Dinner in the Trump household was a hierarchical affair. Fred Trump, the patriarch, sat at the head of the table, with son Donald on his right and daughter Maryanne on his left. Other family members took their places in descending order of assigned importance.
But one Thanksgiving, the eldest son, Fred Jr, found himself relegated to the junior end of the table with his daughter Mary. “During the course of the meal, my grandmother choked,” Mary Trump recalls. “My dad had been a volunteer ambulance driver in the late 60s and early 70s so he knew the Heimlich manoeuvre and he very gently manoeuvred her into the kitchen and gave her the Heimlich, and that basically saved her from choking.
“Nobody else moved; everybody kept eating. It was a sort of awkward, embarrassing thing that Gam [her nickname] choked. When they came back in, it was literally like my dad had just taken out the garbage: ‘Oh, yeah. Good job, Freddy.’ He couldn’t do anything at that point to garner any respect or get credit for anything, even if it was saving their mother.”
There is no understanding Donald Trump without understanding his “malignantly dysfunctional family”, according to Mary, the first member of the clan to publish a Trump biography and question his fitness for office. Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man sold nearly a million copies on its first day of publication last week, after a failed attempt by the US president’s younger brother Robert to block it in court.
The book is a portrait of something rotten at the heart of a white suburban family’s rapacious pursuit of the American dream. When I speak to Mary, 55, over the phone from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, she describes how her “sociopath” grandfather made Trump the man he is today, reflects on the burden of carrying the Trump name and warns against the prospect of the president’s children running for political office.
Fred Trump is the villain of the piece. This ruthless New York workaholic slept about four hours a night and was driven by money. Mary writes that he showed little interest in his five children other than grooming an heir for his property business. Spurning his eldest son, Freddy, he settled on Donald, deciding that his second son’s “arrogance and bullying”, and willingness to lie and cheat, were just what the office needed.
“If you met him,” says Mary of her grandfather, “you would think he was cheerful and positive, but also intimidating and not a warm person. But deep down I have no problem describing him as a sociopath. He had no real human feeling and he treated his children variously with contempt.
“Certainly, in the case of my dad, who was the oldest son, heir apparent and namesake, there was harsh discipline and humiliation which Donald, seven and a half years younger, was able to witness and learn very specific lessons from: don’t be like Freddy, don’t be kind, don’t be generous, don’t have ‘frivolous’ interests. The other lesson he learned was that being humiliated was the worst thing that could happen to a person and he would do everything in his power to avoid the feeling of humiliation.”
It does not take much imagination to picture torturous family dinners with giant clashing egos. Racist and antisemitic language was common, Mary has said during media interviews to promote the book, noting the Trumps lived in what was then an all-white suburb in Queens, New York. Can she remember a specific example of Trump using the N-word?
“Honestly, no, because it was just this thing that happened. If my dad had said it outside of the house when we were with him that would have stood out, but he never did. In my grandparents’ house, it was just commonplace and there was nothing, unfortunately, remarkable about it.”
Mary is convinced that her uncle is racist. Would she also use terms such as fascist and white supremacist? “I don’t think he has any political ideology. For him, this is just expedient. I would say he behaves like a white supremacist, certainly. He’s acting on his own racism. He’s doing racist things that are endangering people of colour in this country. That’s much more important, so whether he would describe himself as a white supremacist or not, he’s certainly acting like one.”
In 2016, the Nation magazine ran an article headlined: “Have You Ever Seen Donald Trump Laugh?” It pointed out that almost no one has. What about Mary, a licensed psychologist? “No, and my grandfather didn’t laugh either. When you are able to laugh you’re also letting your guard down and that was frowned upon. My dad had a great sense of humour; he was a very funny guy and did know how to laugh. I think with my grandfather it was also because he was not a fully human being.”
Her book alleges that Trump paid someone to take a university entrance exam on his behalf; the White House has denied this. Freddy briefly went into the family business but loathed it, quitting to become an airline pilot. He died alone in hospital at 42 after a struggle with alcoholism, which runs deep in the family.
Mary holds her grandfather responsible. “The worst thing my grandfather did, starting from very early on, was just not accept my father for who he is. As soon as he realised that my dad wasn’t the ‘right kind of person’ – he wasn’t ‘a killer’, he wasn’t ‘tough’ – he dismissed him out of hand and quickly found a replacement in Donald.”
Trump now finds himself in the role of patriarch. He, too, was a distant father who did not, for example, involve himself in changing nappies but encouraged his children to join the family property empire. His sons, Don Jr and Eric, have become two of his most aggressive campaign surrogates, while his elder daughter, Ivanka, is a senior adviser at the White House.
