Psychologist Mary Trump says her uncle can't help being cruel — but his enablers should know better
Mary Trump's bestseller, "Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man" has sold more copies in its first week than her Uncle Donald's "The Art of the Deal" sold in 29 years — and Mary hopes that gets under his skin. (It may sound disrespectful to refer to an accomplished clinical psychologist by her first name, but it's the only way to avoid massive confusion.) As I learned in my "Salon Talks" conversation with Mary, needling her uncle was not the main reason she wrote this book. It's a portrait of a troubled American family that created the damaged, sadistic man who is now president of the United States. In Mary's account, for both Donald Trump and his father, Fred Trump, cruelty can bring them joy.
Mary lost her father, Fred Trump Jr., affectionally called "Freddy," when she was 16, to health complications caused by alcoholism. Donald used his late brother as a prop on the campaign trial in 2016 and since to feign empathy for those struggling with additions, as Mary explains. But her father was far more than a man defined by his alcoholism. In fact, it was the cruelty of Freddy's father — and to a lesser degree his brother — that contributed greatly to his losing battle with drinking. Fred Trump demanded that Freddy work in the family real estate business, and when Freddy refused, instead becoming a pilot, Fred and Donald viciously mocked and belittled his career choice until he quit.
In our conversation, Mary offered strong words to mainstream news media outlets for their repeated failure to call her uncle what he is, a liar and a white supremacist. She said she cannot understand the timidity of the press, at a time when the stakes are so high. As for the upcoming election, Mary has a message for Trump supporters: If you really care about this person, the last place you would want him to be is in the Oval Office, because it's having a serious adverse effect on his mental health. Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Mary Trump here, or read a transcript of our conversation below.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
First of all, congratulations. Your book has now sold more copies in a week and a half than "The Art of the Deal" sold in three decades, according to reporting. Is there a little joy in that?
Honestly, it's really going to get under his skin. Anything that gets under his skin, I consider a good for all of us.
If people go into this thinking it's another book about Donald Trump, they're mistaken. It's really about your family, and Donald is one person in that. There's another important person in the book, person, your late father Freddy, who passed away when you were 16. All America knows about him, frankly, is how Donald has described him— a person with alcoholism who is the reason Trump does not drink. Trump has invoked him to try to show he has empathy to those with opioid addictions. Share a little bit about your father so people know more about him than the one-dimensional person that Donald Trump has painted.
I really appreciate your asking about my dad because it is extraordinary how little Donald has to say about him. Not just in terms of his alcoholism, but other than that, all I've ever heard him say is that he was really handsome and he was really kind, but he always says "kind" as if it's an insult. My dad was much more than that, although he was very handsome. He was probably the only self-made person in my family. He was supposed to take over my grandfather's business and had every intention of doing so, but when my grandfather essentially made that impossible, my dad, who had gotten his private and professional pilot licenses when he was in college, applied for a job at TWA. He got into their training class in 1964 on his first try, and he was one of maybe 20 percent of pilots who had gotten their training entirely on their own. In other words, the rest of the 80 percent were trained in the military. So that was a huge accomplishment.
He flew the Boston-to-LAX route, which was pretty coveted at the time. He was also a consummate boatman and fishermen, and perhaps more important to me — I've spoken to some of his friends from growing up in Jamaica Estates, Queens, and also from college and to this day, they remember him as the sweetest, kindest, most generous person. They still have great feelings of love for him, and also credit him with giving them some of the most amazing experiences of their lives because this was a man who had a little prop plane, and he would fly his friends to Bimini for the weekend or fly them out east to Montauk and take them fishing on his boat. He was pretty extraordinary. Unfortunately, it didn't last.
You write in the book about how Fred and Donald did not applaud him for having this ambition and initiative to do something outside of the family business. His father ridiculed him. It's funny for me to call Trump "Trump" when you're a Trump too. I need to say "Donald."
Everybody needs to call him Donald.
Donald has even admitted, later in life, that he called Freddy a "chauffeur in the sky." Why didn't your grandfather Fred appreciate this ambition and this initiative?
Yeah, because my grandfather was a sociopath and was very driven and narrow-minded and provincial, and the only thing that really mattered to him was his business and making money. He needed one of his sons, and obviously it was supposed to be my dad because he was the oldest and his namesake, to perpetuate the empire. He discovered fairly early on that my dad just didn't have the right kind of personality. My grandfather wanted him to be a killer, he wanted him to be a tough guy. He wanted to him to be somebody who would win at all costs, and be singularly focused on real estate.
My dad, as I said, had every intention of following in his father's footsteps, but he had interests outside of the family business. For example, he did ROTC in college and was a second lieutenant in the National Guard, which Donald also never mentions. My grandfather had disdain for what he considered to be a waste of time. I think by the time my dad started working for my grandfather right out of college, it was sort of a done deal. I think my grandfather had already made up his mind about him, and had seen, as Donald got older, that Donald was willing to do anything to win at all costs. He was willing to lie, cheat and steal, and be that so-called tough guy. Although I've never quite figured out what that means in the context of Brooklyn real estate in the '40s and '50s, but there you go.
