Authors: Mary L. Trump;
“Don't let them get you down,” I said to him as my brother took the picture. It wasn't long after his first national security advisor had been fired in disgrace, and the cracks in his presidency were already beginning to show.
Donald jutted out his chin and clenched his teeth, looking for a moment like the ghost of my grandmother. “They're not going to get me,” he said.
When Donald announced his run for the presidency on June 16, 2015, I didn't take it seriously. I didn't think
took it seriously. He simply wanted the free publicity for his brand. He'd done that sort of thing before. When his poll numbers started to rise and he may have received tacit assurances from Russian president Vladimir Putin that Russia would do everything it could to swing the election in his favor, the appeal of winning grew.
“He's a clown,” my aunt Maryanne said during one of our regular lunches at the time. “This will never happen.”
We talked about how his reputation as a faded reality star and failed
businessman would doom his run. “Does anybody even believe the bullshit that he's a self-made man? What has he even accomplished on his own?” I asked.
“Well,” Maryanne said, as dry as the Sahara, “he has had five bankruptcies.”
When Donald started addressing the opioid crisis and using my father's history with alcoholism to burnish his anti-addiction bona fides to seem more sympathetic, both of us were angry.
“He's using your father's memory for political purposes,” Maryanne said, “and that's a sin, especially since Freddy should have been the star of the family.”
We thought the blatant racism on display during Donald's announcement speech would be a deal breaker, but we were disabused of that idea when Jerry Falwell, Jr., and other white evangelicals started endorsing him. Maryanne, a devout Catholic since her conversion five decades earlier, was incensed. “What the fuck is wrong with them?” she said. “The only time Donald went to church was when the cameras were there. It's mind boggling. He has no principles. None!”
Nothing Donald said during the campaignâfrom his disparagement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arguably the most qualified presidential candidate in the history of the country, as a “nasty woman,” to his mocking of Serge Kovaleski, a disabled
New York Times
reporterâdeviated from my expectation of him. In fact, I was reminded of every family meal I'd ever attended during which Donald had talked about all of the women he considered ugly fat slobs or the men, usually more accomplished or powerful, he called losers while my grandfather and Maryanne, Elizabeth, and Robert all laughed and joined in. That kind of casual dehumanization of people was commonplace at the Trump dinner table. What
surprise me was that he kept getting away with it.
Then he received the nomination. The things I had thought would disqualify him seemed only to strengthen his appeal to his base. I still wasn't concernedâI was confident he could never be electedâbut the idea that he had a shot at it was unnerving.
Late in the summer of 2016, I considered speaking out about the ways I knew Donald to be completely unqualified. By this time, he had emerged relatively unscathed from the Republican National Convention and his call for “Second Amendment people” to stop Hillary Clinton. Even his attack on Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Gold Star parents whose son Humayun, a US Army captain, had died in Iraq, seemed not to matter. When the majority of Republicans polled still supported him after the
tape was released, I knew I had made the right decision.
I began to feel as though I were watching my family history, and Donald's central role in it, playing out on a grand scale. Donald's competition in the race was being held to higher standards, just as my father had always been, while he continued to get away withâand even be rewarded forâincreasingly crass, irresponsible, and despicable behavior.
This can't possibly be happening again
, I thought. But it was.
The media failed to notice that not one member of Donald's family, apart from his children, his son-in-law, and his current wife said a word in support of him during the entire campaign. Maryanne told me she was lucky because, as a federal judge, she needed to maintain her objectivity. She may have been the only person in the country, given her position as his sister and her professional reputation, who, if she had spoken out about Donald's complete unfitness for the office, might have made a difference. But she had her own secrets to keep, and I wasn't entirely surprised when she told me after the election that she'd voted for her brother out of “family loyalty.”
Growing up in the Trump family, particularly as Freddy's child, presented certain challenges. In some ways I've been extremely fortunate. I attended excellent private schools and had the security of first-rate medical insurance for much of my life. There was also, though, a built-in sense of scarcity that applied to all of us, except Donald. After my grandfather died in 1999, I learned that my father's line had been erased from the will as if Fred Trump's oldest son had never existed, and a lawsuit followed. In the end, I concluded that if I spoke publicly
about my uncle, I would be painted as a disgruntled, disinherited niece looking to cash in or settle a score.
In order to understand what brought Donaldâand all of usâto this point, we need to start with my grandfather and his own need for recognition, a need that propelled him to encourage Donald's reckless hyperbole and unearned confidence that hid Donald's pathological weaknesses and insecurities.
As Donald grew up, he was forced to become his own cheerleader, first, because he needed his father to believe he was a better and more confident son than Freddy was; then because Fred required it of him; and finally because he began to believe his own hype, even as he paradoxically suspected on a very deep level that nobody else did. By the time of the election, Donald met any challenges to his sense of superiority with anger, his fear and vulnerabilities so effectively buried that he didn't even have to acknowledge they existed. And he never would.
In the 1970s, after my grandfather had already been preferring and promoting Donald for years, the New York media picked up the baton and began disseminating Donald's unsubstantiated hype. In the 1980s, the banks joined in when they began to fund his ventures. Their willingness (and then their need) to foster his increasingly unfounded claims to success hung on the hopes of recouping their losses.
