Mary J Trump's Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man
Is America about to break up with Donald J Trump?
In a few days the world will witness one of the most intriguing and important political contests in decades: the 2020 US elections.
The headline act is the battle between Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat challenger Joe Biden. Biden is expected to win, but given Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, it would be foolish to rule him out completely.
For many of us outside the USA, Trump has appeared to be a rolling political disaster. His policies have been cruel and punitive, he has abandoned traditional allies and cosied up to dictators, he has gutted institutions and relaxed environmental laws, and he has presided over a country that seems to be tearing itself apart. And all that was before the pandemic struck, hitting America harder than anywhere else in the world.
For many others Trump, however, remains an inspiring figure. His political mantra of ‘Make America Great Again’ hits upon a rich vein of nostalgia, especially for working class communities left behind by globalisation. His crass language and demeaning treatment of women give succour to a generation of men who feel they have been on the rough end of ‘political correctness’. And his promises to ‘drain the swamp’ (perhaps the GOAT of political metaphors) play to a well-founded conviction that public institutions are inhabited by educated but out-of-touch elites.
Donald Trump’s success has rewritten the rule book of political communication. But it has also served as a remarkable case study into the power of narrative, and a reminder that feelings are carry more weight than facts, especially in politics.
So with the election just days away, I thought it would be an interesting time to read Mary J Trump’s tell-all memoir about her own family and her famous Uncle. Too Much and Never Enough: How my family created the world's most dangerous man is a well-written, intelligent, and withering assessment of a family built on the premise that an individual’s worth can be measured in dollars and cents.
Mary J Trump doesn’t hold back, and is open about her own feelings of betrayal by the Trump family. Reading the book is partly an exercise in voyeurism, and the reader is invited to collude with the author in her disgust and revulsion at the way the Trumps behave towards each other. The scene in which she describes her final estrangement from her grandmother (Donald’s mother) hits like a kick in the guts. It’s a compelling read.
The value of Mary J Trump’s insider account of her own family, however, is in its explanation of how Donald Trump came to be the strange, enigmatic, iconoclastic figure that he is today. It places Donald Trump’s distinctly odd (if not bizarre) behaviour, which on the surface appears as narcissism, in the context of a dysfunctional upbringing, and parental indifference / self-absorption / cruelty. This is not just a character assassination by an embittered and disinherited family outcast - Mary J Trump has a PhD in clinical psychology, so her analysis is informed by both her personal experience and her professional expertise.
If nothing else, Donald Trump is a showman. But from the book we learn that he survived a difficult childhood by never conceding weakness, and always exuding confidence.
Because of the disastrous circumstances in which he was raised, Donald knew intuitively, based on plenty of experience, that he would never be comforted or soothed, especially when he most needed to be. There was no point, then, in acting needy … The rigid persona he developed as a result was a suit of armor that often protected him against pain and loss. But it also kept him from figuring out how to trust people enough to get close to them.
What’s more, Trump’s father Fred saw young Donald’s swagger as a sign of strength, and rewarded him for it. Later in life, the trademark braggadocio - a trait which probably began as a survival mechanism - evolved into the central defining characteristic of Donald’s personality.
Fred Trump also encouraged Donald into the family business, and taught him the tricks of the property development trade. But later, as his business empire crumbled under mountains of debt and multiple bankruptcies, Trump was reinvented as a reality TV star.
Both Donald and the viewers were the butt of the joke that was The Apprentice, which despite all evidence to the contrary, presented him as a legitimately successful tycoon.
None of it was true, but nobody cared. It was the story that counted, and it was the story that everyone wanted to buy into. Because with a little luck, and a little chutzpah, we could all live the high life like Donald Trump.
DONALD - IT'S NOT YOU, IT'S US. REALLY
So what does the book really tell us about the rise of Donald Trump that we didn’t already know? In truth, not too much. The basic outline of the Trump story has been told before.
And will its revelations sway the US election? Not in the slightest. The truth about Donald Trump the person is largely irrelevant, because his power lies in what he symbolises, not in what he is. Exposing Trump as a charlatan, a fraud, and a borderline sociopath doesn’t change anything.
That’s why understanding Donald Trump is not just an interesting exercise in itself – it also helps us to understand more about ourselves, more about our society, and more about our modern, confusing and conflicted world.
Mary J Trump argues, eloquently, that Donald Trump is the Frankenstein creation of his rich, controlling father. But surely he is also America’s collective creation? The brash spiv who embodied the American dream – flash cars, beautiful women, opulent apartments, and his own branded steaks and casinos.
The public phenomenon of Donald Trump is the expression of an American society which increasingly values ambition over compassion, celebrity over knowledge, blame over understanding, and fiction over facts.
A society in which the worth of people can be judged in dollars and cents.
Given the ubiquity of American culture, we can’t completely insulate ourselves from this shit show here in Australia. What happens in America does matter. It pervades our own society as well. We can watch and giggle from a distance, but the uncomfortable reality is that we’re complicit in this as well.
That’s the really scary part. Trump isn’t the disease, he’s merely a symptom, a reflection of the world around us. In all likelihood, Donald Trump will lose the election on November 3, but the deeper underlying social and economic divisions that created his Presidency will remain.