Sunday 20 January 2019

Mary Kenny: A Trump dynasty

Is blood thicker than water for a 'reconstituted family'?

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

There's one set of liberals who should be pleased - even jubilant - about the ascent of President Donald Trump: those who uphold and champion the benefits of divorce. During our several divorce referenda, liberals advanced the claim that divorce could be good (as against defenders of traditional marriage, who said it broke up families).

Mr Trump's "reconstituted family" - as the sociologists call kinship groups re-assembled after divorce - is surely an emblem of successful multi-marriage.

When Ronald Reagan was known to be divorced and re-married, it was kept discreetly in the background. His first wife was the film actress Jane Wyman, whom I interviewed as a rookie journalist: she was very ladylike and very determined to keep schtumm about that early marriage. The spin-doctors of Reagan's electoral campaign strove to eliminate mention of the fact that Ronnie would be the first divorced president in the White House. But it didn't become an issue: the public gave him a free pass because he was a Hollywood actor. And the Christians who supported him pardoned him because he was so solid on the subject of abortion (sincerely against).

But until Reagan, it was thought that a divorced president would be unelectable. Now comes Trump - twice divorced, and three times married, and nobody raises an eyebrow about this aspect of his CV. Indeed, the ex-wives (Ivana Trump and Marla Maples) and the present wife (Melania) are all seen as attractive parts of the narrative of his life, and the offspring of the three marriages are photographed in smiling unity together. We are getting to be as familiar with the family cast as the public once was with the various siblings and scions of the Kennedy dynasty.

There's Donald Jnr, eldest son from the marriage to Ivana: he was just 13 when his parents divorced, his father already publicly associating with Marla Maples, wife No 2, and mother of Tiffany. But judging by the family photographs, Donald Jnr - who has five children with his wife Vanessa - and Tiffany, now 23, seem to get along fine. There's Ivanka, from the first marriage, being quite sweet to her young half-brother, Barron, Melania's son. The fascinating inter-play of family dynamics make a great Jeffrey Archer saga.

An outsider can never tell what really goes on in a family, so you wouldn't know - unless an insider reveals it - what rivalries and tensions may bubble beneath the surface. Since dynasties always favour big families to strengthen the hold of clan power, there must be some pressure on second son Eric, married to Lara (like Ivanka's husband Jared Kushner, she is religiously Jewish), to produce babies and add to the Trump gene pool.

We all know instances of the "reconstituted family", where there's a first spouse and then a successor, and there are various sibs, half-sibs, and step-sibs. Some get along well, some are riven with hostilities, and some just tolerate each other - a bit like other families. I have encountered perfectly straightforward families where mother and father were faithful until death, and yet some of the siblings are locked into a feud that has lasted for decades.

One of the best known is the feud between the literary sisters, Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt: they fell out years ago, and although they may nod to one another at funerals, they have never patched up their differences. The Mitford sisters also battled unto death. Jessica was "not on speakers" with Diana (mother of Desmond Guinness) - Jessica was a Marxist, and Diana a Mosleyite. No divorce tensions caused these family hostilities.

I can think of situations where the first wife regards the second wife as a rapacious, sex-mad usurper, and situations where the first and second wives get along quite amiably. I've also heard older ex-wives chortle with glee as second younger wives find themselves caring for their mutual husband now diminished in health - "ha ha! She stole my husband, now she can push his wheelchair." And don't let's start on wills and inheritance rows.

Family funerals can bring out hidden tensions: a patina of civilisation may be maintained, but afterwards you hear a torrent of abuse from a second partner that the first partner's offspring are toxic brats and bitches. Weddings too: there's the "I'm not going if he's going" reflex, so that the young couple whose parents are divorced and re-partnered have to make elaborate arrangements whereby one parent attends the church or civil wedding location, and the other parent comes to the reception afterwards.

But there can be happy outcomes: a daughter who always wanted a brother thrilled when her father remarried and had a baby son. Outcomes are often down to disposition, and that mercurial element of chemistry whereby some people just hit it off with one another, and some people don't. Is blood thicker than water? Sometimes it's fiercer, and blood hatreds are all the more passionate because of the kinship connection.

In "reconstituted families" much depends on how the adults handle the break-up and re-forming of relationships. I think most children would want parents to remain together in harmony (and those of us whose parents were happy together surely benefit from that union): but if it doesn't happen, there can be family reconstruction. And it seems to have occurred with the Trumps.


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