From generation to generation: Comments on Mary Trump’s story of how the Trump family produced Donald

[I have not posted for several days because my reading-writing time was occupied with reading and thinking about this book. Here are some thoughts.]

As I read Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, I kept thinking of the phrase “from generation to generation.” Her book describes the emotional dynamics in the family that produced Donald Trump. In short: what Fred Trump was, and did, to produce Donald Trump.

Generation to Generation

Edwin Friedman’s magnum opus applying the insights of Bowen family systems therapy to congregations is titled Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. The second paragraph of his introduction to that book says:

It is the thesis of this book that all clergymen and clergywomen, irrespective of faith, are simultaneously involved in three distinct families whose emotional forces interlock: the families within the congregation, our congregations, and our own. Because the emotional process in all of these systems is identical, unresolved issues in any one of them can produce symptoms in the others, and increased understanding of any one creates more effective functioning in all three.

His posthumously completed and published sequel, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, discusses the extension of the same principles to corporations, nations, and entire civilizations. The emotional dynamics are the same. And they tend to be passed along—from generation to generation.

Edwin Friedman was not only a therapist but a rabbi. His trademark phrase reverberates with biblical resonances. It has positive possibilities, as in this passage from Israel’s book of praises: “One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4). But foundationally, and more ominously, there is the proclamation of the divine voice from the presence that passed before Moses at the moment of the giving of the two tablets with their Ten Words:

And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

Exodus 34:6–7

We may recoil from the idea that the Lord would punish children and grandchildren for their parents’ sins. So did the biblical prophets. Thus Jeremiah, in the preface to his prophecy of the “new covenant,” stipulates: “In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29). But a balancing caution follows: “But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge” (31:30).

It’s not as though the iniquity occurs in one generation, and then the divine judge in the heavens reaches down to slap the punishment at the next generation. Under the economy that that is built into the moral world, just as gravitation and inertia are built into the physical world, the accursed iniquity carries within itself its own inexorable punishment. The second and third generation have their teeth set on edge because they too eat the grape. This is the cycle that therapists, and prophets, and apostles see and hope to break.

Fear, anxiety, hatred, and malignant selfishness are highly contagious. Long exposure within a dysfunctional family system results in transmission, and sometimes in mutation into more virulent strains. When an already anxious herd follows an even more severely infected leader, the pathology afflicting various families, social circles, congregations, and parties infects broadening circles until a whole nation falls into patterns of sympathetic vibration with similarly ill leaders and nations around the globe.

How to get free of such an all-consuming and destructive emotional process?

Too Much and Never Enough

I commented obliquely on the experience of reading Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough in my previous post. Here I’ll say a few things about the book explicitly.

Donald Trump’s own reaction to the book—to get that out of the way— was predictable. As always, he accuses the book and its author of the very failings that it displays so graphically as being his father’s and his own, calling it vicious and saying it’s a lie. “It’s a lie”—as if the whole book were a single, simple statement. The book has some complexity to it, some unresolved tensions (more on that below), but it does have a thesis, a clear result, an unavoidable conclusion: Donald is a fraud, a human unloved and misshapen by his family of origin into a black hole of unmet emotional needs doubling as a quasar of negative emotional emissions, who does not and cannot perform the work required of a president of the United States.

Of course he says it’s a lie. He lies all the time, the way normal people breathe. His lies, half-truths, and distortions, some purposeful and some casual, have been exhaustively documented over the last four years, and this book exposes the wellspring of this mighty river of mendacity. His utterances are not meant to correspond to reality, or to constitute a comprehensive and internally coherent account. Every statement about anything that is not Donald is ephemeral. To be “true” to Donald, it must serve Donald’s emotional need of the moment. His saying that the book is a lie tells us not about its correspondence to reality but about its dissonance with his desperate need to believe that in everything he is always the best and the greatest.

At the same time he demonstrates that he doesn’t know what the book says. “For her to say—I think the word she used was psychopath—what a disgrace.” Mary Trump does not call Fred a psychopath. Some flunky who can read must have told Trump it says that. She says “sociopath.” The difference is important, and Donald should learn it, since the latter applies equally to him. But until he achieves some kind of insight, his merely reflexive response to this book, though it will be echoed by his sycophants, is not interesting.

But what of Mary’s own motives and aims? Of the five children of grandfather Fred and grandmother Mary, Freddy (author Mary’s father) was the scapegoat. Mercilessly hounded and derided by his father (and his brother Donald), Freddy recedes into alcoholism and early death, and later his surviving siblings conspire to deprive Freddy’s children, Mary and her brother Fritz, of their inheritance. So would Mary have a plausible motive for seeking revenge against Donald and the rest of the family in general? Yes. Her understandable anger at the way her father and mother were treated, and then at the way she and her brother were treated, is certainly visible.

