BOOK REVIEW: In ‘Too Much and Never Enough,’ Mary Trump has relived her nightmare to shine some critical light on ours

Imagine seeing your dysfunctional uncle, the man who helped demean and destroy your parents, cheat them and you out of a rightful inheritance, then gain such awesome power.

Too Much and Never Enough
Mary L. Trump
Simon & Schuster Inc., 2020
Copyright © Compson Enterprises LLC, 2020

Mary Trump is on a mission: “No one knows how Donald came to be who he is better than his own family. Unfortunately, almost all of them remain silent out of loyalty or fear. I’m not hindered by either of those … Donald has always needed to perpetuate the fiction my grandfather started that he is strong, smart, and otherwise extraordinary, because facing the truth — that he is none of those things — is too terrifying for him to contemplate.”

Unlike the other tell-alls, this is a personal as well as a political reckoning, a daughter’s attempt to revenge her father’s mistreatment at the hands of her grandfather, Fred Trump, and his favored son, our president: “Donald, following the lead of my grandfather and with the complicity, silence, and inaction of his siblings, destroyed my father. I can’t let him destroy my country …” (Emphasis added.)

Usually a private affair, it’s both fair and necessary that this extended family therapy session is made public. We are all suffering at the hands of a Donald abused by his father, now abusing others and our nation. It is never ever easy to face one’s demons. It’s especially horrifying when the demon now dwells in the White House. Mary Trump bravely helps us understand our living nightmare.

For those who know a bit about family therapy, it was Freddy, her father, who served the role as identified patient, the family scapegoat. Imagine seeing your dysfunctional uncle, the man who helped demean and destroy your parents, cheat them and you out of a rightful inheritance, then gain such awesome power. Watch him wreak similar havoc on helpless children fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, debase Gold Star parents, and cozy up to criminal authoritarians like Putin, Xi, Duterte and Erdogan. Thankfully, Mary Trump feels an obligation to reveal how her family’s profound sickness has become ours:

“The smallest thing — seeing Donald’s face or hearing my own name, both of which happened dozens of times a day — took me back to the time when my father had withered and died beneath the cruelty and contempt of my grandfather. I had lost him when he was only forty-two and I was sixteen. The horror of Donald’s cruelty was being magnified by the fact that his acts were now official US policy, affecting millions of people.” (Emphasis added.)

What makes “Too Much and Never Enough” most interesting is that the bereft daughter became a psychologist: “I received my PhD in clinical psychology … 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.”

She knows of what she speaks: “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 …

“Donald has, in some sense, always been institutionalized, shielded from his limitations or his need to succeed on his own in the world. Honest work was never demanded of him, and no matter how badly he failed, he was rewarded in ways that are almost unfathomable … Donald’s failings cannot be hidden or ignored because they threaten us all …

“The atmosphere of division my grandfather created in the Trump family is the water in which Donald has always swum, and division continues to benefit him at the expense of everybody else. It’s wearing the country down, just as it did my father, changing us even as it leaves Donald unaltered. It’s weakening our ability to be kind or believe in forgiveness, concepts that have never had any meaning for him … Worse, Donald …understands nothing about history, constitutional principles, geopolitics, diplomacy (or anything else, really) …”

Ironies abound: Friedrich, Fred Trump’s father, left Germany to avoid military service, then made his money with brothels in British Columbia only to die of the Spanish flu. Fred, with the help of his mother, began work building garages. His wife, Mary, Donald’s mother, fell ill, an illness that shaped the family:

“During and after her surgeries, Mary’s absence — both literal and emotional — created a void in the lives of her children … The impact was especially dire for Donald and Robert, who at two and a half years and nine months old, respectively, were the most vulnerable of her children, especially since there was no one else to fill the void … The five kids were essentially motherless …

Fred Trump’s children. Photo courtesy Donald Trump campaign

About her grandfather: “Solidly built and standing six feet one, Fred was an imposing figure with hair slicked back from a receding hairline who rarely wore anything but a well-tailored three-piece suit. He was stiff and formal around kids, he never played ball or games of any kind with them, and it seemed as if he had never been young … Fred seemed to have no emotional needs at all. In fact, he was a high-functioning sociopath. Although uncommon, sociopathy is not rare, afflicting as much as 3 percent of the population. Seventy-five percent of those diagnosed are men. Symptoms of sociopathy include a lack of empathy, a facility for lying, an indifference to right and wrong, abusive behavior, and a lack of interest in the rights of others. Having a sociopath as a parent, especially if there is no one else around to mitigate the effects, all but guarantees severe disruption in how children understand themselves, regulate their emotions, and engage with the world …” (Emphasis added.)

