[This blog post is the opinion of Greg Nooney and not necessarily the view of the First Unitarian Church of Sioux City.]
I recommend this book for anyone who might be interested in what makes Donald Trump tick. However, for those who do not have the time to read the book, who do not want to pay the $25 to own it, or do not want to wait in line to get a hold of a copy from their public library, I offer the following review. I believe I offer a decent summary, but also permeated with lots of my opinions.
I am a clinical social worker and have been working with people diagnosed with mental illness for over thirty years. In spite of the Goldwater Rule which forbids physicians from making a mental health diagnosis of someone unless they have examined them and they have consent to do so, many have speculated as to what mental illnesses might be attributed to Donald Trump. One of the favorite diagnoses speculated was Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I am convinced that Dr. Mary Trump, daughter of Donald’s brother Freddie, is in a perfect position to address this question due to her intimate experience of the Trump family along with her training as a clinical psychologist.
Dr. Trump agrees that her uncle meets the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder and most likely Antisocial Personality Disorder as well as Dependent Personality Disorder. She suggests that one could possibly add caffeine induced sleep disorder, due to his addiction to diet Coke. She also suggests that he may in fact have a learning disability. This makes me wonder if he could possibly be functionally illiterate. If so, it might be considered cruel to make fun of his frequent misspelling of words. He did, according to Dr. Trump, pay someone to take his SAT test to get into college. Setting diagnosing aside, however, she points out that this does little to explain his behavior, as it is more complicated than that. I agree with her sentiment.
Going back to his childhood, she notes that Donald’s mother Mary Ann got very sick when Donald was 2 1/2 years old, which resulted in a profound experience of abandonment. According to Dr. Trump, Donald’s father Fred was a sociopath, had no paternal sense and an utter lack of empathy toward other human beings. In fact, had no interest in his children at all. For Fred, other human beings, unless they could be used for some purpose, were unimportant and easily ignored. This was true not only for business associates, but also for his wife, his children, and extended family members. As a result, when their mother got sick and almost died, Donald and his little brother Robert (nine months old) were basically parentless. Their older sister Maryanne, at 12 years old, did what she could to raise them. The result for Donald was what is called in psychology as insecure attachment. There are different levels of insecure attachment, the worst called disorganized attachment which occurs when the parental figure is not only unavailable, but perceived as dangerous. A young child must seek comfort from the parent because that is the way the brain is wired, even if the child is rebuffed again and again.
“For Donald and Robert, ‘needing’ became equated with humiliation, despair, and hopelessness. Because Fred didn’t want to be disturbed when he was home, it worked in his favor if his children learned one way or another not to need anything.” (p.25)
As Donald got older, he watched his father (Fred) give a great deal of attention to his older brother Freddie (Dr. Trump’s father) because he was grooming him to take over for him in his business. The attention that Freddie got, however, was without any praise. Instead it was extreme demoralization and humiliation, and ultimately, Fred decided that Freddie was too weak and he rejected him. Donald learned to mimic that cruelty toward his little brother Robert. Donald was never punished or disciplined for such cruelty. His mother (Mary Ann), when she wasn’t bedridden or recovering from another medical issue, tried to discipline him, but Fred always undermined her and Donald knew he could casually ignore his mother’s attempts at disciple and consequences. Eventually when he got old enough to where his father noticed him and thought perhaps he could be of some use to him, he rewarded Donald for the cruelty. Fred then downgraded his namesake Freddie and upgraded his fourth-born, second son, to carry on his legacy.
Dr. Trump points out that Donald is now surrounded by two types of people: smart, powerful men like Mitch McConnell who manipulate him into doing what he wants, and weak, dependent people who succumb to his cruelty and do whatever he says. As a result, he is protected from “the real world” where bad behavior produces negative consequences. In effect, she argues, he is institutionalized in the West Wing. She then argues that this institutionalization process has been going on throughout his adult life. His father, Fred, groomed Donald to be like him and insured that he never had to suffer the negative consequences for his cruel behavior. Rather, he rewarded Donald for being a “killer” (one of his favorite word offered as a praise). The one exception to this was when he sent Donald to military school where he was beaten and abused by upper class men. In this case, he rewarded Donald for pretending that it didn’t bother him.
