“Stupid” and “vicious”––that’s how Donald Trump has described the recent book exposing the toxic Trump family dynamic, written by his only niece, Mary L. Trump. (As usual, his accusations of others unintentionally describe himself best.) Her book, of course, is neither––it’s restrained and rational, full of detailed memories and observations relayed remarkably without rancor or self-pity, no matter how painful the recalled events.
“Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man” isn’t exactly an equivocating title, and the memoir, for all its evenhanded tone, does ultimately pass devastatingly negative judgment. Mary’s conclusion: that her uncle is “a petty, pathetic little man––ignorant, incapable, out of his depth, and lost in his own delusional spin.”
After long silence, incredulous in the face of the President’s last three years, Mary Trump decided to speak out before the upcoming election. (As has former national security advisor John Bolton, whose book was also published by Simon & Schuster this year; Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen’s tell-all is just being released.) The day Trump was declared President, Mary was traumatized: “It felt as though 62,979,636 voters had chosen to turn this country into a macro version of my malignantly dysfunctional family.”
Not that her book will change your mind, however you may already be aligned. Anyone who’s listened to the news or followed the tweets has abundant information to evaluate Trump’s character and presidency. Those dismayed by the wreckage the President has made of the economy, the judiciary, the Constitution, the press, the right to free assembly and dissent, the health and environmental systems (and now even the voting process) need no further evidence. What Mary’s book offers is an insider’s look within the family, the routine events that add up in our daily lives, starting with the child’s point of view. Mary herself––now a trained psychologist, businessperson, and mother––feels nearly faceless in this account, her childhood presence bland, almost mousy. Like everyone else in the family, she fell under the all-enveloping power of her grandfather, Fred Trump, for over seven decades a successful if ruthless Queens real estate developer.
From a psychologist’s perspective, Mary identifies her grandfather as a sociopath, known for his absolutism and cruelty, dismissive of his wife’s illnesses, tyrannically determining the fate of his five children, and measuring everyone’s worth only in financial terms. She cites core symptoms of sociopathy: lack of empathy, facility for lying, an indifference to right and wrong, abusive behavior, and a disregard for the rights of others.
His elder son and first designated successor, Fred Jr. (Mary’s father) was a charming man who tried out the family business but preferred his own path, as a TWA pilot (which Fred Sr. derided as “a bus driver in the sky”). For a time, until he was roped back into the family empire, yet destined to fail––as Fred Sr. ridiculed and belittled him mercilessly and publicly. Anyone who hasn’t grown up in a 20th-century patriarchal household––one that’s distinctly destructive, not toughly benevolent––may be astonished at Fred Sr.’s callous treatment of his family members. His behavior stemmed from the entitled assumption that his will and desires were all that mattered: he was “the ultimate arbiter of his children’s worth.”
Fred Jr. couldn’t resist the pressure––turned to alcoholism; threatened and was eventually left by his wife, Linda; died early, at age 42 in 1981, neglected for three weeks in his final illness in a bedroom in his parents’ home. (Donald and his sister Elizabeth went off to the movies the night Fred died in hospital.)
Fred Jr. had understood that “in family, as in life, there could only be one winner; everybody else had to lose. Freddy kept trying and failing to do the right thing; Donald began to realize that there was nothing he could do wrong, so he stopped trying to do anything right; he became bolder and more aggressive because he was rarely challenged or held to account by the only person in the world who mattered––his father. Fred liked his killer attitude, even if it manifested as bad behavior.”
Mary’s account is clear-eyed about her father and Donald both. Fred Sr. had already elevated Donald to heir apparent, favoring him at every turn. She recounts the self-perpetuating cycle: Fred would throw money at Donald, who’d grow even more confident, taking on riskier projects, failing even more spectacularly, requiring more infusion of cash. She describes a developmental behavior we can see in office today: “By continuing to enable Donald, my grandfather kept making him worse; more needy for media attention and free money, more self-aggrandizing and delusional about his ‘greatness.’”
And years later, by the 2016 election, she writes that “Donald met any challenges to his sense of superiority with anger, his fear and vulnerabilities so effectively buried he didn’t even have to acknowledge they existed.”
Donald was “Fred’s monster,” his creation and myth. No great businessman or dealmaker, he was in reality expert at self-promotion, a marketer, a builder of brands. Some in society saw him only as “the court jester from Queens”; for Fred Sr., his puppeteer, he was of extreme use.
In portraying all Fred’s children, Mary shows their dependency and squelched autonomy, as well as their understandable survival mechanisms––lying, concealing, hiding emotions. For Donald, she says, a sense of shame, vulnerability, and unaffirmed self-worth led to the bully’s swagger––his cruelty an exercise of power and distraction from his inadequacies and failures.
When Fred Sr. died in 1999, Mary and her brother Fred III (Fritz) found themselves effectively cut out of the inheritance once promised to their father; the patriarch had hated his son’s flight attendant wife and was determined neither she nor her offspring would reap his riches. They were minimally included with the other grandchildren, receiving “less than a tenth of 1%” of what their aunts and uncles inherited.
Eventually, they decided to sue but finally gave up when intimidated with tax threats and removal of their health insurance, which Fritz depended on for constant nursing care for his son’s cerebral palsy. Only much later, repeatedly approached by New York Times journalists and re-examining legal documents, did Mary discover the extent of the family fortune, which had been concealed by lawyers on both sides. Her materials allowed the Times to publish its extensive expose of Trump family finances in October 2018.
“Too Much and Never Enough” provides a fuller understanding of the personalities within the Trump dynasty, following the fault lines in the family structure, the continued gaslighting and revisionism. Despite Fred Sr. being a generous donor to charities, stinginess prevails. What’s perhaps most striking are the moments of smallness throughout the family––the chilly, substandard apartment that wouldn’t be repaired; at holidays, the wealthiest regifting inappropriate gifts (with part missing). Or the image of Donald, watching his young sons wrestling: “Every once in a while, he’d stick his foot out and kick whichever boy was being pinned to the floor.”
And saddest of all, to my mind, was Mary’s final treatment and rejection at the hands of her grandmother she’d dutifully attended over the years, likely hoping for some crumbs of normal affection. To re-appropriate one of Donald’s favorite insults, this memoir illuminates a family dynamic that can only be summed up as “nasty.”
Mary L. Trump, “Too Much and Never Enough,” Simon & Schuster, 2020, 225 pp.
Barbara Adams, a regional theatre and arts writer, teaches writing at Ithaca College.