You've mentioned that Donald talks about your late father's niceness as almost a weakness. If you're not cool and mean, and if you're not going to punch back, then somehow you're a lesser human being. You write in your book that with Donald Trump, cruelty is the point. Why is cruelty the point to Donald Trump? Did the way his father raised him contribute to that?
As you just said, kindness was considered weakness, and weakness was an unforgivable sin according to my grandfather. My grandfather's opinion was the only one that mattered, honestly. It wasn't just kindness, it was illness. Physical illness or alcoholism was certainly considered a weakness. Admitting to your mistakes, apologizing — all of these things were considered weakness. We see the direct line from that to how Donald operates today.
But as far as the way cruelty functions, I think it functions on a couple of different levels. One, it distracts. If he needs to distract from some fiasco he's created, which happens many times a day at this point, he's going to do something so outrageous and cruel that it's going to draw people's attention away. It's also a way for him to exercise power over people who are weaker than he is, and I think part of that is also the function that it had for my grandfather, which is that he enjoys it.
There's something you write about in your book, and I don't know why others in the media don't talk about it. With COVID-19, Trump could have been a hero. It's not like Andrew Cuomo stopped the virus. In fact, New York has the most deaths of any state, yet his approval rating is in the 60s. Trump could have done the right thing. What was it deep down that stopped Donald Trump from being the hero to America?
First of all, I would suggest that it's just not in his DNA. That's never a goal, really. And I'm sure he was worried about alienating his base somehow, but even more fundamental than that, admitting the virus existed would have been admitting that there was something wrong, and that's not something that you can do in my family. Secondly, when it became unavoidable, when this became something we had to talk about and we had to deal with, he couldn't handle it. To be honest and straightforward about it would have been admitting he'd made a mistake. Here we are, many months of death and illness later, where he continues not to wear a mask, he continues not to tell other people they should, and he continues to pretend that it's not a big deal. It's going to go away, and it's the "China virus," because he just can't help the racism.
Donald Trump, just last week, repeated that children are almost immune. We just learned from the CDC that more than 97,000 children in America contracted COVID-19 in the last two weeks of July alone. We have 300,000-plus children with COVID, and even experts say it's under-tested so they don't know. Can you help us understand why he would attack Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci and allow his media minions to smear Dr. Fauci?
I can think of a couple of reasons. One is they're undermining his message that everything's just right, and he cannot stand that. Also, and maybe more saliently for him, he knows on a very deep level, probably not consciously, he knows they're better than he is. I'm not entirely sure about Dr. Birx, quite honestly, but he knows Dr. Fauci is better. He's smarter, and the fact that we even have to talk about them in the same sentence is an insult to Dr. Fauci, and he's jealous.
Is he jealous that Dr. Fauci is respected? Trump actually talked about that at a press conference two weeks ago, saying "Dr. Fauci is popular. Nobody likes me."
Yes, and also, what was interesting about that is he was also trying to co-opt Dr. Fauci's popularity by saying, "Hey, he works for me, he's my guy, so therefore anything he does should reflect well on me." Although I think we're a little past that point. One of the most confusing things for people outside of this situation is that Donald, at this point, could think that he's doing a good job. But he probably does. He's got a lot of people around him lying to him about that on a daily basis as well.
I think when it comes to the economy it's more that he has no idea what he's talking about. He's gotten it into his head that the only metric that matters is the stock market. And as we know, the stock market is not the economy. I'm a little mystified. I have some ideas about why the stock market seems to be rallying, and it has something to do with trillions of dollars funneled into the wrong hands in the last couple of months. That's not the economy, but he's convinced enough people that that's the case other than himself. That's what he keeps pointing to.
What's so incredibly frustrating about that — there are a lot of things frustrating about it, but to your point, is that as long as the stock market's doing well he's not going to pay attention to anything else. He's so ignorant that for some reason he does not understand that the only way to save the economy is to get rid of COVID-19, to contain this deadly virus.
But again, that would be admitting that he'd done something wrong, and he'd have to course-correct. We can't have that, so let's send kids back to school. The cynicism, all of this is breathtaking, and we're talking about Donald. He's handling everything very badly, but I continue to believe he's not the problem. It's the enablers of who actually know better, and the idea that you've got these Republican pundits and elected officials saying, "Oh, well, it's only going to affect like 1 percent of school children." OK, that's a lot of children, and if you're willing to take that risk with other people's children's lives, then you should not be allowed in polite company.