As a young adult, Donald embarked on numerous risky and grandiose schemes, all of which ended in failure. Through these many financial failures, Fred pumped millions of dollars illegally into Trump’s accounts to save him from ruin. Donald got used to, and at the same time, desperately counted on his father’s unremitting praise for whatever he did. The intensity of that praise was amplified whenever Donald did something cruel and vicious. One of Dr. Trump’s most salient points is how she compares Donald’s relationship with his father to his relationship to other strong smart men. I am especially grateful how she underlines the powerful and deeply troubling ways in which Mitch McConnell has been pulling the puppet strings in these regards. Comparing McConnell to Putin and Jong-un is, in my opinion, spot on. If Donald is the world’s most dangerous man, as Dr. Trump states in her subtitle, Mitch has to be a close second.
“After the election, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Mitch McConnell, all of whom bear more than a passing psychological resemblance to Fred, recognized in a way others should have but did not that Donald’s checkered personal history and his unique personality flaws made him extremely vulnerable to manipulation by smarter, more powerful men. His pathologies have rendered him so simple-minded that it takes nothing more than repeating to him the things he says to and about himself dozens a time a day — he’s the smartest, the greatest, the best — to get him to do whatever they want, whether it’s imprisoning children in concentration camps, betraying allies, implementing economy-crushing tax cuts, or degrading every institution that contributed to the United States’ rise and the flourishing of liberal democracy.” (p. 200) “His cruelty is also an exercise of his power, such as it is. He has always wielded it against people who are weaker than he is or who are constrained by their duty or dependence from fighting back.” (p. 201)
Shortly after Donald’s father Fred’s death in 1999, the banks which had continually supported Donald due to Fred’s money and influence, decided to “punish” Donald because of his many bankruptcies and failed enterprises. How? They gave him an “allowance” that Donald thought was terribly unjust. The amount: $450,000 a month. That is not a misprint. We are talking about a MONTHLY ALLOWANCE. When Donald was unable to keep his expenses to that “paltry amount,” the banks admonished him, but never took any action against him (p. 137). To put this in perspective, a worker making $15 an hour (a sum that Trump and the Republicans consider much too generous as a minimum wage) would have to work full time for over 14 years to earn that much money.
Now for a bit of a critique of Dr. Trump. This is a small thing, but in order to keep track of all the Trump players and who was related to whom, I had to draw a rather complicated diagram. Part of the problem is that there are four Freds, a Mary Ann, a Maryanne, and a Mary. Also Dr. Trump will without warning, change the name to a nick name, Grandma Mary Ann all of a sudden becomes Gam; Freddie becomes Dad, and Robert becomes Rob. Also it takes a while to figure out the timeline of events as she tends to jump around a bit. A timeline and a family diagram would be a good addition to the book.
Now for the more important stuff. She does make a strong case for the ways in which her grandfather, Fred Trump, worked hard to destroy her father Freddie. Freddie did die of a heart attack in 1981 at the age of 42, due to his chronic alcoholism, and the cruelty showered on him by his father was certainly a contributing factor. However, Dr. Trump does not assign any responsibility to Freddie. At times, she seems to suggest that her family — Freddie, her mother Linda, and her brother Fritz (Donald III) — suffered terribly from financial problems. She seems to be blind to the fact that financial ruin as defined by someone from a super-wealthy family, had no resemblance to “being broke” for the rest of us. As an example, at one point Freddie begged his father for a job and was given one parking cars, which was demoralizing to him. At another time, when she claimed they were having trouble meeting expenses, Freddie cashed in some of his stocks and bought a yacht and an airplane. Also there is no indication that Dr. Trump ever had to take out a student loan or buy ramen noodles and peanut butter in order to keep from starving to death in a college dormitory.
For a period of time, the family lived in one of the Trump apartment complexes called Sunnyside Towers. She complained that when repairs needed to be made, Freddie was unable to get the maintenance man to make those repairs and she suspected that Fred purposely blocked it to punish Freddie. She noted that it never occurred to Freddie to hire someone outside of the Trump world to make the repairs as a way to illustrate the ways in which Freddie was indoctrinated into dependency to Fred’s power and controlling methods. Apparently it never occurred to her that having the financial resources to hire an outside contractor to make repairs on a rental property was something that most working folks in this country would not have.
She also noted that while staying at Sunnyside Towers, Freddie actually owned 15% of the complex, as Fred had passed on the equity to his children to evade taxes. She noted that her father may not have known this, as financial transactions were hidden and secret in the family (p.98). However, she admitted later in the book, that she herself used to receive monthly checks based on the income generated by the Trump apartment complexes, although she did not disclose the amount. Again, it apparently escaped her that if they, the Trumps, had trouble getting repairs to the many structural problems in the apartments due to the shoddy ways in which the building was built, then how much more so for other tenants. She benefited financially from those illegally built, governmental money-funded apartments that discriminated against people of color. Perhaps she could use some of the millions of dollars she will be earning from writing this book to provide some restitution or redress.
