That dysfunction is abundantly chronicled in this book, as Mary describes how the five Trump children of her father’s generation all struggled to make do in a household where their mother’s chronic health problems left them at the mercy of a patriarch who was both uncaring and controlling. The oldest, Maryanne, was the uptight good girl; Freddy was the laid-back rebel; Elizabeth was the unassuming middle child; Rob was the baby, quiet and eager to please. And Donald, the second-youngest, was Donald: ingratiating to his father, disobedient to his mother and bullying to his younger brother, stealing little Rob’s favorite toy trucks and goading him into kicking a hole in the bathroom door.
The sanitized version of the family myth is that Fred Trump valorized the importance of hard work, but Mary says this simply isn’t true. Fred’s real estate business depended on political connections and government largess; what he taught the Trump children to revere was not so much effort as dominance. “The person with the power (no matter how arbitrarily that power was conferred or attained) got to decide what was right and wrong,” Mary writes. The world was a zero-sum death match between winners and losers. Mary explains how a child would experience such life lessons as confusing, terrifying and stultifying. Her father, the eldest son, tried to resist, becoming a commercial pilot for a time before despair and alcoholism crushed his career, his marriage and his health; he died of a heart attack at 42, when Mary was a teenager.
Donald, though — he thrived in the world that his father created, even if, as Mary argues, his personality was ultimately deformed by the experience. The psychologist in her is sympathetic. She says her uncle has the emotional maturity of a 3-year-old and has “suffered mightily,” burdened by what she calls an insatiable “black hole of need.” He was trained to hunger endlessly for daddy’s approval; it’s just that now, as president of the United States, she says, the figures who remind him of home are Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.
Of course, her book is unlikely to change anybody’s mind. One imagines that a number of the president’s supporters may not even consider his upbringing to be that disturbing, considering how he himself continuously re-enacts Fred’s grab bag of parenting methods — the belittling, the “toxic positivity” of saying everything’s great even as it collapses — on the national stage. But Mary, who was also a graduate student of comparative literature, knows how to tell a story and choose an anecdote.
A section on the gifts that her family received from Donald and his first wife, Ivana, suggests that their feints at generosity were bizarrely cheap and therefore rich with symbolism. Her brother received a handsome leather-bound journal that was two years out of date; Mary received a cellophane-wrapped food basket consisting of crackers and salami and an indentation on the tissue paper where a jar of caviar had been removed. Her mother got a fancy handbag that contained a used Kleenex.