“All words like Peace and Love, All sane affirmative speech, Had been soiled, profaned, debased To a horrid mechanical screech.” — W.H. Auden, We Too Had Known Golden Hours.
So there it is, the question so many people have been asking in anguish for some years now, finally answered.
How did this happen?
How did Donald Trump, a person so damaged and dishonest and unfit to lead a nation get to fail upward so dramatically and spectacularly and become the chosen leader of what is now a leaderless country in agony and a shrinking free world?
The answer is that child abuse can profoundly damage the child who experienced it.
What we didn’t realize is that one damaged child could also profoundly damage the whole world, humiliate our country, undermind our system of government, and ruin the earth.
Or that so many people would rush to abandon their and our values to enable a valueless man-child.
The answer seems so small and simple that it can’t possibly be the answer to so painful and sad and wide-ranging catastrophe as Donald Trump’s presidency.
After reading Mary Trump’s new book, I have no doubt of it.
Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil after attending Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. It was often the respectable members of society, untouched by poverty or empathy, who were the first to yield, she found.
They simply exchanged one value system for another.
The cruelest and most destructive things, write Arendt, are often done by broken or empty people who have no idea what they are doing.
Moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, they are all over the world, and all that the rest of us will be left with is the mere habit of hanging on to something.
These enablers will also fall, they will be answering questions and explaining themselves for a long time to come. The question to be asked of those who obeyed orders, Arendt argued, should never be, “Why did you obey?” but “Why did you support?”
I thought of that a dozen times as I read Mary Trump’s book.
Today, I got to sit down with the book of the moment: Too Much And Too Little: How My Family Created The World’s Most Dangerous Man, and finish it.
It was written by Mr. Trump’s niece, someone who got to watch him closely in a way no journalist possibly could: she grew up with him.
It is a gripping, harrowing, riveting book, so intensely personal it is sometimes draining, so intimate it is sometimes uncomfortable.
I could not put it down. Afterward, I had to take a walk to digest it.
The book is 225 pages long, about one fifth the size of John Bolton’s unfathomable, poorly written, and self-serving account of life in the Trump White House.
Although Mary Trump’s book is five times shorter than Bolton’s, it is ten times more powerful and informative.
She walks us step-by-step through a process where the child of a sick and remote mother and a savagely cruel and unloving father pummel a child all the way into life without responsibility, conscience, decency, or mercy.
Frightening in one way – she calls her uncle a “Frankenstein Without Conscience” – and hopeful in another; she describes a man utterly incapable of changing or fixing anything, let alone a pandemic or racial reckoning, and including his own increasingly damaging mistakes.
If Trump is a monster, his father got there ahead of him. Mary Trump holds him accountable and responsible for damaging his son Donald so severely.
People should be punished for what Fred Trump Sr. did to his second son and his children. And Trump, poor soul, was the favorite.
The person Mary Trump describes in the book is capable of one thing only: a sociopathic inclination to do as much damage and spew as much hate and division as he possibly can.
The book is like no other written by or about our 45th President, or any President. It is no tell-all tale; there is no insider Washington gossip, no Bob Woodwardian revelations.
It is perhaps the most personal and revealing book ever written about an American President. It may also be the most damming, coming as it does from someone in a position to know what she is talking about, and the writing skills to present it.
Every reporter dreams of getting to sit where she sat. Few ever do.
Mary Trump, a trained clinical psychologist, gives us the story of a family that produced a damaged man and hounded another to death – her father.
Thus the story of the chosen one, brutalized and terrified.
You will never find Donald Trump’s real story in those tax returns, which hardly seem to matter any longer.
I found it in this book.
Child abuse hurts, child abuse can break spirits, kill empathy, eradicate the conscience, and even damage nations.
Mary Trump watched Donald Trump mature in horror.
She writes, “I watched in real-time as Donald shredded norms, endangered alliances, and trod upon the vulnerable. The only thing about it that surprised me was the increasing number of people willing to enable him.”
She wrote that as she watched our democracy begin to disintegrate and people’s lives begin to unravel due to Donald Trump’s policies,
As a result, she returned the call of a New York Times reporter and agreed to help the paper put together the story of economic fraud long practiced by the Trump family.
Her training in clinical psychology gave her a language to use that is both credible and very easy to read.
