Donald Trump and the family that shaped a president
When Donald Trump and his wife Melania had a son together 10 years ago, he was introduced to the world with typical bombast.
“He’s strong, he’s smart, he’s tough, he’s vicious, he’s violent,” Trump declared, holding the baby Barron up at a press conference while the cameras clicked. “All of the ingredients you need to be an entrepreneur.”
The subtext was clear: a new Trump is born, and the world better watch out.
Dynasty means everything to the current President-elect. He possesses the same furious drive that enabled his grandfather to go from penniless immigrant to property developer, and his father to become one of the richest men in America. The unshakeable sense that he and his kin were somehow born to rule is hard-wired into Trump.
His lack of moral qualms, sense of self worth and caustic outbursts – the most recent being last Wednesday at Trump Tower, where he attacked the media over claims he was a victim of a Kremlin honey trap - may confound political commentators. But it is through the prism of his family that the 45th president of the United States can best be understood.
“The theme that runs through all the Trumps, no matter how much money they’ve made or how successful they’ve become, is this desire to always find the next opportunity,” says the Channel 4 journalist Matt Frei, who has made a new programme focusing on Trump’s family history. Theirs, he says, is an “unforgiving”, super-charged version of the American dream.
Frei’s programme, like the new biography Trump Revealed, written by the Washington Post journalists Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, begins with his grandfather, Friedrich, who arrived in New York from Bavaria in 1885, aged 16 and with only a single suitcase to his name.
After working as a barber in central Manhattan, he set up a hotel and drinking den at a Rockefeller mining concession in Seattle, Washington State. From there, he followed the stampede of would-be prospectors headed to north-western Canada in the Klondike gold rush; starting a restaurant selling burgers made out of the horses that had perished by the side of the road.
When the meat ran out, he built a brothel. “There were 3,000 miners who came to the new Arctic Hotel every single day,” Frei says. “And if they couldn’t pay with money they paid with gold dust.”
His nest egg secured, Friedrich decided to travel home and settle in Bavaria where he married his wife, Elizabeth, a girl from a poor neighbouring family. Having avoided military service, he was refused German citizenship; that prompted his return to New York to muscle into the booming property market, which would change the course of history.
Friedrich and Elizabeth had three children and, by 1918, his property deals had made him $500,000 in today’s money. But at the age of 49, he was killed in the Spanish Flu epidemic. The business was left to his wife and 12-year-old son, Fred (Donald’s father).
Over the next 30 years, Fred grew the business to a net worth exceeding $200m. That success, however, was plagued by allegations of corruption as he exploited maximum profit out of government projects designed to lever America out of the Great Depression, and provided cheap homes for veterans returning from the Second World War, which some nicknamed Trump’s "dumps on stumps".
“This is a man who was smart enough to see the seams,” says another Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio. “He could identify where he could make money and not break the law.”
It was into this fierce hyper-capitalist world that Donald Trump arrived in 1946. He was the second eldest son of five siblings, born to a Scottish immigrant called Mary Anne MacLeod, who had travelled to America from the Isle of Lewis in 1930.
Attractive, fierce and determined to better herself, Mary met Fred Trump at a dance when she was still working as a domestic servant. They married in 1936.
Frei describes her transition from grinding poverty in the Outer Hebrides to New York socialite as like something from F Scott Fitzgerald.
Trump’s mother was a matriarch and socialite who ran the household with an iron fist and swept out of the front door in fur coats, with her hair a sculpted orange swirl (not unlike her son’s today). Donald says he inherited far more from his “smart as hell” mother than an intolerance of germs (he loathes handshakes and in rebuking last week’s allegations of salacious behaviour in a Moscow hotel room claimed to be “very much of a germaphobe”).
In his 1997 book, 'The Art of the Comeback', Trump admitted his failure to connect with women (Melania is his third wife following Marla Maples and Ivana Trump) was because he could not help but compare them to “my incredible mother”. Mary died in 2000 aged 88.
His childhood home was a 23-room mansion designed like a faux southern plantation, with a navy Cadillac limo parked in the driveway bearing the number plate FCT (his father’s initials). There was a cook who dished up Donald’s beloved burgers on demand, and numerous other staff.
School friends recall a sense of entitlement from a very young age, and anger when things didn’t go Donald’s way. At Kew Forest Primary School, he once (according to the biography Trump Revealed) punched his music teacher in the face, giving him a black eye. Detentions were nicknamed DTs, or "Donny Trumps". While other children doodled superheroes, the would-be mogul drew skyscrapers.
Fred Trump, who wore a suit at home and sported a clipped moustache, was a strict father and regarded Donald as something of a tearaway. After being caught with a collection of switchblade knives, he was sent to the New York Military Academy. Donald thrived; he won prizes for neatness and was the star on its baseball team. He also received the school “Ladies Man” award.
Curiously, schoolmate Sandy McIntosh remembers, this was, in part, because Donald’s parents would bring with them a different, beautiful and immaculately presented young woman each time they came to visit. They would then very obviously promenade together around the school quadrangle.
According to McIntosh, it was a deliberate attempt to curate Donald’s burgeoning playboy image, having realised it could be an asset later in life.
“Some boys thought he was looking down on them,” McIntosh recalls. “The difficulty I had with Donald is I thought there was a real emptiness inside him. And if you have no empathy you are fit, as Shakespeare would say, for stratagems and spoils.”
The eldest Trump son, Fred Jr, was eight years Donald’s senior and the heir apparent. He was handsome, gregarious, and possessed the easy charm his younger brother lacked. That socialising, however, spiralled into the chronic alcoholism from which he died at the age of 41.
Trump has, in part, sought to define himself against his brother; not least his teetotalism and ferocity towards his enemies.
“He was a truly nice human being,” Donald once said of Fred Jr. “And there’s something very beautiful about that. Unfortunately, when you’re growing up in New York City and dealing with some of the great sharks of world, especially in the real estate business, it’s not very good.”
But there is another man, albeit not of Trump lineage, who some say played almost an equal role in shaping Donald’s character as his own father.
Trump met the notorious lawyer Roy Cohn when he was just 28 (and already chairman of his father’s company). Cohn had a fearsome reputation as the representative of New York’s biggest crime families and scourge of the old money makers, who regarded the Trumps as interlopers. Together the pair terrorised the city.
Of most lasting significance, Cohn taught Trump the art of the counter attack – as we saw at last week’s Trump Tower press conference. It is something he has deployed to devastating effect on the march to power.
When the Trump family was sued in 1973 by the New York housing authorities for discriminating against black and Hispanic tenants in their buildings, Cohn counter sued for $100m. Trump eventually declared a dubious victory, insisting he didn’t have to sign an admission of guilt.
He also instilled in Donald Trump the notion it doesn’t matter what is being written about you, as long as people are writing. This persists today. For all the mud slung, Trump – like his father and grandfather before him - bludgeons on.
“It’s a philosophy of life that humanity is divided into winners and losers,” Frei explains. “And Donald sees himself very much as the winning embodiment of the Trump gene.”