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John Biggs

A Better Son Or Daughter

Donald Trump, amnesia, and a capitalist fable.

There are no surprises in Mary Trump’s memoir about her uncle Donald Trump and their family. We learn that, yes, the former president was spoiled by his parents, that as a child he and his four siblings never bonded with their mother (who suffered from the debilitating and painful after-effects of a hysterectomy that left her incapable of more than the most basic maternal functions). Sexual lechery and inappropriateness is a family trait: when Mary was a young girl, her grandfather, Frederick Trump (Fred), showed her a picture of a nude woman. As a young woman, Mary happened to be around her uncle Donald while wearing a bathing suit, prompting him to yell out that she was “stacked.” She also claims that Trump paid someone to take his SATs for entrance into Wharton, that Trump holds on to grudges and often acts on them. And so on. 

And sometimes when you’re on, you’re really fucking on

And your friends, they sing along and they love you.

But the lows are so extreme that the good seems fucking cheap

And it teases you for weeks in its absence.

But you’ll fight and you’ll make it through

You’ll fake it if you have to and

You’ll show up for work with a smile.

You’ll be better and you’ll be smarter and more grown up

And a better daughter or son and a real good friend,

And you’ll be awake,

You’ll be alert, you’ll be positive though it hurts

Rilo Kiley, A Better Son/Daughter 

The book—titled Too Much and Never Enough—does offer some glimpses into the inner workings of a large, wealthy family. At one point, Trump almost succeeded in making himself the sole executor of his father’s will while the latter was slowly slipping into Alzheimer’s. Fortunately for his siblings, Fred Trump entered one of his rare periods of lucidity, matters were quickly resolved, and all three of the older siblings (Mary Trump’s father was dead by then) were named executors. Years later, Maryanne Trump, the eldest daughter, told her niece Mary, “We would have been penniless. Elizabeth [Maryanne’s youngest sister] would have been begging on a street corner. We would have had to beg Donald if we wanted a cup of coffee.” 

Well. All of Fred Trump’s five children are educated and born into great wealth with connections of their own but then, perhaps, “penniless” means one thing to most people and another to people like the Trumps. Extremely wealthy families are all alike, and each is anxious about its wealth in the same way. For people like the Trumps, “penniless” means foregoing first class travel, not actually begging for coffee. 

Mary Trump, daughter of Fred Trump’s eldest son Freddy, was, by her own admission, never outside a family dynamic where everyone strove to always remain in the good graces of the domineering family patriarch who kept them all on tight financial leashes. She went so far as to change her signature when Grandpa Fred informed her, through an employee, that hers was not suitable. As a college student (whose entire education was financed by her grandfather), she spent a year abroad in Germany hoping to please him by having lived in the land of his ancestors (this did not have the desired effect). 

What really separates Mary from the rest is that she and her brother, Frederick (Fritz), fought for what they claimed should have been their rightful inheritance from their father (the family is remarkably unimaginative in naming its progeny: many of the men are named Frederick, and most of the women some variant of Mary or Elizabeth).

Those details are complicated, but not riveting: The Trumps do what all wealthy families do, preserve their wealth by any means necessary. Too Much and Never Enough is not interesting for its tidbits about Trump and the lifecycle of a wealthy family, which are mundane and mostly well known already—but for what it reveals, inadvertently, about American politics and the condition of amnesia in which it exists. Even as this book lays claim to an unveiling of truth and facts, it cannot help but simultaneously occlude more inconvenient truths and facts about its subjects. In that, there’s a strong parallel between Mary Trump’s wilful recasting of her family history and the ways in which the United States continues, relentlessly, to ignore the turns and twists of its own history. In particular, Mary Trump’s book echoes the broad tendency of many liberals, progressives, and even leftists in placing the problems of the last four years squarely on the shoulders of one man, her uncle, rather than considering how the Trump presidency’s horrors were, first, not unique to him and, second, only a reflection of this country’s blood-soaked and genocidal history. 