She didn’t bombard us with clinical terms, but with feelings and insights.
She didn’t show off what she knows; she just wrote simply and clearly about them. Trump is really “Doctor Trump,” she holds a Ph.D. from the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies and taught graduate courses in trauma, psychopathology and development psychology.
The Donald Trump of today, she writes, is much as he was at three years old; “incapable of growing, learning, or evolving, unable to regulate his emotions, moderate his responses, or take in and synthesize information.”
The following passage was especially wrenching for me. I think of the left behind people who worked so hard to elect him and loved him so dearly. Betrayed by leaders before, it is their fate to have been betrayed once more.
“Donald’s need for affirmation is so great that he doesn’t seem to notice that the largest group of his supporters are people he wouldn’t condescend to be seen with the outside of a rally. His deep-seated insecurity requires the light of compliments that disappears as soon as he’s soaked in. Nothing is ever enough,” Trump writes.
That was one of the saddest paragraphs in the book to me. They don’t seem to notice that either.
Watching those rallies, I was struck again and again at the trust and faith these people showed to this man of lies, private clubs, golf courses, valets, the rankest elitism, and groveling attendants.
They have been left behind before, and it is hard to accept that they are so close to being abandoned again.
Donald Trump is their problem, not their solution.
Using people is not the same as loving them. To love a politician – Trumps is a demagogue, not a politician – is usually to wait for a broken heart. Everybody leaves him, one way or the other.
The suffering of his followers is far from over.
The people who can’t shake off their fear of Trump triumphing once more or clinging somehow to power should read this book and be comforted by it.
A field mouse would have a better shot at winning this election right now.
For months now, I’ve been trying to chronicle Donald Trump’s rapidly accumulating and often self-inflicted problems.
According to Mary Trump, President Trump’s problems are worsening because the maneuvering required to solve them, or to pretend they don’t exist, or to lie about them, has become more complicated.
His blunders require more and more people to clean up after him, sugar-coat his failures, or carry out the many cover-ups now underway.
“Donald is completely unprepared to solve his own problems or adequately cover his tracks. After all, the systems were set up in the first place to protect him from his own weaknesses, “writes Mary Trump, “and the walls of his very expensive and well-guarded cell are beginning to disintegrate.”
Even before Mary Trump’s book was published, Trump was becoming a modern-day Nero, fiddling, and whining while many thousands of his subjects took ill and died.
There is no worse or telling image than that for a politician seeking office to project. The problem with a narcissistic leader is that his arrogance and self-absorption keeps him from looking back or turning around to see where he really is.
Trump is addicted to those cheering mobs, but he can’t see that they have lost their moment and their thrill. It isn’t working any longer, there is no joy in CoronaLand. And in case he hasn’t noticed, no one is paying much attention to them right now. There are much bigger stories.
Trump’s curse is that he hears them cheering even when they are no longer there.
The crowd in Tulsa was a humiliating disaster, and his staff ducked another embarrassment in New Hampshire, claiming a tropical storm kept the crowds from coming, so the rally had to be canceled.
Journalists are the world’s most fickle lovers. They always go for the latest thing – pandemics, protests. When they go back, it’s never the same. The spell is broken.
Strike Three is coming up in Jacksonville, Fla: lots of people are bailing out of the Jacksonville, Fla. convention, a prime ticket to the virus, as well as a nomination.
Everyone one of these is what politicians and their managers call “ego wounds.” They are self-inflicted. Joe Biden’s staff knows this. Their candidate is prone to gaffes and misstatements, so he mostly talks on videos and makes himself the smallest possible target.
Trump is defeating himself, why get in the way of that gift?
Trump’s followers are not, in fact, stupid as he must think they are. Going to a rally to shout and threaten the reporters is one thing, risking your life for no reason is another.
The great irony of a leader like Trump is that we can’t win under his rule, but he can’t either. We have stalemated one another; he is just riding out the clock, brooding in his castle, setting fire to the hayfields as the end comes near.
The so-called resistance has become a guerilla operation, more like the Viet Cong than political opposition. The Tik-Tok kids will strike again, even if he bans their site, as he is promising to do. Wild-eyed anarchists are knocking down statues.
The portrait President Trump’s niece paints of him is that of a fractured man who continues to exist in the dark space between the fear of indifference and the fear of failure that led to his brother Fred’s destruction at the hands of an uncaring and vicious family.
