics From George Washington to Barack Obama.” He is now writing a book about the favorite books of America’s presidents.