Mary, who is more than a decade older than her cousins and does not know them, says: “It seems pretty clear to me they believe the way to get their father’s attention is through cruelty and subservience, and it’s a quite awful thing to see.”
Both Don Jr and Ivanka have been, half-jokingly, half-deadly seriously, touted as potential future candidates for president. If a shudder can be felt down a phone line, it comes now. “If that were allowed, that would be wrong,” Mary says. “They’re unqualified. Ivanka is the only one technically in the government and she’s unqualified to be an aide, let alone run for political office.
“None of them has ever done anything on their own. They’ve worked in their dad’s business and, from what I can tell, they really haven’t done anything else except continue to take advantage of family money. So I think that would speak to an enduring bankruptcy in the Republican party if that were to come to pass.”
Indeed, perhaps a more interesting question than Trump’s narcissism is what his ascent says about the US. He has shone a harsh light on the nation’s divisions, inequalities, insecurities, negative partisanship, neuroses and prejudices – and how far some are willing to go for a taste of power.
“That is the one thing I didn’t anticipate,” Mary goes on. “One of the reasons I was so devastated by what happened in November 2016 was because, while I knew that he was categorically unfit and incompetent and cruel, I never foresaw that 100% of Republicans in office would just enable him to the extent they have.
“It’s been horrifying because, in that sense, he’s not the problem. If he were being held to the same standards other people in his position have been held to, if they had cared about the transgressions he’s made, the lines he’s crossed, then he would have been neutralised, at least reined in. But they’ve given him permission to keep going and doubling down.”
She has also witnessed Trump’s lies, exaggerations and salesmanship up close. When she first met his wife, Melania, Trump said to his niece: “You dropped out of college, right?” He then commented: “It was really bad for a while – and then she started doing drugs.”
Mary says she has never taken drugs in her life, but Trump relishes a good comeback story. “It’s just a power play. He knew he was lying. He knew I knew he was lying. But he enjoys that kind of thing.” It is a telling anecdote about Trump’s “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story” attitude that seeks to make his audience, and the media, complicit.
Mary and her brother engaged in a protracted legal fight over Fred’s estate after his death in 1999 but she otherwise maintained a low profile, despite sharing her last name with a man who spent decades as a star of New York tabloids, reality TV and now the Washington swamp.
“I have always flown under the radar up until recently; I guess that’s not the case any more,” she muses. “When I was really young, it wasn’t an issue because nobody knew who my grandfather was outside of New York.
“It became more of a complicating factor when I was in college and I learned very early on that if somebody asked me – which happened 100% of the time when I paid with a cheque or used a credit card – if I was related, I just said no because it was so much easier. So even people I became friends with didn’t know for a long time. It’s been a burden simply knowing that it’s been my uncle who is doing these awful things but, for me personally, not really.”
Mary voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election and senator Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 Democratic primary but is fully behind presumptive nominee Joe Biden for November. “I will do whatever I can do to help him get elected.” Asked if she would accept an invitation to speak at next month’s Democratic national convention, she says simply: “That would be an honour.”
Biden currently has a significant lead in opinion polls but what if, despite everything, Trump wins re-election? “I have a very difficult time thinking about that but I think the simplest and most clear way to put it is that it would be, in my view, the end of the American experiment. The fact that people were willing to do it four years ago was devastating; that anybody would think that it’s a good idea to continue along the lines we’re going now is unthinkable.”
Mary last spoke to the president at her aunt’s birthday party at the White House in April 2017 and has no interest in doing so again. In 2018, she secretly helped New York Times reporters on an investigation that outlined how Trump and his siblings avoided millions of dollars in taxes.
Does she love her uncle? “No, I don’t,” she says without hesitation. “I used to feel compassion for him. I really did. But then that became impossible when I started learning about things that he had done and seeing what he’s been doing since January 20, 2017.”
Mary’s guidebook to the Trump psychological labyrinth is an argument for the notion that the child is father of the man. If we are all products of our circumstances, does Trump deserve some pity? She is adamant again. “No, he does not. I completely understand having sympathy and empathy for the child who did suffer mightily but it’s no excuse for his behaviour.
“He’s an adult human being who knows the difference between right and wrong, even though he doesn’t think the rules apply to him. He knows what he’s doing and one of the reasons we’re in this position is because he’s never been held accountable for anything. So his transgressions become more egregious over time and he needs to be held to account.”
• Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man by Mary Trump is £17.40 (RRP £20) at guardianbookshop.com
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