The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mary Trump takes on America’s evils, beyond her famous uncle

Demonstrators gather in D.C.’s Black Lives Matter Plaza in December 2020. Mary L. Trump decries racism in America — writing that “cruelty and bigotry and white impunity are built into the system” — but doesn’t acknowledge decades of progress. (Photo by Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

Mary L. Trump’s first book, “Too Much and Never Enough,” was an anguished memoir about her dysfunctional family. The main characters were her brutish grandfather Fred Trump and her sad, alcoholic father, Freddy. Her Uncle Donald played a lesser role, as a wandering sociopath indulged by Fred to be the outrageous and remorseless character we’ve come to know and be horrified by. It was a valuable book. A sequel was inevitable. But not this one.

The Reckoning: Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal” is, essentially, a blunderbuss rant about the evils of America. “Ours is an ugly history,” she writes, “full of depraved, barbaric and inhumane behavior carried out by everyday people and encouraged, or at least condoned, by leaders at the highest levels of government. A denial of that history is a denial of our trauma.” Her Uncle Donald is merely the latest iteration of a pervasive national grotesquerie that includes, well, everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt to Mitch McConnell, who “will come to be considered one of the greatest traitors to this country since Robert E. Lee.”

Trump careens through American history, cherry-picking our worst moments, ignoring any mitigating factors. She laments that our “government is based on the belief that antiquated concepts like honor and shame will sufficiently motivate our elected officials to follow [democratic] precedent.” There is truth to this, but not context: The “antiquated” concept that honor, or virtue, in the language of the founders, rather than genealogy should determine leadership was the great American innovation. It created the most open and inclusive, if flawed, democracy in history. She neglects to credit this, instead positing that “cruelty and bigotry and white impunity are built into the system. And by remaining silent about historical truths . . . we ensure that the system will not change.”

There is truth to that, as well. The great strength of the current moment is that our disgraceful racial history is being incorporated into the American story in ways that will not be erased. The Tulsa Race Massacre has taken its place alongside Washington crossing the Delaware.

Trump might have argued — she almost does — that her uncle’s success in 2016 was a consequence of a broader national trauma. She has a PhD in psychology; trauma is her turf. “To be traumatized is to be initiated into a world without trust.” Over the past 60 years, bedrock trust in our democracy has been crippled by foolish wars, political scandals, feckless governance and an inflamed media. Trump proposes that African Americans, in particular, have suffered from “post-traumatic slave syndrome,” a condition that includes “high levels of stress, self-doubt and problems with aggression.” These problems have been described by sociologists including Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and William Julius Wilson — and do much to explain the high levels of crime and social dysfunction in impoverished Black communities. But Trump doesn’t pursue the implications of what she’s written. Black crime, as she describes it, is merely a consequence of White police racism. Again, partially true — but she’d have a hard time convincing the majority of working-class Blacks who voted to make tough-on-crime Eric Adams the Democratic nominee for mayor of New York.

A great rant can be cathartic, but it needs discipline. Trump is sloppy. There are no footnotes. Too many sentences contain half-truths and gross generalizations, unsupported by facts: “Whites assume, correctly, that without maintaining their whiteness, they would lose power, privilege and status.” No doubt some do, but how many? Where’s the data? “Our very highway system is racist,” she blithely asserts, citing Black neighborhoods torn down for superhighways — and ignoring the working-class White and Latino enclaves that suffered the same fate. She sees American history as binary, Black and White; racism is the only lens she uses for analysis. Immigrants seem not to exist, and the fabulous success of their American experience, extending across all racial and ethnic categories, is never mentioned. Reading Trump, one might wonder why all those Italians, Jews, Mexicans, Pakistanis and Nigerians decided to come here.

Worse, as a putative expert on Donald Trump, she misapprehends the reasons for her uncle’s momentary success: It was, in large part, a reaction to the social progress of the past 50 years, progress she refuses to acknowledge. There has been a steady erosion of racial and gender barriers, the development of a strong African American middle and professional class, a tsunami of Black officeholders. Our concerted effort to repair the bigotry of the past, through programs like affirmative action, has caused working-class Whites to believe they’re the victims of discrimination, according to many polls; Uncle Donald exploited their anger (although White bigotry against Blacks in 2016 took a back seat to the demonization of Latinos, which Trump incited from the first day of his candidacy).

American racism, nativism, isolationism and myopia have always been with us, but this is a more complicated phenomenon than Mary Trump acknowledges. It has ebbed and flowed over the years. It has sapped our strength as a republic but hasn’t destroyed our national character. That’s why Donald Trump lost in 2020.

So why is this book noteworthy? Because the author’s name is Trump and she is a regular “liberal” presence on cable television. Her excesses will provide fodder for Fox News and right-wing talk radio; she will be paraded about as a poster child for “woke” cancel culture. She will be used to further inflame a debate about race that has been distorted and exaggerated by extremists on both sides.

We are in the midst of a difficult, but inevitable, transition from a majority-White country to one that is multiracial. This is wonderful news, a fulfillment of our destiny. But the transition is tough on nonprivileged White people; there is a need for levelheaded docents to moderate the conversation. Mary Trump might have helped with this, but in writing “The Reckoning,” she has become the mirror image of her uncle — someone who exploits anger rather than trying to soothe it.

The Reckoning

Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal

By Mary L. Trump

St. Martin’s.
193 pp. $28.99