Consider how Mary Trump frames the act of writing this book as brave, even heroic truth-telling, in the name of her dead father:

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. In addition to the firsthand accounts I can give as my father’s daughter and my uncle’s only niece, I have the perspective of a trained clinical psychologist. Too Much and Never Enough is the story of the most visible and powerful family in the world. And I am the only Trump who is willing to tell it.

And then, lest we think that this book was simply born out of family animus and a petty desire to fling long-buried skeletons out of their closets, she reassures us that it is in fact an act of deep patriotism: “Donald,” she writes, “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.”

But what was this destruction, exactly? Freddy (Mary’s father) has been the shadowy figure in the Trump family saga, and his younger brother has often said that Freddy was the man he feared becoming. As Donald Trump tells it, his brother’s alcoholism, which led to his early death, is the reason why he neither drinks nor smokes. As Mary Trump tells it, her father had a passion for flying and was never interested in the family business, a fact that angered her grandfather. Freddy’s disinterest allowed his younger brother to step in and extend the business beyond Queens and into Manhattan. In the meantime, Freddy tried several business ventures and failed at most of them; he was also fired from TWA and a prestigious pilot’s job (at the time, both well-paid and glamorous) for his alcoholism. He spent the last years of his life in an refurbished attic in the house his parents lived in, and died of an addiction-related heart attack. 

This is a sad story, but Mary Trump (maybe to avoid the appearance of gossipy pettiness) is determined to turn it into more than a personal tragedy. In her hands, the death of her father is a national metaphor. “Freddy couldn’t retaliate,” she writes, “when his little brother mocked his passion for flying because of his filial responsibility and his decency, just as governors in blue states, desperate to get adequate help for their citizens during the COVID-19 crisis are constrained from calling out Donald’s incompetence for fear he would withhold ventilators and other supplies needed in order to save lives.”

This is a bizarre statement: the two have nothing to do with each other. There are no parallels between a person feeling devalued by his family and governors worrying about angering a president who might withhold medical supplies. One is a person, bound by family histories and legacies and personal limitations, the other is a political system. The parallels that Mary Trump seeks to make, between Donald Trump’s treatment of her father and his treatment of the country don’t work at all. But the fact that she feels the need to make these kinds of parallels, over and over in the book—and critics have eaten it up—offers better insight into what Too Much and Never Enough is really about. In a strange way, rather than being a work of psychology (both personal and national), it may be read as an indictment of psychology itself.

Psychology—again, Mary Trump’s field—is a discipline which has generally focused on surface problems, on creating narratives out of what is plainly visible. In contrast, psychoanalysis, which considers the realm of the unconscious and thus places importance on that which cannot be easily discerned, contemplates broken shards of buried experiences that have to be excavated. Where psychology looks for what the problem might be (and too often seeks to medicate them out), psychoanalysis seeks an answer to how. The purpose of psychoanalysis is much less visibly curative: there is no real “cure,” only a deeper understanding. Psychology allows for the picking and choosing of what elements of a person’s life matter, which is why Mary Trump can write a book about her father’s life and early death being a result of a tyrannical father and family, but somehow fails to wrangle with the possibility that perhaps Donald Trump—who was dissociated from his mother at the age of three—might be similarly strained. 

Art by John Biggs

Instead, she chooses to confirm a loosely floating “diagnosis” of Trump that has been floating in the ether for years, that he’s a narcissist. Mary Trump adds, in her capacity as a clinical psychologist, that he also demonstrates possible signs of antisocial personality disorder, dependent personality disorder, and perhaps even an undiagnosed learning disability. All of this is, of course, carefully hedged with sprinklings of “probably” and “maybe” so that she cannot be accused of outright diagnosis without consultation, something the American Psychological Association has firmly spoken out against, especially when too many psychologists have issued diagnoses of Trump. It is a deeply unethical and unprofessional move on her part, but also fits in a larger cultural context where even laypersons feel comfortable diagnosing each other with copies of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) on their laps. Given Mary’s training and her express desire to see her book end her uncle’s career, it makes sense that Too Much and Never Enough is a psychological study with a neat answer and a set of diagnoses but not a psychoanalytic one, which might create a more complex and uneasy portrait. 

