When the extended Trump family gathered in the White House in April 2017 to celebrate the birthdays of the president's two sisters, Donald Trump pointed out a framed photograph behind his desk in the Oval Office - the image of a mustachioed man in a jacket and tie, with receding dark hair and a commanding air. "Isn't that a great picture of Dad?" Trump asked his sister Maryanne. She replied with a reprimand: "Maybe you should have a picture of Mom too."
The president seemed never to have considered it. "That's a great idea," he said. "Somebody get me a picture of Mom."
When discussing his father in his memoir The Art of the Deal, Trump stresses the business savvy he gleaned from the late Fred C Trump: "I learned about toughness in a very tough business, I learned about motivating people, and I learned about competence and efficiency."
In Too Much and Never Enough, Mary L Trump, the president's niece, describes those lessons somewhat differently. In her telling, her wealthy grandfather was a suffocating and destructive influence: emotionally unavailable, cruel and controlling. Fred Trump both instilled and fortified his middle son's worst qualities - Donald's bullying, disrespect, lack of empathy, insecurity and relentless self-aggrandisement - while lavishing on him every opportunity and financing every mistake.
In the wreckage of this relationship, Mary Trump writes, is a "malignantly dysfunctional family" that engages in "casual dehumanisation" around the dinner table, a family in which privilege and anxiety go together, in which money is the only value, in which lies are just fine and apologies are weak.
Mary Trump brings the insider perspective of a family member, the observational and analytical abilities of a clinical psychologist and the writing talent of a former graduate student in comparative literature. But she also brings grudges. She writes that her own father, Freddy, the oldest child of the Trump family, was robbed of his birthright and happiness for committing the unforgivable sin of failing to meet Fred's demands and expectations. Freddy was supposed to take over the family business, was supposed to be a "killer", which in the Trump family means being utterly invulnerable. But he preferred to become a commercial airline pilot, an ambition his father constantly mocked.
Donald was elevated while Freddy, suffering from alcoholism and heart ailments, was cast aside, his entire family line "effectively erased", Mary explains, written out of wills, eulogies and simple kindnesses.
The Trump family tried hard to quash this book. They failed, and Mary Trump does offer some embarrassing, even silly, stories about growing up Trump: that Donald paid a friend to take his college entrance exams for him; that, for all their riches, Trump and his wives skimped on Christmas presents, regifting old food baskets and used designer handbags; that Maryanne, a former appeals court judge, described Donald as "a clown" with "no principles". Mary Trump also recalls an instance when, while visiting Mar-a-Lago, she joined Donald and his then wife, Marla, for an outdoor lunch following a swim, wearing her bathing suit and a pair of shorts. As she approached, Donald gawked. "Holy s***, Mary. You're stacked." (Trump passing judgment aloud on the size of his then 29-year-old niece's breasts, in the presence of his wife, may rank as one of the least surprising reveals of 2020.)
More memorable than any such details are this book's insights and declarations. Mary describes her grandfather as a "high-functioning sociopath," a condition that can include abusiveness, ease with deceit and indifference to right and wrong. Couple that with a mother who was often absent because of health problems, and young Donald began to develop "powerful but primitive" coping mechanisms, Mary Trump writes, including hostility, aggression and indifference to the neglect he experienced.
She suggests that Trump suffers a "long undiagnosed learning disability" but provides little specific evidence or context for this assertion - a habit that recurs throughout the book.
"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," she argues. "He knows he has never been loved."
Mary Trump's most convincing moments are those when she draws out behavioural parallels between Fred and Donald. Just like his son in the Oval Office, Fred Trump "always made his supplicants come to him, either at his Brooklyn office or his house in Queens, and he remained seated while they stood." Fred Trump often engaged in hyperbole while speaking; "everything was 'great', 'fantastic', and 'perfect'."
Mary Trump comes across as that oddity, a relatively normal Trump, but she is still a Trump, after all. When she becomes a secret source for the New York Times' Pulitzer-winning investigation of the Trump family's taxes - delivering 19 boxes of legal and financial documents to three overjoyed reporters - she privately ponders the need to "take Donald down", the sort of mob talk that does the family proud. It's her most "killer" moment.
But her ultimate sin against the family is that her book is not really about Donald, but about Fred. All the chaos playing out on the national and world stage is a form of family dysfunction writ largest, she explains, with the president's incessant bragging and bluster directed at "his audience of one: his long-dead father".
Normally when we keep photographs of loved ones near our desks, it is so we can remember them, look upon their faces and think back on good times. But after reading this book, I wonder if the photograph hovering behind the president's shoulder in the Oval Office serves the opposite purpose - not so Donald can gaze upon Fred but so Fred can look upon that frightened little boy, now at the height of his power, and finally, truly, approve. As Mary Trump puts it, "Every one of Donald's transgressions became an audition for his father's favour, as if he were saying, 'See, Dad, I'm the tough one. I'm the killer'."
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