As a keen student of the shitshow formerly known as the daily news, you may have noticed the president’s niece has a book out this week. Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man is the first tell-all written by one of Donald Trump’s relatives. The fact that Mary Trump is a psychologist with a Ph.D. adds fuel to the fire, as she diagnoses her uncle with having all the signs of sociopathy and narcissistic personality disorder. (Gee, you think?)
These and other juicy extracts from the book have leaked at a steady clip since the president’s unsuccessful lawsuit to block its publication. You can read for free about how Donald leered at Mary the first time he saw her in a swimsuit, that he paid a guy to take his SATs, that he went to see a movie while his brother Fred Trump Jr. (Mary’s dad) was dying, and that when Fred Trump Sr. had dementia, Donald tried to rewrite his dad’s will to put himself in sole charge of the family fortune.
The question is: Should you bother with the book itself? Is there any meat left on the bones after the best parts have been picked clean? Is Mary Trump’s writing going to keep you engaged? Are the 225 pages of this slim volume going to turn fast enough to justify your attention, especially during a year that demands almost all of it?
Answer: It depends. Yes, if you need to be shocked out of the notion that rich families are happy or even interesting to the rest of us. Yes, if you like the idea of a book that reads like bad Succession fan fiction, with little plot and less dialogue. Yes if you love the documentary Grey Gardens, about wealthy siblings living squalid little lives in a disintegrating gothic mansion. And yes, if you like books with an unreliable narrator.
Trump and his family were socially distant before it was cool
I don’t mean that Mary Trump is lying. If she were a fabulist like her uncle, she would have invented more exciting scenes with him. (I was too bored to count, but there are probably fewer than a dozen scenes in which she talks to Donald directly; the two of them weren’t that close.) I mean that she’s unreliable as a narrator. Self-contradictions are small but legion. She tells rather than shows. Anecdotes, when they arrive, are delivered in haste and left half finished, with not even speculation to answer the questions they raise.
To show rather than tell: In one early chapter, Mary gets a Christmas gift from Donald and his first wife Ivana. It’s a single gold lamé shoe with a four-inch heel. The heel contains plastic-wrapped candy. Was there supposed to be another? Mary quickly moves on without noting whether or not it was ever explained. We are left, literally, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Such details sound wacky when you pull them out of context. In context, though, they just seem sad and weird. The impression is that we’re watching a family of malfunctioning androids with limited vocabulary and no idea how they’re supposed to interact.
For example, at one Thanksgiving meal, Donald’s mother, also called Mary, starts choking. The only one who seems to care is Fred Trump Jr., the author’s dad and Donald’s big brother. He takes her into the kitchen for a Heimlich. Everyone keeps eating. Grandma lives. Fred Jr. gets “a desultory round of applause” for his life-saving effort.
After reading this book, you may wonder why Donald Trump ever pushed back against the CDC’s coronavirus guidelines. After all, Trump and his family were socially distant before it was cool.
Fred Jr. is usually cast as a sympathetic figure in Trump family histories. He wanted to be a pilot, but his real estate mogul dad hated the idea, calling pilots “bus drivers in the sky.” Torn between the family business and his dream, Fred Jr. spiraled into alcoholism and died in 1981 at the age of 42. His daughter clearly intends to rehabilitate him: “There’s no evidence to suggest that my father lacked the skills to run Trump Management, just as there is none to suggest that Donald had them,” she pronounces.
In fact, Mary the unreliable narrator has given us nothing but evidence that her dad was unfit for leadership as well. The earliest she enters her own narrative is when she stumbles into her parents’ bedroom, age 2, to find her dad repeatedly aiming a .22 caliber rifle at her mom, Linda, and laughing. Mary has nothing to say about how this sight affected her, which is odd given that she’s spent the preceding chapters noting that Donald was twisted by his dad’s early cruelty.
Snakes and planes
Mary’s parents finally divorced after her dad bought a ball python and put it in a tank between Linda and her laundry room, fully aware that she was afraid of snakes. Mary goes to stay with him every so often in his downward spiral after that, but he gradually fades out of the book, old before his time, distant and unloveable and still buying snakes for his apartments. She’s in college when she learns of his death, which takes three phone calls; Fred Sr. is too much of a coward to deliver the news when he calls.
Yes, Fred Sr. was mean to his firstborn about planes. But Fred Jr. keeps flying drunk and, it is hinted, sleeping around with flight attendants. He resigns from TWA, rather than be fired, in order to keep drunk flying incidents off the books. He gets sick in damp apartments that he could easily afford to repair. He also keeps buying planes and then having to sell them when his dad finds out, which is odd as we’re also told his finances are on a tight leash.
How did he manage it, then? There are trusts galore in this tangled and misty web of finances. No Trump seems to know how much they actually have, Mary least of all. The family that is constantly quibbling about money still seems to have access to more of it than sense. The sense of wasted fortune is palpable.
And then there’s Fred Sr., whom Mary fully intends to demonize. This shouldn’t be a hard task. Fred Trump was a Queens slumlord so notorious that folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a song attacking him. He was very likely a Klansman. He fully funded all of Donald’s early real estate ventures, far beyond the $1 million loan the president usually claims, and helped manufacture the media image of his second son as a dealmaking titan. He also tried to prop up Trump’s failing Atlantic City casinos by illegally purchasing suitcases full of chips from them.