Fred either didn’t know or care that his children needed to be nurtured. Freddy’s dilemma multiplied when he realized he wanted a life different from the life Fred Trump had laid out for him. When he tried to please his father, he was miserable and failed. When he opposed his father, he was mercilessly hounded. And yet always he wanted and needed his father’s love and support.

On the other hand: “Donald began to develop powerful but primitive defenses, marked by an increasing hostility to others and a seeming indifference to his mother’s absence and father’s neglect. The latter became a kind of learned helplessness over time because although it insulated him from the worst effects of his pain, it also made it extremely difficult (and in the long run I would argue impossible) for him to have any of his emotional needs met at all because he became too adept at acting as though he didn’t have any.”

For Fred, weakness was unforgiveable. One had to be a killer, invulnerable. Freddy had no interest in wrenching the most rent from Trump renters, or finding multiple ways to build cheaply, to extract the most and deliver the least from federal and state housing subsidies. Freddy wanted most of all to fly his plane — something, symbolically and literally, Fred just wouldn’t tolerate. His son becoming a successful commercial pilot, a profession Fred would never take seriously: “Fred was simultaneously telling his son that he had to be an unqualified success and that he never could be. So Freddy existed in a system that was all punishment, no reward. The other children, especially Donald, couldn’t have helped but notice …”

Wonder why our president seems bereft of empathy? Mary Trump reveals that he’s just mimicking his father: “Though Fred’s business was raking in millions of dollars a year, he still dealt directly with tenants when he believed the circumstances warranted doing so …When one tenant repeatedly called the office to report a lack of heat, Fred paid him a visit. After knocking on the door, he removed his suit jacket, something he usually did only right before getting into bed. Once inside the apartment, which was indeed cold, he rolled up his shirtsleeves (again, something he rarely did) and told his tenant that he didn’t know what they were complaining about. ‘It’s like the tropics in here,’ he told them.”

Donald, though, had no problems with the corrupt practices of his father. Even without possessing Fred’s skill as a builder, Donald’s bluster and shamelessness and acute nose for self-aggrandizement and promotion turned out to be quite convenient for Fred.

Fred and Donald Trump. Photo: Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images

Mary Trump explains the family business: “In 1947, Fred embarked on the most important large-scale project of his career up until that point: Shore Haven, a proposed complex in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, comprising thirty-two six-story buildings and a shopping center spread over more than thirty acres. The draw this time was the $9 million in FHA funds that would be paid to Fred directly, just as Donald would later capitalize on tax breaks lavished on him by both the city and the state. Fred had previously described the type of people renting the 2,201 apartments as ‘unwholesome,’ the implication being that upstanding people lived only in the single-family dwellings that had been his early specialty. But $9 million can be very persuasive. Around that time, when it became clear that Fred’s fortune would only continue to grow, he and his mother set up trust funds for his children that would shield the money from taxation …”

Fred rewarded those who did his bidding, not those who didn’t, all the while using his kids to shield his multiplying millions from the taxmen: “At the very least, Maryanne should have been able to buy groceries without having to ask my grandmother, no matter how obliquely. But no matter how dire their situation, the three oldest Trump children couldn’t get anybody in their family to help them in any substantive way … Their fear of my grandfather was so deeply ingrained that they no longer even recognized it for what it was … Regardless of how a parent treats a child, it’s almost impossible for that child to believe that parent means them any harm. It was easier for Freddy to think that his father had his son’s best interests at heart and that he, Freddy, was the problem …”

Mary Trump explains: “Abuse can be quiet and insidious just as often as, or even more often than, it is loud and violent … Fred dismantled his oldest son by devaluing and degrading every aspect of his personality and his natural abilities until all that was left was self-recrimination and a desperate need to please a man who had no use for him.”