To get a sense of what might be offered through psychoanalysis rather than psychology, it’s useful to turn to what is considered the first truly mainstream representation of psychoanalysis, Alfred Hitchcock’s film Spellbound, produced by Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick. 

And You’ll Be Awake, You’ll Be Alert

Once upon a time in Hollywood, everyone, including Marilyn Monroe, had a psychoanalyst and Sigmund Freud was a celebrity (if a distant one). In 1924, Samuel Goldwyn, the legendary producer who was the G in MGM, sailed across the ocean to Vienna, hoping to persuade the famous doctor to “commercialize his study and write a story for the screen,” for $100,000 (the equivalent of over $1.5 million today), according to the sociologist Andrew Scull. Freud sent Goldwyn away with some irritation, but Hollywood’s fascination with the field he founded remained strong for a very long time. Psychoanalysis in Hollywood, it seemed, was what Scientology is today. 

In the last few decades, psychoanalysis has fallen out of favor for several reasons, and some of those have to do with the growth in a version of psychiatry that’s about quicker fixes via medications (and some would argue, over-medication). It’s hard to imagine now, but for a while psychoanalysis dominated medical and cultural discourse and was deployed and represented, if in somewhat hamfisted ways, by everyone from advertising executives to Hollywood producers. 

David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone with the Wind (1939) and one of the most powerful movie moguls of the time, had fallen into a deep depression and credited his psychoanalyst with his recovery. His experience made him want to produce a film that could highlight the uses of psychoanalysis; he chose Hitchcock, still under contract to Selznick and fresh off the success of Rebecca (1940). Spellbound (1945) was the result. 

Spellbound is mostly incomprehensible in terms of plot, and profoundly sexist. Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives at Green Manors, a mental hospital in Vermont, where he is to take over as the new head. There, he meets the frigid, sexless Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) who, of course, immediately melts at the first sight of this handsome young man and then proceeds to fall increasingly in love even as he berates her, inexplicably, for creating parallel lines with a fork on a white tablecloth to show him what the surrounding landscape looks like. He does this in front of all her colleagues and instead of, perhaps, slapping him—rhetorically or literally—she decides that this is the man of her dreams. As it turns out, he is not the real Dr. Edwardes and may even have killed the doctor, but he can’t remember anything of his past life and suffers from an inexplicable terror of parallel lines and white backgrounds. The two run away to an old friend of Petersen, Dr. Alexander Brulov. Edwardes (now calling himself John Brown) then proceeds to try to kill the good and canny doctor and even that fails to revulse Petersen. She only becomes more of a mother hen and convinces her friend to analyze Brown’s recurring dream so that they might all learn what he’s suppressing. 

It’s this scene, where Brown is placed into a trance to recall his dream, that gave rise to one of the most famous bits of cinema: a dream sequence created by Salvador Dalí. The shots employ all the classic Dalí tropes, beginning with a giant curtain emblazoned with massive eyes, which is then cut apart by a large pair of scissors. From there, as Brown continues his description in voiceover, we see a scantily clad woman flitting between tables (she of course turns out to be Petersen), people playing cards, a bent bicycle wheel, a faceless man, another running, and a cliff. All of this is classic Dalí surrealism, and it’s hard to tell if the episode is a work of surreal art or just Dalí palming off his wares to a wealthy producer. 

The remainder of the film is predictable: the real killer is found, the fear of parallel lines and snow is due to a long-repressed memory of Brown having accidentally killed his younger brother by pushing him onto a spiked metal fence. Petersen and Brown (whose real name is John Ballantyne) are now free to cavort as lovers: she finds her femininity, having gotten rid of her glasses and most of her brain. 

Spellbound is not as interesting as Hitchcock’s other works, over which he had more creative control; it takes psychoanalysis seriously but too literally, reducing it to a simple dream analysis, like the sort you might find today on dream interpretation websites. Hitchcock himself was contemptuous of the film, telling François Truffaut in a famous 1962 interview, “It’s just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.”

