Mary Trump, a trained clinical psychologist and the niece of the president of the United States, knows of what she speaks.
"It's difficult to understand what goes on in any family — perhaps hardest of all for the people in it. Regardless of how a parent treats a child, it's almost impossible for that child to believe that parent means them any harm," she observes in her new book, "Too Much and Never Enough," as she parses the legacy of the patriarch, Fred Trump Sr. "Abuse can be quiet and insidious just as often as, or even more often than, it is loud and violent. As far as I know, my grandfather wasn't a physically violent man or even a particularly angry one. He didn't have to be; he expected to get what he wanted and almost always did."
Mary's father, Fred Trump Jr., was crushed by those expectations and by his struggle with alcoholism, which she lays out in harrowing and courageous detail. (As a child, she once encountered her father laughing while aiming a shotgun at her mother's face, for example.) Fred Jr.'s demise is a key narrative arc of the book, but the two people who loom largest over the entire affair are Fred Sr. and one of his other sons, Donald — both of whom she describes as deeply intertwined, driven and disturbed.
"Financial worth was the same as self-worth, monetary value was human value," Mary writes. "The more Fred Trump had, the better he was. If he gave something to someone else, that person would be worth more and he less. He would pass the attitude on to Donald in spades."
In a book filled with firsthand accounts of dysfunctional family gatherings, references to decades of unsettling reporting about the Trumps, documentation of financial grifting, and many episodes of parents and siblings jousting with one another over money, egos and abandonment, Mary draws a portrait of a surreal, scarred clan that might have been forgotten had one of its members not found his way into the White House. But the fact that Donald morphed from huckster to celebrity to president makes her account seminal and indispensable.
Mary's clarity, training, discipline and sharp eye help make her a reliable narrator, and she's a fluid, witty writer to boot. Much of what's she's written about I've covered as a journalist and an author (Donald unsuccessfully sued me for libel for my 2005 biography, TrumpNation). Everything in her book that I'm familiar with is spot on. There is plenty in the book, however, that I wasn't aware of, and I suspect that's the reason the president and his siblings have gone to court to try to halt its publication. The Trumps know that Mary's understanding of her family is authentic — she's a true insider in an era when "insider" accounts of the president are a dime-a-dozen — and that what she's written is likely to be indelible.
The subtitle of Mary's book is "How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man," and she makes her case diligently and chronologically. Fred Sr. was steely and unforgiving, while his wife, Mary, lived in his shadow, emotionally distant and demanding. The Queens mansion where Donald grew up as his father's favorite is an intimidating pile that Mary calls The House. In the basement of The House, Fred Sr., a teetotaler, kept an elegant bar outfitted with everything but alcohol and guarded by a collection of life-sized wooden statues of Native American chiefs standing along a wall. An oil painting of a lovely Black nightclub singer with "generous swaying hips" backed by a Black jazz band hung on a wall nearby. That was apparently as close as Fred Sr. wanted Black people to get to his family. The son of a German immigrant, he slurred any person of color seeking to rent an apartment from him as "die Schwarze." Roy Cohn, the infamous lawyer and mob confidante, came into the Trumps' lives when Fred Sr. and Donald retained him to battle a Justice Department probe of racial discrimination at Trump properties in the 1970s.
Fred Sr. ruled the roost, and in Mary's view he did so as a sociopath, driving her father to ruin and forcing her Uncle Donald to adapt to his binary, winner-take-all view of the world. Losing was unacceptable, and the power of positive thinking was everything. "Just give it a quarter of a turn on the mental carburetor," Fred Sr. advised Fred Jr. as the way to conquer alcoholism. Mary writes that after Fred Jr. died, the Trumps apparently schemed to disinherit her and her brother, cutting off their health insurance when they wouldn't play along.
Donald, more than any of his four siblings, reveled in Fred Sr.'s hothouse. He stole one of his brother's trucks as a child just so he could see how anguished his brother might become. He bucked authority as a teenager, prompting his parents to send him to military school. According to Mary, he paid someone to take the SAT exams for him so he could get into a better college. When Fred Sr. slipped into dementia soon before dying, Donald, strapped for cash, maneuvered unsuccessfully to push his siblings aside and gain control of an estate worth several hundred million dollars. Although Donald's entire career was built on Fred Sr.'s wealth and connections, Donald treated his father dismissively in his final years. Then again, Fred Sr. treated most people dismissively, and Donald is what Mary describes as a "Frankenstein's monster," shaped by his father's pathologies.
Fred Sr. lacked the marketing savvy and media know-how of his son, so he helped push Donald into the spotlight and risked the family fortune along the way so he could bask in his son's glory. Donald thrived on the attention and took advantage of the license afforded by his father's wealth, eventually adopting "cheating as a way of life." Mary takes the media to task for searching for a "strategy" in anything Donald does and for soft-pedaling what she describes as multiple psychological disorders, which, by her account, check a variety of boxes in diagnostic manuals. She thinks that Donald, at a minimum, suffers from an "antisocial personality disorder" and a longstanding but undiagnosed learning disability.
"The fact is, 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," she writes.
Mary's understanding of her family was also shaped by reporting in the New York Times. A landmark expose the Times published in 2018 about the Trump family's tax dodging and financial chicanery relied on her as a key source. She provided the paper with pivotal documentation that showed how the Trumps used a shell company to skim millions from the family business to avoid estate and income taxes. It was the Times's forensic work, using her documentation, that revealed the skimming to her and to readers — and also made her realize that her aunts and uncles had most likely been cheating her out of significant sums of money as well.
For all of that, the tone of Mary's book isn't bitter. She maintains a sense of humor about some of the absurdities she's encountered (Donald was slow to pay her when she helped ghostwrite one of his books) and is forgiving, to a point, about the myriad shortcomings of her various relatives. But she is clearly disappointed. The book is ultimately a melancholy account of aunts and uncles who openly disdain Donald but are afraid to get in his way. The book quotes Donald's eldest sister, Maryanne, a former federal judge, saying that Donald "has no principles. None!" Maryanne is also quoted dismissing the possibility that her brother will be elected president: "He's a clown — this will never happen." The fact that Donald was elected also informs the book's melancholy, with Mary stunned that tens of millions of voters were capable of embracing or overlooking her uncle's "blatant racism" and his "casual dehumanization of people."
Other observers have picked up on some of this over the years, of course. Liz Smith, the late New York gossip columnist, had a street-smart understanding of Trump. "There's something about him that's ever juvenile. It's hard to believe he's a grown-up person who went to college," she once told me. "He's like a kid, and he's got that brash, narcissistic thing that works for him. He has enormous appeal to the masses because of that."
But Mary understands that's not a benign matter anymore. "Donald today is much as he was at three years old: incapable of growing, learning or evolving, unable to regulate his emotions, moderate his responses, or take in and synthesize information," she writes. "This is far beyond garden-variety narcissism; Donald is not simply weak, 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. He knows he has never been loved."
Writ large — on an international stage amid a pandemic and social upheaval, and with the powers of the presidency at Donald's disposal — those resentments metastasize into something wildly menacing.
"He has suffered mightily," Mary writes of Donald's worldview, "and if you aren't doing all you can to alleviate that suffering, you should suffer too."
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.