Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"The World's Most Dangerous Man" (the Book)

One doesn't need to read Mary Trump's Too Much and Never Enough:: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man (Simon and Schuster) to know that private wealth is bad and that being rich is what we commonly used to call "a near occasion of sin." To know that, all one needs to do is read scripture and listen to Jesus's words, which repeatedly made that point (a message much of modern Christianity has forgotten or ignored in favor of other subjects on which Jesus had much less to say). Nor need one read her book to wonder whether the present President of the United States may well be what his niece describes. That said, her book helpfully amplifies the picture we already have.

What would otherwise be a biography based on insider family gossip, in the hands of  a niece who is also a qualified clinical psychologist, becomes a psychological portrait of President Trump by a relative who combines her direct firsthand family experience with clinical analysis. Unsurprisingly, when one family member turns against another in this way, there is a inevitably some sad family history in the background and some element of getting back at others in the clan. The author herself acknowledges worrying about this: "I concluded that if  spoke publicly about my uncle,  would be painted as a disgruntled niece looking to cash in or settle a score." Mary is the daughter of Fred Jr. (the President's older brother) who is presented as having been badly broken down by his domineering father, Fred Sr. (the patriarch of the family business, the son of the successful immigrant Trump from Germany who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic). Mary's father famously left the family business to become a pilot, but eventually became an alcoholic and lost this job and his marriage and died at 42. It was Uncle Donald who lived up to his father's brutal expectations and was amply rewarded for it, whereas, when Fred Sr. died, Fred Jr.'s children (the author and her brother, Fred) were excluded from his will. This in turn led to the litigation which led to the supposed non-disclosure agreement, which was the basis for the Trump family's efforts to stop her book. 

Trump's pathologies, if that is what they are, have been on public display for decades. This sad story about horrible rich people, once salacious local entertainment for New Yorkers, has acquired world-historical significance because of the unlikely election of Uncle Donald as president in 2016. It is as if the HBO series Succession's story of how one mean old capitalist damaged all of his children - but most especially the son who most desperately sought to please and succeed him - has come to life off-screen. As someone once said to me about the family drama of another problematic New York politician, Why does anyone bother to write fiction?

I understand what the author is attempting, but personally I would probably have preferred less psychological jargon. Sometimes I felt I was taking a tour of the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5 finding every diagnostic category that could be applied to the Donald.  At the outset she assures us he meets the "nine criteria" for narcissism. Frankly I find all that clinical diagnostic language almost numbing, whereas the actual story she tells is so raw that the ultimate tragedy of it all almost tells itself. (The psychological approach does, however, add intriguing insights - such as her view that Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Mitch McConnell all "bear more than a passing psychological resemblance to Fred," Donald's father.)

It is a sad, Succession-style story of family dysfunction (facilitated by wealth), which has allegedly left the author's uncle "incapable of growing, learning, or evolving, unable to regulate his emotions, moderate his responses, or take in and synthesize information." We have become more than usually accustomed to political tell-all books by observers of this Administration. Here the President's public presentation mirrors the family story - in Mary's words turning "this country into a macro version of my malignantly dysfunctional family." This book brings us inside the story, and invites us to survey the many cracks in the family portrait. 

The author quotes an article calling her uncle "Frankenstein without a conscience," but then applies that to the President's father, who is in many ways the ultimate villain in the story. - "a high-functioning sociopath" who "seemed to have no emotional needs at all." The damaged son in turn damages the entire nation, his niece argues. "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 everyone else. It's wearing the country down just as it did my father, changing us even when 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."

If Fred, Sr. is the villain, the victim - or, rather, the main victim, inasmuch as everyone is is a victim to some extent - is the author's father, Fred, Jr. ("Freddy"), whose unhappy life story is retold in all its tragic detail, whose father simultaneously told him "that he had to be an unqualified success and that he never could be." Slowly but surely, the second son replace his older brother as the center of their father's world. "Fred accepted Donald's arrogance and bullying - after he actually started to notice them - because he identified with the impulses."

While much of the story of Donald's rise may be familiar, his niece effectively dismantles any mythology of merit, making it very clear how much Donald depended on his father - not just his father's money but his political and other connections. As for minor members of the clan, Mary uses their deference to their father's preference for Donald to illustrate the same sycophancy that establishment Republicans would eventually come to display. 

The sad story of the fight over the will and the medical insurance just highlights what we, of course, already know. "If your only currency is money, that's the only lens through which you determine worth."

The moral of the story? We knew that already. Private wealth is bad, and being rich is what we commonly used to call "a near occasion of sin."

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