Two sons: one victim, the other executioner: “[Donald] had plenty of time to learn from watching Fred humiliate his older brother and Freddy’s resulting shame … Fred didn’t respect his oldest son, so neither would Donald. Fred thought Freddy was weak, and therefore so did Donald …”

Freddy Trump Jr.. Photo courtesy New York Times and Annamaria Schifano

Mary Trump’s description of her father’s disintegration, his out-of-control alcoholism and the despair that marked her parent’s marriage is particularly painful: “Linda didn’t know about the constant barrage of abuse Freddy was receiving from his father in New York through letters and phone calls … that the old man was embarrassed to have a ‘bus driver in the sky’ for a son … The most crucial thing that Linda didn’t fully grasp — and to be fair, Freddy probably didn’t grasp it, either — was how much Fred Trump’s opinion mattered to his son.

“One night, after returning from his most recent rotation, Freddy seemed particularly on edge. Over dinner, he said, ‘We need to get a divorce.’ Linda was shocked. Her husband was under more stress than usual, but she thought it might be the result of his being responsible for the lives of more than two hundred people every time he flew. ‘Freddy, what are you talking about?’ ‘It’s not working out, Linda. I don’t see how we can keep going.’

“‘You’re not even here half the time,’ she said, mystified by his outburst. ‘We have a baby. How can you say that?’ Freddy stood up and poured himself a drink. ‘Forget it,’ he said, and left the room. They never renewed that conversation, and after a few days, they continued on as though nothing unusual had happened.”

Donald did everything he could to avoid being Freddy: “The only reason Donald escaped the same fate is that his personality served his father’s purpose. That’s what sociopaths do: they co-opt others and use them toward their own ends — ruthlessly and efficiently, with no tolerance for dissent or resistance. Fred destroyed Donald, too, but not by snuffing him out as he did Freddy; instead, he short-circuited Donald’s ability to develop and experience the entire spectrum of human emotion. By limiting Donald’s access to his own feelings and rendering many of them unacceptable, Fred perverted his son’s perception of the world and damaged his ability to live in it … Although a strict parent in general, Fred accepted Donald’s arrogance and bullying — after he actually started to notice them — because he identified with the impulses …”

They shared the desire to cut corners: “As Donald was later alleged to do with Trump Tower and his casinos in Atlantic City, Fred was said to have worked discreetly with the Mob in order to keep the peace. When he got the green light for another development – Beach Haven, a forty-acre, twenty-three-building complex in Coney Island that would net him $16 million in FHA funding — it was clear that his strategy of building on the taxpayer’s dime was a winner.

“Though Fred’s business was built on the back of government financing, he loathed paying taxes … The profits his company generated from rents were enormous … My grandfather created Midland Associates in the 1960s to benefit his children, each of whom was given 15 percent ownership in eight buildings, one of which was Sunnyside Towers. The express purpose of this apparently quasi-legal, if not outright fraudulent, transfer of wealth was to avoid paying the lion’s share of the gift taxes that would have been assessed if it had been an aboveboard transaction. I don’t know if Dad knew that he owned part of the building he now lived in, but in 1973 his share of it would have been worth about $380,000, or $2.2 million in today’s dollars. He seemed to have no apparent access to any of the money — his boats and planes were gone; his Mustang and Jaguar were gone …”

Fred Trump Jr. and his mother, Mary. Photo: Ron Galella Collection

Donald, it turns out, is a second-generation racist: “Although Queens would eventually be one of the most diverse places on the planet, in the 1940s, when my grandfather bought the land and built the imposing redbrick Georgian colonial with the twenty-foot columns, the borough was 95 percent white. The upper-middle-class neighborhood of Jamaica Estates was even whiter. When the first Italian American family moved to the neighborhood in the 1950s, Fred was scandalized …

“In 1973, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division sued Donald and my grandfather for violating the 1968 Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent to die Schwarze, as my grandfather put it. It was one of the largest federal housing discrimination suits ever brought …

Donald successfully became 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 …” And Fred had a vested interest in remaining convinced he had picked the right son, even if Donald’s incompetence required multiplying infusions of cash to keep the myth afloat.