But my assessment is that her anger does not dominate her. In so many moments throughout the book she seems willing to allow her grandparents and her aunts and uncles, including Donald, a fresh start. She shows compassion to them when no one else does. In his Fox News interview, Trump says that his niece was “nasty” to his mother. But the night of his father’s funeral, neither Donald nor any other member of the family bothered to go home with his mother, stay with her, make sure that she was OK—except Mary. And if you read the book you will find other such moments. Of course the convinced Trumpists will say that Mary is just lying throughout, but there’s no help for what convinced Trumpists say. I don’t think she is lying.

If Mary were a straight-up generation-to-generation heir of the mendacity, meanness, and incapacity for empathy that consume Fred and Donald entirely and to varying degrees disable also Fred’s wife and other children (except Freddy the scapegoat, whose flaws were different), it would show in her descriptions of the various other family members. They would be monochrome, always in every moment bad. But they are not. Throughout the book, if she recalls a moment of kindness or generosity of any kind, any glimmer of wisdom, she tells us about it. She just lets these positive moments stand, in effect leaving the reader to wonder what it means that vestiges of decency survive in a family system submerged in callous inhumanity. Maryanne in particular gets appreciation here and there along the way (and is the only family member thanked in the acknowledgments, except for Mary’s mother Linda, a family member in married surname only).

But Mary responds differently than other Trump women to the family system. No doubt it is partly because she saw Fred and Donald break down and destroy her father. I wonder if her own gender-queerness didn’t also somehow move her to respond differently to the sexualized misogyny of the Trump men (of which this book gives two striking incidents). At any rate, whether because she rejected the family or vice versa, she did not get permanently sucked into the family’s dysfunctions.

Granted: her own decisions in 2018 and 2019 to hand over boxes of family financial records to reporters, and then to publish her story of how the Trump family created the Donald monster, no doubt have a Trumpish element in their motivation, as she tells us herself: Trumps have to do everything in a spectacularly attention-getting way, so her rebuttal of Fred’s and Donald’s assumption that she would never accomplish anything would be her dramatic take-down of Donald.

But this bravado—this attempt to appear gleeful about poking a finger in Donald’s eye—doesn’t quite ring true. It feels more like an ironic flourish. The sincere urgency in this book, as I read it, comes in (1) her dismayed realization between 2016 and 2020 of the disastrous consequences, for the nation and the world, of Donald’s occupation of the office of the presidency, which leads to (2) her compulsion to explain to the world how this can have happened: how such a person, a perfect storm of traits that render him utterly incompetent to accomplish anything worthwhile but also at the same time preternaturally virtuosic at imposing himself on others and compelling them to enable and protect him. Her psychological training enables her to lead the reader through a long series of family stories that illustrate how Fred, having failed with Freddy, killing him instead, built these traits into Donald, one by one, over time: generation to generation. This is the accomplishment of Mary Trump’s book.

A Dance of Death

Readers who already see the truth about Trump clearly enough to reject him as a leader may find satisfaction in this book’s confirmation of their preexisting knowledge. I doubt that this book will persuade anyone who is not already convinced that Trump is a fraud. So this book could just become one more stone in the impermeable boundary wall between Trump critics and Trump supporters.

But can the book be more than that? It’s not a great work of literature, but it’s a significant accomplishment because of who wrote it, and what she knows (both psychology and the history of this family), and how she came to write it. I hold (as I said above) that it cannot be reduced to a counterpunch. It achieves insight which it offers to the public. But what to do with it?

Could it serve as a cautionary tale? Parents need to love and affirm their children. If they ridicule them, they will deform them. Within our families, workplaces, congregations, and larger social units, we need to aim not to dominate and exploit but to serve each other, not only because it is right to do so, but because if we do not, we may turn our own lived world into the sort of snake pit that readers see in the house of Trump in this book. Lying, cheating, and boasting to puff yourself up while doing nothing constructive and tearing down everyone else isn’t a good way to live. But isn’t that so obvious as to be banal? Trump critics know these things. Some Trump supporters also know these things well and behave nothing like Trump. The disconnect comes with their failure to understand the vast gulf between Trump propaganda and Trump reality.

But Trump supporters are not the only ones who fail to take into account the whole truth about Donald Trump. I think neither Trump supporters nor Trump critics realize how abstracting a successful businessman and leader from Trump (which entail massive falsification), and putting this fictionalized leader in the White House to serve the purposes of the Republican Party, ignores and abuses his true humanity in the same way as his father ignored it, in the same way that others who have used him ignored it.