The cruelty of Fred Trump was solidified when he disinherited Mary and her brother Fritz, denying them the share of the inheritance that belonged to their deceased father Freddie. They sued to claim that money, but lost. The financial result of all the cruelty downgraded Dr. Trump and her family from the super wealthy (1% of the 1%) to the upper middle class. If she thinks that the reader will feel sorry for her for such a loss, I think she will be disappointed.
There have been three criticisms made against Dr. Trump: that she is writing the book for the money, that she is seeking revenge, and that it is a pack of lies. In my opinion, we can dismiss the accusation that she is making it up out of hand, as her account is clearly believable. She has denied the accusation that she is doing it out of revenge, but there is no doubt in my mind that she is angry and resentful for the way her father was treated by Fred and by Donald and for she and her brother being denied the inheritance that Dr. Trump felt they deserved. How could this resentment not have influenced her decision to write the book? Did she write the book for the money? Of course that is a powerful motivation and it is clear that she will be making many millions of dollars. The point I want to make is that people are multi-motived. She can be doing it for the money, and doing it for revenge. This however does not mean that she is not, in addition, writing the book for the reason she has stated, because she is genuinely concerned about the damage that her uncle, Donald Trump, has been doing to this country and the significantly more damage he will do if he is reelected.
To summarize: Dr. Trump has written a compelling account of the origins of Donald Trump, and why he is such an existential threat to our country, to democracy and to the world. She clarifies in a clear and detailed manner the origins of the Trump wealth. Friedrich Trump, born in Germany in1867, emigrated to the United States in order to avoid military service. He made a fortune through ownership in restaurants and brothels in British Columbia and through his involvement in the gold rush. He died of the Spanish flu in 1918, leaving his fortune to his wife Elizabeth and his two sons. The oldest, Fred, started working hard in high school building garages in Queens. His mother started a business for him called E. Trump and son.
Fred was cunning, disciplined, and ruthless. Eventually he made his fortune by talking the Democratic power structure of New York to grant him governmental money to build apartment buildings. He cut corners whenever he could, discriminated against people of color, used undocumented workers, and often refused to pay them. He incurred no debt and his business created what the Trump’s called the “money cow,” eventually collecting rents of over a million dollars a day. He avoided paying income and gift taxes through shady, and according to Dr. Trump, illegal activities.
Fred married Mary Ann and had five children. Mary Ann got sick and almost died when their fourth child, Donald, was 2 and a half years old. Initially Fred groomed his first born, Freddie, to take over the business but when he judged him as weak, he rejected him and began grooming Donald. Unlike Fred, Donald was not smart, nor was he disciplined. The only qualities he inherited from his father was his ruthlessness, his cruelty, his racism, his misogyny, and his lack of empathy. He lived for the shallow praises from his father, as he lacked any true sense of an inner self. His father used him as a front man, praising him no matter what he did. Whenever Donald failed, which was often, he would send him money, millions or tens of millions of dollars at a time.
As president, Donald remains without empathy, with no ability to plan or set policies, and with a desperate need for praise, resulting in a man who is easily manipulated by powerful men who remind him his father. To quote Dr. Trump (p. 211): “The country is now suffering from the same toxic positivity that my grandfather deployed specifically to drown out his ailing wife, torment his dying son, [i.e. Dr. Trump’s father Freddie], and damage past healing the psyche of his favorite child, Donald J. Trump.”
There is a sadness here as Dr. Trump, a clinical psychologist, a healer, believes that Donald's psyche is so damaged that he cannot be healed.
“He rants about the weakness of others even as he demonstrates his own. But he can never escape the fact that he is and always will be a terrified little boy” (p.210).
I believe that adults need to make decisions in families. Parents need to consult with their children about the decisions that will affect them, but they shirk their responsibilities if they allow the immature brains of their children to make adult decisions. Families where parents have lost all authority to their children are families in big trouble. Toddlers are cute and wonderful, but they are also tyrants. Authority does not, of course, mean abusive practices, rather it means taking adult responsibilities seriously and sometimes making the difficult decisions for the family. How much more serious and destructive it is when we as a country have allowed a child in an adult body to make decisions that affect everyone in this country and in many cases, the rest of the world?