But what is Mary’s first evidence that Fred Sr. was a mean daddy? The fact that he was frugal. He made his kids walk to a nearby public school, and take the subway from Queens if they wanted to go to Manhattan. He picked up loose nails on his building sites, and reverse-engineered pesticide to make it more cheaply. Which… yay, Fred Trump? I can’t believe I’m saying that. I also didn’t know this son of German immigrants would try to improve his English with language tapes and public speaking courses, for which his kids mocked him. Mary seems blind to the fact that she’s actually making him sympathetic.
Later in the book when Fred Sr. has dementia, Mary shows him as a pathetic figure asking Donald to buy him a nice car. Only then does she recall a creepy anecdote from when she was 12; her grandad pulled out his wallet and showed her a picture of a half-naked woman. She fears his diminished mind is going to make him do it again, but no; he pulls out a $100 bill and asks if he can buy her hair. Which is apparently a joke he used to make when she was a kid. Not for the first or last time in this family, money substitutes for love.
Structurally, the book is all over the place and could have benefited from more editing (its publication date was brought forward when Donald sued). Mary seems to have an over-inflated sense of her writing skills, enhanced by the fact that Donald asked her to ghostwrite his third book, an offer made entirely on the basis of a fundraising letter she’d written at college. The publishers try to tell her a letter and a book aren’t the same thing, and Mary harrumphs: “‘You can’t expect to play a Mozart concerto the first time you sit down at a piano,’ the editor said, as if I’d just learned the alphabet the day before.”
But this effort, years later, is hardly a Mozart concerto either. She visits Mar-a-Lago and has no eye for detail; it’s just “garish.” We knew that, but what’s the human dimension? A servant hands her a shawl at Jared and Ivanka’s wedding; the shawl gets more of a write-up than any of the staff who’ve been serving the Trumps the entire book. She floats in a bubble of rich cluelessness; until the New York Times reporters who used her as a source for their groundbreaking 2018 report on the Trumps’ illegal tax schemes take her for a ride around Queens, she’d never even seen the buildings Fred owned. I agree with her screeds against her uncle’s presidency, but they could have been lifted from any op-ed page. There’s too little proof of the personal.
Another Trump enigma
Memoirs are supposed to detail your own life at the very least, yet we leave this one with almost no sense of who Mary Trump is. Tangentially, we discover she dropped out of college, that she married a woman in Maui and then divorced her years later. Why? When did she discover she was gay? How did that feel? How long was she hiding it from her (clearly bigoted) grandparents? We’re told nothing. Which is fair enough, but you can’t dish the dirt on your whole family and refuse to publicly examine yourself at the same time, not without being called out.
The only two things we ever see Mary doing for fun are: pretending to be a bartender at a disused bar at her teetotal grandfather’s house, and playing weekend-long games of Monopoly with her friends, which she always loses despite breaking the rules on the amount of credit the bank extends to her.
Perhaps the saddest and most fleshed-out part of the book is Mary’s relationship with the other Mary, her grandmother or “Gam.” When Gam is in the hospital, Mary visits her repeatedly, and they share conspiratorial winks at how much of a jerk Donald is becoming. When Fred gets dementia, Mary sees Gam’s life going to hell; it’s probably the most Grey Gardens-like scene in the book. He comes into the room dozens of times in a row to ask what’s for dinner. They go out in the car to see family and he wants to go home immediately.
“The visits became just another form of torture,” Mary writes. “Like so much else in the family that didn’t make sense, they continued doing it anyway.”
Tragically, she and Gam never speak again after Mary challenges Fred Sr.’s rewritten will that cut out Fred Jr.’s kids. When Gam dies, Mary has been written out of her will too. Mary doesn’t tell us how she feels about this. By this point, her own mother Linda has also dropped out of the narrative, apparently shunned by the whole clan of malfunctioning androids.
Should we blame Mary Trump the psychologist for not having laser-like focus on her emotions, or for not being a professional historian or biographer? Of course not. As she writes, “it’s difficult to understand what goes on in any family—perhaps hardest of all for the people in it.”
We should perhaps blame her editors, who seem to have shoehorned in a handful of clunky political references. In the middle of a discussion about Donald Trump’s siblings being unable to rein him in back in the 1960s, we’re suddenly reminded that John Kelly and Mick Mulvaney couldn’t rein him in either.
Donald Trump is a black hole of white privilege who kept failing upwards. He learned nothing in his life other than how to get media coverage, plus the fact that bullying helps keep all uncomfortable questions at bay. His dad taught him never to apologize or self-examine. There is nothing at his center because he never had to strive for anything. Like Aaron Burr in Hamilton, he believes nothing and will fall for anything.
We do not need Mary Trump to provide more evidence of the needy moral vacuum; we’re all living it. But we can at least be grateful that she’s moved the needle on the definitive Donald Trump biography that will be written one day, when the full extent of his criminal past, present, and future has been revealed.