“Besides being driven around Manhattan by a chauffeur whose salary his father’s company paid, in a Cadillac his father’s company leased to ‘scope out properties,’ Donald’s job description seems to have included lying about his ‘accomplishments’ and allegedly refusing to rent apartments to black people … In the late 1960s, for example, Fred developed a high-rise for the elderly in New Jersey … (Fred received a $7.8 million, practically interest-free loan to cover 90 percent of the cost of the project’s construction) … Although Donald put no money toward the development costs of the building, he received consulting fees, and he was paid to manage the property, a job for which there were already full-time employees on site. That one project alone netted Donald tens of thousands of dollars a year despite his having done essentially nothing and having risked nothing to develop, advance, or manage it.

“In a similar sleight of hand, Fred bought Swifton Gardens, an FHA project originally costing $10 million to build, at auction for $5.6 million. In addition, he secured a $5.7 million mortgage, which also covered the cost of upgrades and repairs, essentially paying zero dollars for the buildings. When he later sold the property for $6.75 million, Donald got all of the credit and took most of the profits.”

“The truth was, Fred Trump didn’t need either one of his sons at Trump Management … he was a landlord. Fred hadn’t been a developer since the failure of Steeplechase six years earlier, so Donald’s role as president remained amorphous …

“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 …”

Donald was nowhere near as shrewd as Fred, and when his father lost his edge, Donald decided to get into the gambling business, purchasing an Atlantic City “$300 million-plus casino that would become Trump’s Castle sight unseen in 1985, only a year after he had bought Harrah’s, which became Trump Plaza … By then Donald’s ventures already carried billions of dollars of debt (by 1990, his personal obligation would balloon to $975 million). Even so, that same year he bought Mar-a-Lago for $8 million. In 1988, he’d bought a yacht for $29 million and then, in 1989, the Eastern Air Lines Shuttle for $365 million. In 1990, he’d had to issue almost $700 million in junk bonds, carrying a 14 percent interest rate, just to finish construction on his third casino, the Taj Mahal …”

Many people voted for Donald Trump believing he was a hugely successful businessman: “Of course, his casinos were competing with one another and eventually would be cannibalizing one another’s profits …” Luckily, “Trump Management, which Donald often referred to as a ‘two-bit operation,’ was doing fairly well. Fred paid himself more than $109 million between 1988 and 1993 and had tens of millions more in the bank … In June 1990, Donald missed a $43 million payment for Trump’s Castle. Six months later, my grandfather sent his chauffeur with more than $3 million in cash to purchase chips at the Castle. In other words, he bought the chips with no intention of gambling with them; his driver simply put them in a briefcase and left the casino. Even that wasn’t enough. The next day, my grandfather wired another $150,000 to the Castle, presumably for more chips … Donald might have controlled 30 percent of Atlantic City’s market share, but the Taj was making it impossible for his two other casinos to make money (the Plaza and Castle lost a combined $58 million the year the Taj opened), the three properties carried $94 million in annual debt, and the Taj alone needed to pull in more than $1 million a day to break even …”

Maybe someday we’ll learn the whole story about Donald Trump and the banks, but in the meantime: “In addition to fronting Donald the money to cover his businesses’ operating expenses, the banks reached an agreement with him in May 1990 to put him on a $450,000-a-month allowance — that is, almost $5.5 million a year for having failed miserably. That money was just for personal expenses: the Trump Tower triplex apartment, the private jet, the mortgage on Mar-a-Lago. In order to sell his image, Donald needed to be able to continue living the lifestyle that bolstered it …”

When along comes the opportunity to turn utter failure into manufactured success: “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. ‘The Apprentice’ 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.”

What’s particularly horrifying is that after Fred’s death, Donald, his brother John, even sister Maryanne, hid the true extent of the family fortune to cruelly deny Freddy’s family their fair share. I couldn’t help but think of piranhas. At least we have benefitted from their despicable behavior, because it was ultimately Mary Trump’s growing realization of the extent of her family’s conspiratorial mean-spiritedness that led her to share financial documents with the New York Times, at which point she learned that not only was their behavior immoral, but likely illegal.