After a decade during which Donald floundered, dragged down by bankruptcies and reduced to fronting for a series of failed products from steaks to vodka, the television producer Mark Burnett gave him yet another chance.
traded on Donald's image as the brash, self-made dealmaker, a myth that had been the creation of my grandfather five decades earlier and that astonishingly, considering the vast trove of evidence disproving it, had survived into the new millennium almost entirely unaltered. By the time Donald announced his run for the Republican Party nomination in 2015, a significant percentage of the American population had been primed to believe that myth.
To this day, the lies, misrepresentations, and fabrications that are
the sum total of who my uncle is are perpetuated by the Republican Party and white evangelical Christians. People who know better, such as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell; true believers, such as Representative Kevin McCarthy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General William Barr; and others too numerous to name, have become, unwittingly or not, complicit in their perpetuation.
None of the Trump siblings emerged unscathed from my grandfather's sociopathy and my grandmother's illnesses, both physical and psychological, but my uncle Donald and my father, Freddy, suffered more than the rest. In order to get a complete picture of Donald, his psychopathologies, and the meaning of his dysfunctional behavior, we need a thorough family history.
In the last three years, I've watched as countless pundits, armchair psychologists, and journalists have kept missing the mark, using phrases such as “malignant narcissism” and “narcissistic personality disorder” in an attempt to make sense of Donald's often bizarre and self-defeating behavior. I have no problem calling Donald a narcissistâhe meets all nine criteria as outlined in the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
(DSM-5)âbut the label gets us only so far.
I received my PhD in clinical psychology from the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies, and while doing research for my dissertation I spent a year working on the admissions ward of Manhattan Psychiatric Center, a state facility, where we diagnosed, evaluated, and treated some of the sickest, most vulnerable patients. In addition to teaching graduate psychology, including courses in trauma, psychopathology, and developmental psychology, for several years as an adjunct professor, I provided therapy and psychological testing for patients at a community clinic specializing in addictions.
Those experiences showed me time and again that diagnosis doesn't exist in a vacuum. Does Donald have other symptoms we aren't aware of? Are there other disorders that might have as much or more explanatory power? Maybe. A case could be made that he also meets the
criteria for antisocial personality disorder, which in its most severe form is generally considered sociopathy but can also refer to chronic criminality, arrogance, and disregard for the rights of others. Is there comorbidity? Probably. Donald may also meet some of the criteria for dependent personality disorder, the hallmarks of which include an inability to make decisions or take responsibility, discomfort with being alone, and going to excessive lengths to obtain support from others. Are there other factors that should be considered? Absolutely. He may have a long undiagnosed learning disability that for decades has interfered with his ability to process information. Also, he is alleged to drink upward of twelve Diet Cokes a day and sleep very little. Does he suffer from a substance- (in this case caffeine-) induced sleep disorder? He has a horrible diet and does not exercise, which may contribute to or exacerbate his other possible disorders.
The fact is, Donald's pathologies are so complex and his behaviors so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would require a full battery of psychological and neuropsychological tests that he'll never sit for. At this point, we can't evaluate his day-to-day functioning because he is, in the West Wing, essentially institutionalized. Donald has been institutionalized for most of his adult life, so there is no way to know how he would thrive, or even survive, on his own in the real world.
At the end of my aunts' birthday party in 2017, as we lined up for our pictures, I could see that Donald was already under a kind of stress he'd never experienced before. As the pressures upon him have continued to mount over the course of the last three years, the disparity between the level of competence required for running a country and his incompetence has widened, revealing his delusions more starkly than ever before.
Many, but by no means all of us, have been shielded until now from the worst effects of his pathologies by a stable economy and a lack of serious crises. But the out-of-control COVID-19 pandemic, the possibility of an economic depression, deepening social divides along
political lines thanks to Donald's penchant for division, and devastating uncertainty about our country's future have created a perfect storm of catastrophes that no one is less equipped than my uncle to manage. Doing so would require courage, strength of character, deference to experts, and the confidence to take responsibility and to course correct after admitting mistakes. His ability to control unfavorable situations by lying, spinning, and obfuscating has diminished to the point of impotence in the midst of the tragedies we are currently facing. His egregious and arguably intentional mishandling of the current catastrophe has led to a level of pushback and scrutiny that he's never experienced before, increasing his belligerence and need for petty revenge as he withholds vital funding, personal protective equipment, and ventilators that your tax dollars have paid for from states whose governors don't kiss his ass sufficiently.
In the 1994 film based on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's novel, Frankenstein's monster says, “I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” After referencing that quote, Charles P. Pierce wrote in
, “[Donald] doesn't plague himself with doubt about what he's creating around him. He is proud of his monster. He glories in its anger and its destruction and, while he cannot imagine its love, he believes with all his heart in its rage. He is Frankenstein without conscience.”
That could more accurately have been said about Donald's father, Fred, with this crucial difference: Fred's monsterâthe only child of his who mattered to himâwould ultimately be rendered unlovable by the very nature of Fred's preference for him. In the end, there would be no love for Donald at all, just his agonizing thirsting for it. The rage, left to grow, would come to overshadow everything else.
When Rhona Graff, Donald's longtime gatekeeper, sent me and my daughter an invitation to attend Donald's election-night party in New
York City, I declined. I wouldn't be able to contain my euphoria when Clinton's victory was announced, and I didn't want to be rude. At 5:00 the next morning, only a couple of hours after the opposite result had been announced, I was wandering around my house, as traumatized as many other people but in a more personal way: it felt as though 62,979,636 voters had chosen to turn this country into a macro version of my malignantly dysfunctional family.