Mary Trump has a smart paragraph explaining why the committee of high-powered bankers that formed to respond to Donald’s Atlantic City disasters paid him such a handsome allowance every month. At first they had been fooled by him, and by the time they realized that he was an utterly incompetent businessman, they were so deeply invested in him that acknowledging their earlier mistake would have triggered a meltdown in which they would have lost more than they were willing to lose. So they kept propping him up. He was using them, but they were also using him. They achieved a perfect balance of mutual use and abuse, a synchronized and balanced dyad of dehumanization and instrumentalization. He wanted to be a god and was, but at the same time he was a mere tool.

Something parallel has happened in the strange dance between Donald Trump and the Republican leadership. In mid-2016, Trump’s deceptions worked powerfully upon the army that the regular Republican leaders had formed for their own purposes. Having conditioned followers to salivate, bark and jump to their own dog whistles, they were flabbergasted to see Trump hijacking them by whistling more effectively than they had done themselves. Having no alternative, and hoping Trump might turn out to be able to lead the party faithful on their behalf, they handed him the keys, just as the bankers had lent money to him to buy a second casino, and then a third. Over the course of months and now years, the Republican leaders who have any sense have seen, as the bankers saw, that Trump is empty bombast. The man who couldn’t turn a profit with casinos (even though, as Mary Trump points out, the house always wins!) can’t run a competent government either (surprise!), but they are too heavily invested in him to cut him loose; hence the Senate’s failure to impeach, and hence the nomination to a second term. Because if they pulled the plug on him, they would also be pulling the plug on themselves, and that they will not do, not even for the good of the nation. So they continue desperately to try to use him, just has he tried to use them. The death-dance proceeds. There is no love in it on either side. It is once again mutual dehumanization and instrumentalization, and perhaps mutually assured destruction—with the nation and perhaps the world as collateral damage.

But my point: to enable Trump, pretend that he’s OK, and use him as a means to political ends is to disrespect him as a human being. For Christians, it is a failure to recognize him a being created in the image of God, fallen, and in need of repentance, salvation, and restoration. It is to get tangled up with him in a dance of death that forecloses for us and for him the possibility of new life.

To Break the Cycle

Is it possible that Mary Trump’s book, through its narration of the story of how the Donald came to be the Donald, might enable both his critics and his worshipers, enablers, and users to begin to see him not as a god and not as a tool but as a human being? Readers who believe that he is a god to be worshiped will reject the book as false. His enablers and users will reject the book as not helpful for furthering their aims. So the real burden rests upon readers who know that Mary Trump’s description of the current reality is correct and learn from her how it came to be.

The question they—we—must face is: if we see in some detail what was done to Donald Trump to make him what he is, will we that insight enable us to break out of the cycle of anxiety, fear, and anger? Will we view Donald with some measure of compassion? Will we view with some measure of compassion those who adore him because their anxiety and neediness resonate with his? Those who knew and know what he is but deliberately decided to try to use him and persist cynically in that decision—they are a different matter.

Would it be condescending or patronizing to look on Trump and Trumpists with compassion? Condescension is an existential possibility, especially when the stance is determined by an inescapable conviction that I know more than they know, more than he knows, and it is a favorite accusation on the lips of Trump’s more literate defenders and he’s-not-so-badders and but-whuddabouters. But is it inevitable?

But here I think is the ultimate benefit of this book. By focusing on the emotional dynamics, Mary Trump enables us to see that Donald’s core problem is not that he does not know enough. So, although he knows just about nothing that a president should know, his most basic problem—the thing that has driven one who should not be president to pursue and grasp that office—is a more basic lack. Not an intellectual lack but an emotional-relational lack. On page 198 she distills into a single sentence the essential truth that is amply supported by the story of his life in his family of origin: “He knows he has never been loved.”

What more tragic sentence could one find in a biography? From what other position could it be possible to extend compassion to such a person other than from the stance of those who know that they are “love with everlasting love, taught by grace that love to know”? Many can see and despise Trump from a vantage point of superior knowledge or higher morality, but where are those who can survey him, and his followers, and the people they despise, from a point of view of secure belovedness? And devise wise ways not to enable them, but to disable their alienation, and the works of their alienation, and draw them—and even him, at least in our imaginative aspirations—into an awareness of their own belovedness, of the one common belovedness that is the common heritage of the children of God? Is that not the only way to cure the emptiness that always seeks to have too much, for which which nothing is ever enough? Is that not the only way to redeem and revise what we pass from parent to child, from citizen to citizen, from congregant to congregant, from region to nation, and nation to nation, from generation to generation?

The political task facing religious Americans now is to discern how to address lovelessness in secular politics, respecting the legitimately and desirably secular character of the polis, from a theologically informed position of belovedness. An essential next step is removing Donald Trump from the presidency. But that will not be a sufficient step. Whether that effort succeeds or fails, other steps will need to follow.

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