The president seemed never to have considered it. “That’s a great idea,” he said. “Somebody get me a picture of Mom.”
We know that many presidents have had daddy issues: dreaming of their absent fathers, chafing at their judgments or struggling under their legacies. When discussing his father in his memoir “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” Donald Trump stresses the business savvy he gleaned from the late Fred C. Trump. “I learned about toughness in a very tough business, I learned about motivating people, and I learned about competence and efficiency.”
In “Too Much and Never Enough,” Mary L. Trump, the president’s niece, describes those lessons somewhat differently. In her telling, her wealthy grandfather was a suffocating and destructive influence: emotionally unavailable, cruel and controlling. Fred Trump both instilled and fortified his middle son’s worst qualities — Donald’s bullying, disrespect, lack of empathy, insecurity and relentless self-aggrandizement — while lavishing on him every opportunity and financing every mistake, to the point that both men came to believe the myths they had created.
In the wreckage of this relationship, Mary Trump writes, is a “malignantly dysfunctional family” that engages in “casual dehumanization” around the dinner table, a family in which privilege and anxiety go together, in which money is the only value, in which lies are just fine and apologies are just weak.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family can at least give thanks that they’re not the Trumps of Queens.
“Too Much and Never Enough” is a deftly written account of cross-generational trauma, but it is also suffused by an almost desperate sadness — sadness in the stories it tells and sadness in the telling, too. Mary Trump brings to this account the insider perspective of a family member, the observational and analytical abilities of a clinical psychologist and the writing talent of a former graduate student in comparative literature.
But she also brings the grudges of estrangement. Mary Trump writes that her own father, Freddy, the oldest son of the Trump family, was robbed of his birthright and happiness for committing the unforgivable sin of failing to meet Fred’s demands and expectations. Freddy was supposed to take over the family business, was supposed to be a “killer,” which in the Trump family means being utterly invulnerable. But he preferred to become a commercial airline pilot, an ambition his father constantly mocked.
“Freddy simply wasn’t who he wanted him to be,” Mary Trump writes. “Fred dismantled his oldest son by devaluing and degrading every aspect of his personality and his natural abilities until all that was left was self-recrimination and a desperate need to please a man who had no use for him.” Instead, Donald was elevated while Freddy, suffering from alcoholism and heart ailments, was cast aside, his entire family line “effectively erased,” Mary explains, written out of wills, eulogies and simple kindnesses.
The Trump family, perhaps fearing shame or worse, tried hard to quash this book, based on the terms of a settlement in a long-ago lawsuit. (It was over money — what else.) They failed, and Mary Trump does offer some embarrassing, even silly, stories about growing up Trump: that Donald paid a friend to take the SATs for him; that, for all their riches, Trump and his wives skimped on Christmas presents, regifting old food baskets and used designer handbags; that Maryanne, a former appeals court judge, described her younger brother Donald as “a clown” with “no principles.” Mary Trump also recalls an instance when, while visiting Mar-a-Lago, she joined Donald and his then-wife, Marla, for an outdoor lunch following a swim, wearing her bathing suit and a pair of shorts. As she approached, Donald gawked. “Holy s---, Mary. You’re stacked.” (Trump passing judgment aloud on the size of his then-29-year-old niece’s breasts, in the presence of his wife, may rank as one of the least surprising reveals of 2020.)
More memorable than any such details are this book’s insights and declarations. Mary describes her grandfather as a “high-functioning sociopath,” a condition that can include abusiveness, ease with deceit and indifference to right and wrong. Couple that with a mother who was often absent because of health problems, and young Donald began to develop “powerful but primitive” coping mechanisms, Mary Trump writes, including hostility, aggression and indifference to the neglect he experienced. Unable to have his emotional needs met, “he became too adept at acting as though he didn’t have any.”
Books and essays have been written speculating on the mental health of the 45th president; to the frequent armchair diagnoses of “narcissistic personality disorder,” Mary Trump might add “antisocial personality disorder” (chronic criminality, arrogance, disregard for others) and “dependent personality disorder” (inability to make decisions or take responsibility, discomfort with being alone). She even suggests that Trump suffers a “long undiagnosed learning disability” that hinders his processing of information. She provides little specific evidence or context for this assertion — a habit that recurs throughout the book, as the author makes definitive pronouncements about her uncle’s state of mind.
“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 argues. “He knows he has never been loved.” The president withdraws to comfort zones such as Twitter and Fox News because “he is and always will be a terrified little boy.” And she contends that Trump has been “institutionalized” for most of his adult life, in that he has been shielded from his shortcomings — whether by his father bailing him out of terrible investments or by a federal government now deployed to protect his ego. “Donald’s pathologies are so complex and his behaviors so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would require a full battery of psychological and neuropsychological tests that he’ll never sit for,” Mary Trump concludes.
A lesson for the Trump family: Keep your friends close, but your nieces with doctorates in psychology closer.
Mary Trump’s most convincing moments are those when she draws out behavioral parallels between Fred and Donald. Just like his son in the Oval Office, Fred Trump “always made his supplicants come to him, either at his Brooklyn office or his house in Queens, and he remained seated while they stood.” Fred Trump often engaged in hyperbole while speaking; “everything was ‘great,’ ‘fantastic,’ and ‘perfect,’ ” just like Trump’s “perfect” phone call with the leader of Ukraine. Their professional habits seem similar, too: “Working the refs, lying, cheating — as far as Fred was concerned, those were all legitimate business tactics.”
Most personally for the author, Donald also emulated his father when it came to his treatment of Freddy — ridiculing him, ostracizing him and, ultimately, ignoring him. Donald did not attend Freddy’s wedding, and on the day Freddy was rushed to the hospital in the direst of conditions, his brother was too busy to stop by. “As my father lay dying alone,” Mary Trump writes, “Donald went to the movies.”
“Too Much and Never Enough” is a kind of revenge, perhaps. Mary Trump comes across as that oddity, a relatively normal Trump, but she is still a Trump, after all. When she becomes a secret source for the New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning investigation of the Trump family’s taxes — delivering 19 boxes of legal and financial documents to three overjoyed reporters — she privately ponders the need to “take Donald down,” the sort of mob talk that does the family proud. It’s her most “killer” moment.
But her ultimate sin against the family is not helping the Times or trashing her uncle in print. It’s that her book is not really about Donald but about Fred — not the new patriarch but the old. All the chaos playing out on the national and world stage is a form of family dysfunction writ largest, she explains, with the president’s incessant bragging and bluster directed at “his audience of one: his long-dead father.”
Normally when we keep photographs of loved ones near our desks, it is so we can remember them, look upon their faces and think back on good times. But after reading this book, I wonder if the photograph hovering behind the president’s shoulder in the Oval Office serves the opposite purpose — not so Donald can gaze upon Fred but so Fred can look upon that frightened little boy, now at the height of his power, and finally, truly, approve. As Mary Trump puts it, “Every one of Donald’s transgressions became an audition for his father’s favor, as if he were saying, ‘See, Dad, I’m the tough one. I’m the killer.’ ”