“I grew up thinking that Donald had struck out on his own and single-handedly built the business that had turned my family name into a brand and that my grandfather, provincial and miserly, cared only about making and keeping money. On both counts, the truth was vastly different. A New York Times article published on October 2, 2018, that uncovered the vast amounts of alleged fraud and quasi-legal and illegal activities my family had engaged in over the course of several decades included this paragraph:

‘Fred Trump and his companies also began extending large loans and lines of credit to Donald Trump. Those loans dwarfed what the other Trumps got, the flow so constant at times that it was as if Donald Trump had his own Money Store. Consider 1979, when he borrowed $1.5 million in January, $65,000 in February, $122,000 in March, $150,000 in April, $192,000 in May, $226,000 in June, $2.4 million in July and $40,000 in August, according to records filed with New Jersey casino regulators …’”

And so, with the best of reasons, Donald Trump’s niece found it almost preposterous that he imagined himself our president: “When Donald announced his run for the presidency on June 16, 2015, I didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t think Donald 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 …

“Nothing Donald said during the campaign — from 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 reporter —deviated 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 …

“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 … This can’t possibly be happening again, I thought. But it was … it felt as though 62,979,636 voters had chosen to turn this country into a macro version of my malignantly dysfunctional family …” (Emphasis added.)

Many of those who found themselves amazed, then horrified by the 2016 results, have struggled to adjust to the new reality. For Mary Trump, it was instead a familiarity multiplied many times: “Though nothing Donald did surprised me, the speed and volume with which he started inflicting his worst impulses on the country — from lying about the crowd size at the inauguration and whining about how poorly he was treated to rolling back environmental protections, targeting the Affordable Care Act in order to take affordable health care away from millions of people, and enacting his racist Muslim ban — overwhelmed me …

“Every time you hear Donald talking about how something is the greatest, the best, the biggest, the most tremendous (the implication being that he made them so), you have to remember that the man speaking is still, in essential ways, the same little boy who is desperately worried that he, like his older brother, is inadequate and that he, too, will be destroyed for his inadequacy. At a very deep level, his bragging and false bravado are not directed at the audience in front of him but at his audience of one: his long-dead father …

Donald Trump, June 21, 2020, returning home after rally in Tulsa. Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

Mary Trump appropriately reminds of us the great consequences of his emotional deficits when it comes to COVID-19: “Donald didn’t drag his feet in December 2019, in January, in February, in March because of his narcissism; he did it because of his fear of appearing weak or failing to project the message that everything was ‘great,’ ‘beautiful,’ and ‘perfect.’ The irony is that his failure to face the truth has inevitably led to massive failure anyway. In this case, the lives of potentially hundreds of thousands of people will be lost and the economy of the richest country in history may well be destroyed …”

And she continues, offering a horrifying judgment: “The same could be said of his handling of the worst civil unrest since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr … An effective response would have entailed a call for unity, but Donald requires division. It is the only way he knows how to survive — my grandfather ensured that decades ago when he turned his children against each other.

“I can only imagine the envy with which Donald watched Derek Chauvin’s casual cruelty and monstrous indifference as he murdered George Floyd; hands in his pockets, his insouciant gaze aimed at the camera. I can only imagine that Donald wishes it had been his knee on Floyd’s neck …

“Donald’s monstrosity is the manifestation of the very weakness within him that he’s been running from his entire life. For him, there has never been any option but to be positive, to project strength, no matter how illusory, because doing anything else carries a death sentence; my father’s short life is evidence of that. The country is now suffering from the same toxic positivity that my grandfather deployed specifically to drown out his ailing wife, torment his dying son, and damage past healing the psyche of his favorite child, Donald J. Trump. …”

As we approach the most important election in recent years, Mary Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough” is essential reading. So much of what passes for analysis these days is speculation. Cable news hosts, once political insiders, now outsiders, doing their best to fill the hours with recycled insight. Mary Trump’s title rings so very true. Reading it, acknowledging its painful truths, is really Too Much, in much the same way that acknowledging kids in cages and Russian bounties on U.S. service-people risking their lives in Afghanistan and George Floyd and our president’s raging incompetence with COVID-19 is Too Much. And yet until we fundamentally say no to what is and yes to a fair and just America, there is Never Enough for us to do. Mary Trump has relived her nightmare to shine some critical light on ours:

“The events of the last three years, however, have forced my hand, and I can no longer remain silent. By the time this book is published, hundreds of thousands of American lives will have been sacrificed on the altar of Donald’s hubris and willful ignorance. If he is afforded a second term, it would be the end of American democracy …” (Emphasis added.)