The title of Mary Trump’s tell-all book about her family, Too Much and Never Enough, expresses my feelings perfectly. I’ve read way too much about her uncle Donald and his awful relatives, to say nothing of his wives and girlfriends, but somehow it’s never enough. I keep thinking I’m finally going to understand him as a thinking, feeling human being, but I never do. Or is it that I only pretend to want understanding, when what I really want is just more dirt?
There’s plenty of both in this well-written tell-all by Mary Trump, daughter of Donald’s older brother, Fred. A psychologist with a PhD, she offers a portrait of family dysfunction that rings grimly true: Fred, the cruel, egotistical, tyrannical father, aided by his wife, the distant, sometimes sickly, and probably very miserable Mary Anne, destroyed in his five children much (or in Donald’s case, all) of their capacity for empathy, curiosity, kindness, or independent action. Winning paternal approval was all that mattered, but only Donald managed to get a smattering of it. He managed it by becoming a flashier version of his Dad, whose depredations as a builder and landlord in Brooklyn and Queens were so notorious that one of his tenants, Woody Guthrie, wrote a song about him.
Mary Trump may be out for revenge, but who wouldn’t be? She blames the “sociopathy” of Fred Sr. for destroying her father, Fred Jr. The oldest son was a happy-go-lucky guy who wasn’t cut out for the family business and made a bid for freedom by trying to become an airline pilot, before being claimed by the alcoholism that killed him at only 42. Young Fred’s downward slide is chilling: He was all but ignored by his parents, who had grudgingly taken him in—at one point they made him sleep on a cot in the attic of their enormous mansion—but failed to get him the high-quality medical care to which they had ready access as major hospital donors. His siblings abandoned him as well, and he died alone, while Donald and his sister Elizabeth went to the movies.
Years before, Fred Sr. essentially arranged for Mary’s mother to be massively cheated in her divorce settlement, leaving her and her children—Fred’s grandchildren!—trapped in a drafty, rundown apartment in one of his Queens developments. To cap it off, Fred Sr. cut Mary and her brother out of his will, and her aunts and uncles eventually forced her and her brother to accept a comparatively modest settlement. (You may remember a stray news item or two about the family cutting off their health insurance when her brother’s baby son was desperately sick.) Years later, Mary took many boxes of legal paper to The New York Times, which in 2018—finally!—published a long, damning investigation of the Trump family’s fraudulent tax dodging.
There’s a lot of psychiatric talk here about emotional child abuse and family dysfunction. In Mary Trump’s view, Donald is still a “terrified little boy.” There are lessons, too: For example, if the only reason you want kids is to perpetuate your empire, do the world a favor and stay childless. Probably some version of Mary’s diagnosis is correct—something, after all, makes monsters out of sweet little babies. But if you just want to hate the president, there’s no shortage of fresh material. His older sister, Maryanne, did his homework for him, and he paid someone to take his SATs. He and Ivana were cheapskates—they gave Mary and her mother regifted items for Christmas, including a handbag with a used Kleenex inside and a food basket with a missing tin (could it have been caviar?). He reportedly helped Maryanne, a now-retired federal judge, get a position on the federal bench by summoning help from Roy Cohn. Fred Sr. floated one of Donald’s failing Atlantic City casinos by buying millions of dollars’ worth of chips and not gambling with them. There has to be some kind of Nobel Prize in hypocrisy, though, for Donald’s treatment of his sister-in-law. The book recounts his saying that it might have been better to cut Mary’s mother Linda off from the relatively modest family support she got after the divorce and make her “stand on her own two feet.” This is from a man whose family fortune was based on funding from government housing programs, plus millions in tax finagling, and whose entire career was bankrolled by his father.
Over the course of the book, Mary Trump has many ways of describing her uncle. He is “completely unqualified,” “crass,” “irresponsible,” “despicable.” He is a “narcissist,” afflicted with what might be “antisocial personality disorder” or “dependent personality disorder.” He is perpetually “lying, spinning, and obfuscating,” telling the “lies, misrepresentations, and fabrications that are the sum total of who my uncle is.” He acts with both “cruelty” and “possibly criminal negligence.” He “understands nothing about history, constitutional principles, geopolitics, diplomacy (or anything else, really).” And that’s just the first 15 pages.
His rise to the highest office in the land she blames on the media, which bought the myth of him as a brash, can-do self-made man and sexual dynamo; the banks, which funded his dubious ventures; and his siblings, none of whom warned the public what a disaster he would be as president. Maryanne, who as a respected public figure Mary Trump thinks might have made a difference had she spoken up during the campaign, not only remained silent (“she had her own secrets to keep”) but voted for him out of “family loyalty.”
Mary Trump, who supported Hillary in 2016, worries about the upcoming election. “A large minority of people still confuse his arrogance for strength, his false bravado for accomplishment, and his superficial interest in them for charisma.” This is true. Amazingly, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic Trump has botched so completely, with unemployment reaching highs not seen since the Great Depression, and the specter of mass evictions on the horizon, Trump’s support hovers around 40 percent. That may not be enough to win the election, even with the disenfranchisement of many likely Biden supporters and the wild card that is our disastrous Electoral College system. But when the election is over, we will still have to face the fact that four in 10 Americans took his side.
Will Mary Trump succeed in changing minds where so many others have failed? I wish.