Why is Donald Trump the way he is? Niece Mary L Trump’s book reveals family secrets as explanation

Donald Trump’s political career has been categorically marred with a lack of empathy and respect for the rights of others. This is apparent in his responses to both the coronavirus pandemic and the nation-wide Black Lives Matter movement. This is equally evident in when he makes seemingly blasé statements about liking war heroes “who don’t get caught” (while himself having evaded the draft).

In a blistering polemic against her uncle and incumbent President, Mary Trump explores Donald Trump’s childhood and upbringing in order to make sense of his pathologies. Her account Too Much and Never Enough is an insight into how Donald Trump came to be the person he is.

A unique perspective

Since he assumed office, there has been a rash of books about Trump’s presidency, often from a slew of insiders, one indistinguishable from another. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Omarosa Manigault’s Unhinged, and John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened are a few that come to mind. Too Much and Never Enough is unique for two reasons: Mary Trump’s familial as well her professional background. As she mentions, much of the book comes from her own memory; for the remainder – the parts for which she was not present or had not yet been born – she enlists the help of family, family friends, and close associates.

Her relational proximity to the American President and the Trump family has endowed her with invaluable insight into the dysfunction of her kin. On the other hand, she is aloof enough from the inner circle to be able to hold things up to light and scrutinise them. Then, she is a trained clinical psychologist, having taught graduate courses in trauma, psychopathology, and developmental psychology.

Mary Trump harnesses both elements in order to construct an intimate, fairly objective, and psychologically rigorous case-study into the personality of, in her own words, a sociopathic “second son”.

Donald Trump, deconstructed

It would be a mistake would be to approach Too Much and Never Enough as if it were a repository of state secrets or gossip or scandal. In fact, even though her distinct vantage point affords the book an air of legitimacy, most of Mary Trump’s assertions we already know to be true. It does not take a professional or an insider to tell us that Donald Trump is an unqualified and narcissistic man who often has little idea of what he’s doing.

A strength of Mary Trump’s writing is her ability to establish tenable cause-effect relationships between Donald’s childhood and his presidency. She does so without exaggeration, allowing the events to speak for themselves. Thus, a more rewarding approach would be to consider the book an account of Donald Trump, deconstructed and reverse-engineered.

For those who have wondered how and why the President is the way he is, this book is the answer.

According to the author, a quintessential component of Donald Trump’s personality and his politics is the continuing influence of his father, Fred. Imagined as a callous and unkind patriarch by the author, Fred Trump’s sole endeavours seemed to be accruing wealth (and maintaining a steely grip on it), and priming his eldest son Freddy – the author’s father – to succeed him and inherit his businesses. Freddy was swift to show disinterest in his father’s ventures, leading Fred to turn to Donald, his fourth child, and second son.

Donald’s inheritance

That Donald is but a reflection of his father – that any story about Fred, in business or in character, is a story about Donald – is a key refrain that the author returns to. Even his speech habits and turns of phrase, in fact, can be traced to his father. Mary Trump writes that Fred possessed a “propensity for showmanship and [habit of trafficking] in hyperbole”. Donald’s favourite words (great, tremendous, perfect, beautiful), oft-used superlatives (the best wall, the highest ratings), and sweeping self-aggrandising statements (“I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office”) are expressions of this inheritance.

“In family, as in life,” observes Mary Trump, “There could only be one winner; everybody else had to lose.” This was the slant of thought that Fred subscribed to – one that he imposed on all his family members, and especially on his sons. He relished every opportunity to malign Freddy for not inheriting his “killer” instinct, and for possessing traits, such as vulnerability and a sense of humour, that he associated with weakness. (Thus, by virtue of his sensitivity as well as his attempts to become a self-made professional, Freddy quickly came to be seen as the black sheep of the family).

On the other hand, Fred continually recognised and rewarded his second son’s competencies as “a liar, a shameless self-promoter, and a builder of brands”. By the 1980s, the Trump Organisation under Donald’s authority was losing money quicker than they could earn it. Fred would regularly bail him out by stepping in with money and resources in order to maintain the illusion of his empire’s success, as well as the myth of Donald’s reputation as a brash and ruthless dealmaker. Wherever Donald faltered, Fred overcorrected by propping yes-men around him – people who, according to Mary Trump, were willing to flatter him because they understood how the family business worked.

Don’t expect new information

With the exception of the allegation that Donald paid his friend to take the SATs for him, the arguments of the book are not shocking or even new. Mary Trump only aims to fill in the gaps (and perhaps sway a few swing voters along the way).

This may be because although she’s his niece, Mary Trump’s interactions with her uncle were limited and cursory. As a result, much of the book is either centred entirely on events that happened before she was born, requiring her to rely on historical documents, articles, and her relatives’ memory. Or, events that happened within her immediate family, towards which she is overwhelmingly sympathetic.

A problematic aspect of the book may also be the way in which it was marketed. While her interviews often touched on race issues (and whether or not Trump has said the n-word in casual conversation), her book does not address them, even in passing.

A product of his circumstances

Mary Trump consolidates her observations and attempts to explain Donald’s personality and behaviour in this bitingly candid paragraph:

“Every time you hear Donald talking about how something is the greatest, the best, the biggest, the most tremendous (the implication being that he made them so), you have to remember that the man speaking is still, in essential ways, the same little boy who is desperately worried that he, like his older brother, is inadequate and that he, too, will be destroyed for his inadequacy. At a very deep level, his bragging and false bravado are not directed at the audience in front of him but at his audience of one: his long-dead father.”

Here, she cautions against empathising with him. She admits that Donald Trump is a product of his circumstances, a function of his father’s “toxic positivity”, and his cruel and unaffectionate upbringing. She acknowledges that as a child, Donald “suffered mightily”. However, he ought to be spared compassion and pity. As the author remarks in an interview, Donald is keenly aware of the damage he is causing. His behaviour has been allowed to continue, because he has never been held accountable.

An absence of accountability

This is the most consequential implication of Mary Trump’s book – the idea of accountability. Fred not only produced Donald and his “complex pathologies”, but also inadvertently produced his work ethic, his style of leadership, and the quality of his presidency. And in his presidency as in his childhood, Donald Trump has routinely evaded punishment for his failures and rather been (alarmingly and disproportionately) rewarded for them.

For his numerous business failures, his bankruptcies, or even run-of-the-mill projects, he would be rewarded with attention from his father and from the media. In terms of his presidential transgressions, his approval ratings peaked at an all-time high while his impeachment trial – he was later acquitted – was underway. He is always “failing upwards”.

When Mary Trump was invited to Donald’s election-night party in New York, she had declined, assuming she wouldn’t be able to contain her euphoria upon Hillary Clinton’s inevitable victory. The results were soon announced, and she experienced the same trauma that wracked the nation in a more personal way: “It felt as though 62,979,636 voters had chosen to turn this country into a macro version of my malignantly dysfunctional family.”

That he was elected at all, she stated in an interview, was devastating. If after four Trump years he wins re-election, it would signal “the end of the American experiment”. Mary Trump claims to have written Too Much and Never Enough as a response to the disintegration of American democracy, and the unravelling of people’s lives because of her uncle’s policies. And with the 2020 presidential election fast approaching, Mary Trump’s book is a canary (among several hundreds) in the coalmine.

Too Much and Never Enough

Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, 2020, Mary L Trump, Simon & Schuster.

Kshirin Rao Eshwara is a third-year student at Ashoka University majoring in Political Science with a minor in English.

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