Mary L. Trump’s book has been called a Trump family “tell all,” but this is less a family history than an analysis of the family dynamics that created Fred Trump’s little monster, Donald. There are some interesting family details there, most of which have already been revealed in the media hype surrounding its release, but Mary L. Trump spends much of her book (which is less than 250 pages and a pretty quick read) trying to explain how Donald became the self aggrandizing bully that he is and why her father Freddy Trump died so young, ostracized by his family. The bottom line for Mary is that her grandparents Fred and Mary Trump made their children what they are through their atrocious parenting, and that money, power and disdain for weakness were the core values that Fred passed along to his children.
The book is divided into four parts. Part I is entitled “The Cruelty is the Point,” a reference to a piece Adam Serwer wrote for The Atlantic about Donald Trump. This section of the book focuses on Fred and Mary Trump as parents and their impact on their children’s formative years. The five Trump children — Maryanne, Freddy (the author’s father), Elizabeth, Donald and Robert — lacked a warm, loving, nurturing home environment. Mom Mary was frequently ill and an emotionally needy woman who seemed especially inept at raising boys. Father Fred was a successful builder and landlord (thanks in part to an investment that his mother made in him when he was starting out). It is Fred’s cruelty that is essential to understand here. While Fred was not an angry or physically abusive man, he had zero tolerance for any sort of weakness or vulnerability, especially from his sons. As the eldest son, Freddy (the author’s father) would be his father’s heir and was expected to be able to one day take over Trump Management. The problem was that Freddy was not particularly interested in this work and was never good enough at it for his father. Fred’s bullying and psychological abuse of Freddy had a devastating impact on his mental and emotional health and led to Freddy leaving the family business to pursue a career that he loved as an airline pilot. Fred saw this as an act of betrayal for which Freddy was never forgiven. Freddy married a woman Fred disliked and had two children (Mary and her older brother Fritz), but he also struggled with alcoholism, another weakness that Fred Trump thought could be overcome by force of will. As far as Mary L. Trump is concerned, her grandfather Fred’s cruelty, his complete lack of empathy and his delight in tearing down “weak” people completely broke down her father.
Meanwhile, younger brother Donald watched his father’s cruelty and his older brother’s “weakness” and learned a lesson: weakness and vulnerability are to be feared and avoided at all costs. Young Donald was a terror at home, and his mother couldn’t handle him, so he was sent to a military academy, where his contempt for weakness and admiration for power were only reinforced. Mary writes that Fred Trump came to admire his younger son’s arrogance and bullying nature, which is not surprising as it sounds like Donald was a chip off the old block. In Part II, “The Wrong Side of the Tracks,” we learn that once Donald was out of school, Fred brought him in to Trump Management and anointed him the favorite son, despite the fact that Donald really wasn’t a good businessman. Fred saw that Donald had talents that he lacked. Donald was confident and brash and wanted to insert himself into New York’s power circles. Fred, while a smart and successful businessman, lacked that kind of personality and he saw that Donald could use his talents to promote development outside of Brooklyn, which is where Trump Management had had most of its success. Mary L. Trump describes them as the classic con artists: Donald played the crowds while Fred used dubious business practices behind the scenes to enrich his company. The problem is that Donald, thanks to his father, really believed himself a great businessman and a “self-made man.” Fred was happy to perpetuate this myth so long as the company was getting favorable press and Fred could cut deals behind closed doors. Fred paid Donald extravagantly and gave him access to any funding he wanted. Meanwhile the other Trump children, now adults, had to ask Fred for access to their trust fund money and were usually denied. All of the Trumps deferred to Fred and Donald.
While Donald’s star was rising, Freddy’s was dying out. His alcoholism cost him his job as a pilot, his marriage fell apart, and he had to go back to his father for support. Fred was not a forgiving man and as Freddy’s health deteriorated, both Fred and Mary seemed disgusted with their son. Mary L. Trump’s description of their treatment of her father just prior to his death is heartbreaking, and it demonstrates the selfishness and heartlessness not just of Freddy’s parents but also of his siblings.
Mary L. Trump was 16 when her father died, and she and her older brother were about to find out the extent of their aunts’, uncles’ and grandparents’ venality. Part III “Smoke and Mirrors” and Part IV “The Worst Investment Ever Made” are where the real nitty gritty of Trump family finances and Trump family dysfunction come out. In the 1980s, Donald became a staple of gossip columns and cultivated the image of himself as a master of “the art of the deal,” which was, of course, a lie. Fred made the deals, but when it came to Atlantic City and Trump casinos, Donald managed to fail all on his own. Fred had to bail out his son time and again, and eventually, even the banks floating him loans found themselves trying to cover up the losses and keep Donald on a budget. In the ‘90s, Fred began to suffer from dementia, and Donald attempted to take advantage of this by contacting the family lawyers to attach a codicil to Fred’s will that would have made Donald the sole executor, in charge of all the family wealth. Fred, in a moment of clarity, refused to sign the codicil and when the other siblings caught wind of Donald’s underhanded dealing, they were able to ensure that they would be named co-executors. One might think that this would lead to irreparable division among the siblings, but one would be wrong. At Fred’s death in 1999, Mary and Fritz found that they, as Freddy’s descendants, had been disowned by Fred. Rather than have the 20% of Fred’s estate which would have gone to Freddy divided between them, they received a bequeathment as grandchildren. When Fritz and Mary refused to sign the legal paperwork agreeing to this arrangement and hired a lawyer to represent their interests, the aunts, uncles and grandmother Mary banded against them. This is when the famous incident of canceling the health insurance for Fritz’s disabled child occurred. After a couple of years, they agreed to a settlement based on what their aunts and uncles claimed were Fred’s total assets, even though their lawyer said the figures were most certainly low. Mary wouldn’t discover just how low until the New York Times, with her help, unearthed the truth in 2018.
Certainly, Mary L. Trump, as both family member and clinical psychologist, can provide a unique insight on Trump family values and the ugly, dysfunctional relationship between Fred and Donald. As disturbing as the cruelty and avarice of these two men are, what I found equally disturbing was how the rest of the family caved in to Fred and then Donald due to their own venality. These people think only of themselves and their own bank accounts, and they would turn on each other in a heartbeat. The entire family essentially disowned Freddy because of Fred’s disgust with his very sick son. Mary and Fritz’s trustees —Maryanne, Donald and Robert — lied to them in order to enrich themselves. No one in this family seems capable of self reflection or remorse, and that, according to Mary, is because Fred saw such feelings as inherently weak and he enjoyed humiliating those who displayed them. One question I have after reading this is what kind of relationship Mary has now with her aunt Maryanne. The two had maintained a cordial relationship over the years, meeting for lunch, but Maryanne didn’t know that her niece was the source for the NYT story on the family’s criminal financial activity. I also wonder if Mary and Fritz will sue the family again for their share of Fred’s estate, which was severely undervalued in their settlement.
After reading this book, I am more afraid than ever that Trump will try to hold on to power by any means necessary. He has lived his entire life this way and, as Mary sees it, has always had powerful men (Fred, McConnell, Putin) who feed his ego and can put him in institutions (Trump Management, the White House) that shield him, and he is surrounded by weaker people who work to keep him there. This guy will not resign, and he will cheat, lie and steal to enrich himself. If he’ll screw over his own family, he’ll certainly continue to do it to the rest of us.