But even with all its problems, Spellbound—especially in its surreal dream sequence—offers a fractured set of possibilities when it comes to what might be going on and, more importantly, it points to the fact that “truth” is sticky. What matters is not a neat rendition of meaning, but where the fractures lead you. It’s Dr. Brulov’s words to Brown/Ballantyne that clarify this as he explains what dreams are and what we might do with them:

The secrets of who you are and what has made you run away from yourself, all these secrets are buried in your brain. But you don’t want to look at them: the human being [sic] very often doesn’t want to know the truth about himself because he thinks it will make him sick so he makes himself sicker trying to forget. …Dreams… tell you what you’re trying to hide but they tell it to you all mixed up like pieces of a puzzle that don’t fit. The problem of the analyst is to examine this puzzle and put the pieces together in the right place and find out what the devil you’re trying to say to yourself [emphasis mine]

The struggle for Ballantyne in Spellbound is to recover from amnesia, to leave behind a forgetting. Breaking him down to recover the dream is to effect a necessary rupture, and psychoanalysis rests upon the idea that shattering is a positive effect. Psychology, on the other hand, often seeks to paper over bad memories and breaks, and creates instead a narrative and a set of stories. To put it another way, psychology aims to make you whole, and psychoanalysis aims to break you.

And A Better Son Or Daughter

One day, when Mary Trump was only two years old, she heard her mother screaming. She found her father laughing out loud, apparently drunk out of his mind, pointing a rifle at his wife Linda’s face as she screamed in terror. The weapon was one he kept on his yacht, for shooting sharks in the water (why, for hunting or protection or pleasure, is never revealed). Shortly afterwards, Linda packed her children into a car. The violence was not the only problem in the marriage: another issue was that he never seemed to have a full grasp of how to run a business. One of the ways Freddy tried to make money was to charter his boat and private plane for tours. But instead of using the boat for commercial trips on the weekends, the most lucrative time, he paid the pilot to simply speed him and his friends around for leisure—we get a hint at the reason for his popularity among others. Mary Trump insists that her father never received as much as Donald from the family, but in interviews, his friends have said he showed up at Lehigh University with a new Corvette every year, a sign that while his ambitions may have been thwarted by his family, he was not exactly, to use a familiar term, left penniless.  

This is not an attempt to write off Freddy as a privileged monster: he may indeed have been an anguished man, and alcoholism is a complicated set of issues that’s not just about drinking irresponsibly, as moralists might have us believe. And wealthy families, with millions or much more at stake, habitually grind down any offspring who show even the slightest deviation from family norms of creating more wealth. But Mary Trump grants no agency or will at all to her father, portraying him as a helpless victim of his disease and of his bullying younger brother. This may, admittedly and sadly, just be a sign of Mary wanting to be a good or better daughter to a man who in turn apparently wanted always to be a good or better son to his own cold and unfeeling father. In the same vein, we could argue—and his niece does, in a way—that Donald Trump became a greedy, uncaring, and monstrous human being because he wanted to work so hard at being a good son, as cold and ruthless as his father, having supplanted the place of the eldest brother. All of this needlessly personalizes matters and leaves out the systems that created the Trumps and today’s America: Mary Trump is happy to reveal her grandfather’s coldness, but conveniently leaves out the fact that he was arrested, in 1927, for refusing to disperse from a Ku Klux Klan rally (years later, he would be charged with racist and exclusionary policies as a landlord, and Woody Guthrie, a tenant, famously wrote the unrecorded “Old Man Trump” about him). For her to admit to this would be admitting that the problems with this family go deeper than emotional manipulation and greed, and for us to contend with it would mean that we see Trumpian economic rapaciousness as being rooted in a long, terrifying history of capitalist domination and spread that has involved brutalizing millions in a centuries-long history that goes beyond mere “greed.” Which is to say: recognizing the systems that brought us the Trumps would mean recognizing how we are all implicated in history. 

