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Empathy for the devil

In offering a damning indictment of her uncle, Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist, has written a remarkably empathetic portrayal of President Trump.

President Trump takes a drink of water as he speaks about a recent appearance at West Point during a campaign rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa on June 20. .Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Last month, as I watched Donald Trump speak at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., an unfamiliar sensation came over me — I felt sorry for the man.

Over the years, I have called Trump unstable, deluded, narcissistic, dishonest, immoral, racist, misogynistic, authoritarian, and lacking in even one redeeming quality, so this will seem like a strange confession. But yet, as the president spent more than 10 minutes in Tulsa explaining his unsteady walk down a ramp at West Point, I viewed him not with contempt but pity. What a clearly sad and broken man.

This week I’ve had a similar feeling reading the new book by the president’s niece, Mary Trump, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.” In it, she details the president’s unique and debilitating pathology — and how his tortured, loveless childhood made him the man he is today. In offering a damning indictment of her uncle, Mary Trump, a trained clinical psychologist, has written a remarkably empathetic portrayal of him.

In Mary Trump’s telling, the president never had much of a chance. When he was just 2, his mother suffered a serious postpartum infection and hemorrhaging that left her in the hospital for months and ailing for years. At a formative moment, when maternal attention and soothing is so crucial of childhood development, Trump was deprived of both.


According to the book, Trump’s father Fred Trump viewed children as a nuisance and child-rearing as a woman’s responsibility. He was cold and distant and rarely displayed emotion toward his kids.

This lack of attention, writes Mary Trump, led her uncle to “develop powerful but primitive defense, marked by an increasing hostility to others and a seeming indifference to his mother’s absence and his father’s neglect.” His emotional needs could not be met because he became “adept at acting as though he didn’t have any.” Trump’s bullying, aggressiveness, arrogance, and bouts of grandiosity — that we have all become inured to — are well-honed defense mechanisms that masked his lack of self-esteem, gnawing insecurities, and limitless need for validation. In perhaps the saddest sentence of the book, she writes that Trump “knows he has never been loved.”


Donald watched Fred Sr. bully and debase his older brother, Freddy, for years and dissuade him from pursuing his true passion for being a pilot which eventually, says Mary Trump, drove her father to drink and to an early death. The lesson Donald took from this experience was to devote himself to pleasing his father, while also maintaining a life-long aversion to any appearance of weakness. In Mary Trump’s telling, Trump is emotionally much the same person now that he was at 3.

It’s difficult to read this book and not come away persuaded that, as she writes, Trump meets the criteria for a host of mental health disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder as well as antisocial and dependent disorders — and that it’s largely the result of emotional childhood abuse. Assuming Trump is afflicted with one or more of these illnesses, as Mary Trump believes, he may not understand why the things he does, that so many of us find objectionable, are wrong. In his mind, they are appropriate and, because he’s surrounded himself with yes men and women who enable his bad behavior, there is no reason for him to believe otherwise.


None of this means that you should have sympathy for Trump. Husbanding empathy instead for those who have been hurt by Trump’s pathologies makes perfect sense. But having empathy for someone as odious as Trump is less about the president himself and more about how we view the world around us. It means acknowledging that abuse, neglect, deprivation, trauma, which can come from any number of forces — lousy parents (who may also be victims of abuse), poverty, racism, misogyny, or bullying — can subvert our personalities in damaging and enduring ways.

As Trump’s niece writes, his noxious personality is in many ways a response to the vacuum that a childhood devoid of love left in his life.

It also means recognizing that the choices we think we, and others, make to be good or bad, are not so straightforward. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have free will or that people should not be held accountable for their actions. Rather it means acknowledging that life is far more complicated than the simple morality tales of good and bad that we tell each other and ourselves. It means creating room in our hearts for empathy and forgiveness, even for those who seemingly don’t deserve it.

In the case of Donald Trump, one doesn’t have to ignore the malevolent, nasty, immoral president whose actions cause so much harm, but it is worth our while to consider that inside heavily protected shell that Trump has constructed around himself, resides a sad, terrified little boy who was never loved.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.