Trump Agonistes

Review by Michael Fruitman

Dozens of books have been published about Donald Trump since the 2016 election, by journalists, political pundits, armchair psychologists, past associates, and more. A new one, titled simply Disloyal, by former Trump consigliere Michael Cohen, comes out September 8. And Bob Woodward’s new book, Rage, will be released a week later. Many of these books are excellent (I have read several), all providing different intimate, behind-the-scenes accounts of the Trump business, campaign, and/or presidency. Yet one recent book stands out.

Mary L. Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man is qualitatively different from the other Trump books in ways that none of the others can claim: it was written by Trump’s niece, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. As such, her observations are based on personal memories (and documentation), as well as specialized professional training in the dynamics of family psychology and psychopathology. The other books gave us plenty of what; Mary Trump alone explains, to the extent that anyone can, the why of Donald Trump. On its first day of release, the book sold 950,000 copies—a record for Simon & Schuster.

Obviously, all adults are responsible for their actions. Yet, to my great surprise, I found myself reacting to Mary Trump’s depictions of how Donald’s toxic father and the rest of the dysfunctional family treated him by actually feeling sorry for the child that he was. The pathology of Fred Trump, as passed down to Donald, explains a lot about how Donald sees himself in the world, and what he must do to survive.

To my great surprise, I found myself reacting to Mary Trump’s depictions of how Donald’s toxic father and the rest of the dysfunctional family treated him by actually feeling sorry for the child that he was.

Mary’s [I will use first names going forward for ease of reference] professional credentials do equip her to make the insights she makes. Her doctorate is from Adelphi University’s Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies, ranked fourth worldwide in 2017 for psychology–psychoanalysis. Mary also taught graduate courses in trauma, psychopathology, and developmental psychology, and worked as a psychotherapist.

She does not lightly label her uncle. While agreeing with the many who have called him a narcissist, she adds that other labels may also be accurate. But she concludes that his pathologies are so complex and interwoven that arriving at a comprehensive diagnosis is impossible without a full battery of psychological and neuropsychological tests, which he would never sit for (despite his recent bragging that he “aced” the test for dementia).

Mary also fully discloses the family dispute that some have said was the impetus for the book. When her grandfather, Fred (Donald’s father) died in 1999, it came out that he had disinherited Mary and her brother. They ultimately brought a lawsuit against her grandfather’s estate. After some two years, they finally settled. Fred never had much use for Freddy, Mary’s father. This was typical of how the family operated.

Mary also discusses her assistance to New York Times reporter Susanne Craig in the preparation of the Times’ blockbuster article on the family’s finances, a 14,000-word story (the longest in Times history) published in October 2018. It included a litany of fraudulent and potentially criminal activity engaged in by Donald and other members of the family. The story was made possible by boxes of documents that Mary did not initially know she even possessed.

To this reader, Mary’s descriptions and analyses ring valid, as does her motive:

Donald, following the lead of my grandfather and with the complicity, silence, and inaction of his siblings, destroyed my father. I can’t let him destroy my country.

–     –     –     –     –

So how did this family create “the world’s most dangerous man?” What was “too much” and what was “never enough?” According to Mary, these are different aspects of child abuse.

Without his mother’s attention, what he received from his father grew in importance. Yet Fred never made Donald feel safe, loved, or valued. The personality traits that we see today are the result: displays of narcissism, bullying, and grandiosity.

Donald witnessed “too-muchness” secondhand, seeing what happened to Freddy when he received too much attention, expectation, and—most saliently—humiliation. Donald experienced not enough in the loss of connection to a disinterested and frequently ill mother so that not only were his needs not being met, but his fears and longings went “unsoothed.” Without his mother’s attention, what he received from his father grew in importance. Yet Fred never made Donald feel safe, loved, or valued. The personality traits that we see today are the result: displays of narcissism, bullying, and grandiosity.

Ironically, though, Donald was Fred’s favorite, for one simple reason: while he really had no interest in his children, he saw Donald as the one able to take over the family business, which was all that mattered to Fred.

Fred’s disdain for his oldest son, Freddy, was a lesson not lost on Donald. Freddy was not what Fred wanted him to be—a businessman. Freddy preferred flying (which he did for TWA) and sailing. Fred “dismantled” him by “devaluing and degrading every aspect of his personality and natural ability,” leaving Freddy with self-recrimination and a desperate need to please.

“By limiting Donald’s access to his own feelings and rendering many of them unacceptable, Fred perverted his son’s perception of the world and damaged his ability to live in it.” Thus it was hard for Donald to be his own person, and difficult for him to read social cues—which persists to this day.

Donald escaped Freddy’s fate because Donald’s personality served Fred’s purpose. Mary believes that Fred “short-circuited Donald’s ability to develop and experience the entire spectrum of human emotion.” She goes on, “By limiting Donald’s access to his own feelings and rendering many of them unacceptable, Fred perverted his son’s perception of the world and damaged his ability to live in it.” 

The rules of the house as Donald was growing up also made it hard for him to blend in with society. He learned, from Fred,

  • Be tough at all costs
  • Lying is OK
  • Admitting you’re wrong or apologizing is weakness
  • Kindness is weakness
  • There can only be one winner, and everyone else is a loser

These rules clashed, of course, with those promulgated in school. Yet we can see them at work now, every day.

Donald Trump was never called to account. It is no different today.

So what explains Donald’s journey to the presidency? To quote Mary,

There is a through line from the House [Fred’s] to Trump Tower to the West Wing…. The first is an essentially controlled environment in which Donald’s material needs are always taken care of; the second is a series of sinecures in which work was done by others and Donald never needed to acquire expertise in order to attain or retain power (which partly explains his disdain  for the expertise of others). All of this has protected him from his own failures, while allowing him to believe himself a success.

Donald’s need for affirmation is boundless, hence his reliance on giant rallies that bathe him in “love.” His ego is fragile. He knows inside that he is not what he claims to be. He is under enormous stress as president—not due to the job, which he doesn’t do, but the effort to keep the rest of us distracted from the fact that he knows nothing—about politics, government, the world, or human decency.

Yet in some ways, he is not the problem. Where we are today as a nation results from Donald’s continually being given a pass and being rewarded for his failures and transgressions.

Yet in some ways, he is not the problem. Where we are today as a nation results from Donald’s continually being given a pass and being rewarded for his failures and transgressions.

Fear—equivalent to weakness in the Trump family—is Donald’s worst nightmare. Why did he do nothing as COVID-19 grew? He feared failing to project the message that all was beautiful and great. And for Donald, there is no value in empathy. Journalist and author David Corn has written, “Everything is transactional for this poor, broken human being. Everything.”

And with this nation’s recent civil unrest, an effective response called for unity, but Donald requires division to function—recalling how his father turned his children against each other. Mary ends her story this way:

Donald is and always will be a terrified little boy…. His monstrosity is the manifestation of the very weakness that he’s been running from his entire life…. Doing anything other than projecting strength carries a death sentence.

This slim book (211 pages) offers a unique, cogent, understandable analysis of why our, perhaps strangest, president behaves as he does–an understanding available while he is still president. Every reader will find some material that will answer their questions about P45.

How will he handle an electoral defeat in November? It may well be chilling to watch.

 

 



Categories: Book Review, elections, Issues, Local, National, politics, press, State

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