Trump doesn’t mind being caught out in a lie; he doesn’t mind fishing for compliments while people die; he doesn’t mind crushing anyone in his path.
What he minds the most is not being noticed at all, and he will try to burn Washington to the ground before permitting that to happen.
Mary Trump blames the media for failing to reveal the true nature of Trump during his wild campaign for the presidency. There is a lot to her claim.
If they had exposed Trump’s lies and outrageously false claims about himself, they might actually have saved the American people from his presidency.
I thought Mary Trump was especially insightful in helping us understand how the pandemic and Donald Trump’s flaws denied the President of his usual success at deflecting bad news, lying about his decisions, or demonstrating any depth of understanding of how government works.
She mentions Trump’s decision to abandon press briefings where he was often asked questions he couldn’t answer to what the reporters call “chopper talk.
On the way to his roaring helicopter, he stops to answer “questions” and pretends he can’t hear the questions he doesn’t like.
Journalists were happy to enable this denigration of truth and accountability.
These “briefings” quickly devolved into impromptu campaign rallies filled with self-congratulation, demagoguery, and ring and butt-kissing.
Lots of people enabled the Trump presidency, but the once-proud news media has much to answer for. Nobody rolled over more than they did and do.
I wrote several times about what people call Trump’s “strategic brilliance” in understanding the intersection of media and politics. As Mary Trump made clear to me, I was way off.
I confused flash – and success – for substance. But when all is said and done, the Donald Trump story says as much about us as it does about him. How did we get here?
Why did it take so long for Donald Trump to respond at all to the virus or the racial protests? Why won’t he take the coronavirus seriously, even as it has killed more than 135,000 Americans?
In part, writes Mary Trump, because, “like my grandfather, he has no imagination. The pandemic didn’t immediately have to do with him, and managing the crisis in every moment doesn’t help him promote his preferred narrative that no one has ever done a better job than him.”
As the pandemic moved into its fourth month, the press finally began to notice that President Trump lacked empathy for those who died and the families they left behind. For one thing, he hardly ever mentioned them. For another, he can’t take empathy, so he doesn’t bother to try.
“The simple fact,” writes Mary Trump, “is that Donald is fundamentally incapable of acknowledging the suffering of others. Telling the stories of those we’ve lost would bore him. Acknowledging the victims of COVID-19 would be to associate himself with their weakness, a trait his father taught him to despise.”
The President, she suggested, equates threats with weakness, and he can have no weaknesses. He is still talking to his father, trying to please him.
Mary Trump surprised me by zeroing in one of my favorite stories, the dueling ideologies of leadership raging just beneath the surface for months by Donald Trump and Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York.
It was quite a show, the two of them put on, each dancing around the other, a duel Cuomo won by a country mile.
I wrote that this was a kind of dueling reality TV battle, and the piece was shared more than 300,000 times on Facebook, which astonished me.
Mary Trump recognized the damage Andrew Cuomo was doing to Trump as he became the de facto leader of the nation’s response to COVID-19.
The New York Governor was the opposite of Trump in every way. He brandished facts, told the truth, was both empathetic and human, and was successful.
As I write this, New York City had its first day without a single new death from the virus, even as the virus ran out of control through much of the South. Trump’s pandemic leader smells about as good as week-old fish.
Cuomo said Mary Trump not only “committed the sin of insufficient kissing Donald’s ass but the ultimate sin of showing Donald up by being better and more competent, a real leader who was respected and admired.”
Reporters in Washington said Cuomo’s was getting so much praise, and Trump so little, that this was the reason he canceled those awful press conferences in the White House press room.
I know it’s difficult for many people to sympathize with Donald Trump, but I do keep thinking about that child. I also had a father who I could never please, and while I don’t wish to compare myself with any President, I know that’s a shadow that’s hard to step out of.
Why isn’t Donald Trump leading? Mary Trump has an answer. It’s because he always withdraws to his comfort zone – Twitter, Fox News, his rallies – casting blame on others, hiding deep in a fortified bunker. The White House is even better than Trump Tower.
He rants and fumes about fake news and Democrats and the weakness of others even as he shocks even his worst detractors by showing us his own.
What he can never escape, writes his psychologist niece, is that he is and always will be a terrified little boy with a very big grown-up job.