Has the Donald Trump administration been a learning experience for you about how some of our fellow Americans view things? Are you surprised by any of it in terms of the celebration of cruelty, the celebration of white supremacy, the callousness in dealing with COVID-19 where they dismiss it as an acceptable loss to have children die to help Donald Trump get re-elected?
No, unfortunately. The base doesn't surprise me, there's always a base. This base was George W. Bush's base, was Ronald Reagan's base. They're going to do what they're going to do, and I think that's the only thing Donald tapped into, was their racism, misogyny, anti-immigrant feelings, Islamophobia, we can go on and on, all of that hateful stuff. The only thing that surprised me was how 100 percent of elected Republicans have fallen in line and either overlooked his most egregious behaviors or championed his most egregious behaviors. I thought one of the purposes of liberal democracy was to contain those people, and up until 2018 when thankfully the Democrats took back the House, 100 percent of the United States government represented the worst among us. And now it's like 80 percent, It's quite horrifying. And for what, really? For what?
Yet there are polls where a plurality Americans think Donald Trump can handle the economy better than Joe Biden. Trump can't just filed for bankruptcy this time. What do you tell those people who actually think that Donald Trump is a miracle worker with the economy, based on you knowing him?
I don't think there's anything anybody could say that would get through to them at this point, since there's so much evidence that they willfully choose to ignore. I really think the only way to get through to some of them would be to say, "If you really care about this person, the last place you would want him to be is in the Oval Office, because it's having a serious adverse effect on him, on his mental stability and on his physical health." Maybe if we could appeal to their self-interest or their alleged concern for this person, but I don't think anything will work. You can sit them down and show them charts and graphs, and get experts to explain everything, and they don't care. It's a cult.
Based on your experience as a clinical psychologist and knowing Donald Trump, is there anything you would recommend to reporters who go to White House briefings on how they can actually get to the truth out of Donald? Or at least reveal to everyone watching what the truth is, and what it isn't?
First of all, don't back down. Don't be deferential. He insults reporters on a daily basis, it's kind of shocking to me that they keep showing up. The other thing, and this is not my original suggestion, I've been hearing this for a while, they need to team up. They need to have each other's backs. I know we can't expect that from Fox or OAN, but other mainstream outlets have to pick up where, if Donald shuts down a reporter, the next person has to ask the same question until he either answers it or storms out. That's it. I'm not entirely sure why they think that there's any purpose to continuing to do what they've been doing. They're basically showing up at campaign rallies now, and there needs to be pushback on that, otherwise I don't see the point.
Do you think overall that the media has been too timid? One specific example is last week on Fox News when he called Black Lives Matter a Marxist organization. Weeks before that he called it a symbol of hate. He's got a horrific track record of demonizing African Americans. "You can't take a knee in silence, you should be fired for that," he said to black athletes. "If you march in the street, you're a Marxist and a symbol of hate." To me, he's a white supremacist. I have no problem calling him that. Reporters are restrained, to say the least, in doing it. Is that timidity hurting us?
Of course. It's awful, and it leads me to believe that no lessons have been learned since the horrific coverage of the 2016 election. It leads me to believe that they're more interested in access than they are in journalism or journalistic ethics. The fact that he's continuing to get away with making these broadsides without any follow-up. The follow-up question is: Define Marxism. He needs to be confronted squarely with his racism. He's a racist. His comments aren't "racially tinged." They're not "racial," whatever that means. They're racist. He's a racist. He's endangering the lives of Black Americans every single day in this administration. Why are people continuing to tiptoe around this? And I'm sorry, people I guess have to have respect for the office, but nobody has been more disrespectful to the office that Donald has been. So why should he be treated with respect? It's mind-blowing.
Mary, you know Donald well, despite his tweets saying that he barely knew you. You were there working on his book for him, you spent years with him, as you go through in the book, even after he got elected. What would you share with Americans about your concerns if your uncle were to be re-elected in November?
We're done. Because again, it's not just him. He's got his cronies in place; Mitch McConnell, Bill Barr, Mike Pompeo. They apparently want to turn this country into a theocracy. They want to have some version of apartheid here in which the majority Democrats would be ruled by the minority fascist Republicans. I do believe that the American experiment would be over; we will have failed it; and I don't see how do we come back from this. I'm not entirely sure we're going to survive four years because it's going to require an amount of patience, advocacy and strength of purpose that we have not shown in the past. So: Vote. Everybody vote. We need the largest turnout ever in history.
How has all this been for you as an experience, personally? Do you get questioned all the time, are you related to the president? How do you respond to that?
It's really interesting. People used to ask me all the time. If I paid with a credit card, I would get that. "Are you related?" It actually stopped after the election, either because people didn't want to hurt my feelings or they didn't want to make presumptions. I'm not really sure why, but people don't really ask anymore. I guess now more people know the answer to the question. I used to say that it came with all the disadvantages and none of the benefits.