But this, Mary Trump’s memoir, is psychology: the creation of a narrative, based on certain facts and eliding others. There’s one critical person whom Mary Trump leaves out entirely, placing her in an ancillary position in the whole drama: her own mother, Linda Lee Clapp Trump. Mary reveals that her mother was forced to attend Trump holiday gatherings even after her divorce from Freddy Trump, and even though both sides clearly didn’t want her there: at a party, Mary finds her mother sitting almost in the dark, alone at a table, her face “stricken.” Astonishingly, for a book so consumed with spilling all the secrets, we never learn what actually happened to Linda Trump, or what her life might have been like, to be married into such a family. Mary Trump does not even disclose that her mother in fact died, back in 2001. In order to resurrect the father, the mother is effectively disappeared. 

What the devil is she trying to say to herself?

What Mary Trump does triumphantly reveal is that it was she who obtained and handed over a massive trove of financial documents which then enabled the New York Times to produce its huge and popular story of Trump’s financial dealings, including the fact that he has paid hardly any taxes. She—very heroically—exposed an evil villain, or so goes her narrative.

But while the story exploded at the time and people saw the revelations as examples of Trump’s greed, forgotten in all the furore were some simple facts: just about all wealthy families employ leagues of lawyers and accountants to do exactly what Trump did, avid readers of the Times among them many of whom might have made hurried calls to their lawyers and accountants as the story broke. We might also remember that in 1984, the New York Times ran a worshipful profile of Trump titled “The Expanding Empire of Donald Trump,” a breathless account of his rising profile as a developer. The same paper that wants to claim his downfall was among those who propped him up and, indeed, created him. In recent months, fans of Home Alone 2 have sought to erase Trump from a scene where Macaulay Culkin’s child character asks him for directions. But could the same be done with multiple episodes of various television shows (such as any part of the Law and Order franchise), which include numerous references to “The Donald?” Can we erase Trump from our culture, and the broad milieu that created and supported and championed him for decades?

What the devil are we trying to say to ourselves? 

Amnesia is the American state of being, so it only makes sense that Mary Trump’s neat psychological profiling of Donald Trump and her family is currently the preferred narrative. It’s a simple story of heroes and villains, agents and victims. This is the failure of the book and of the entire political project upon which America rests: seeking to explain historical, systemic failures away by locating them on the shoulders of villainous individuals. 

It’s worth pausing here to consider the difference between a liberal political project and a left one. Liberalism is about maintaining the status quo and to that end, it does not challenge concepts like the nation-state, the necessity for the family, or, in this case, the greatness of the American dream. And it embarks on a constant quest for forgetfulness, for an amnesia about history. Consider, for instance, the ongoing outrage over Trump placing “babies in cages.” When the news first broke that Trump’s immigration policies were wrenching children away from their parents and placing them in detention cages, several photos depicting said children in said cages circulated quickly—until it was discovered that the photos were from the time of the Obama administration. Even after such fact-checking, the phrase “babies in cages” circulates with ferocious persistence to describe the worst of the Trump administration’s crimes, implying that he and he alone was responsible for such conditions. On occasion, some will excuse the Obama photos, with the largely specious claim that those children were separated only under exceptional circumstances, such as parental cruelty. All of these explanations avoid the central issue: the problem is not whether we have babies or adults in cages, and whether the reasons for caging are “good” or not, but that cages constitute a central and long-standing tradition of American immigration policy. 

Trump’s liberal critics have often insisted that “this is not who we are. Echoing this popular refrain, Mary Trump writes that there is now an “atmosphere of division” because of Donald Trump, one that’s “wearing the country down, just as it did my father, changing us even as it leave Donald unaltered.” She continues: “It’s weakening our ability to be kind or believe in forgiveness, concepts that have never had any meaning for him.” She writes all this as if the United States has not in fact always been a breaker of both dreams and bodies.

In 2017, as psychologists everywhere began to insist that Trump was a narcissist, mentally unstable, and unfit to govern, Allen Frances—who actually defined the DSM-5 criteria for narcissism—wrote to the Times that Trump “may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.” He was critical of the psychologists who like Mary Trump were quick to offer armchair diagnoses, emphasizing: “Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).” He concluded, “The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological.” 

The story that psychologists like Mary Trump and the general public seem to want is of a cruel and unfeeling monster whose actions are unique to him and to history. But if we applied psychoanalytic principles instead of psychological ones, we might instead consider that historical amnesia is not desirable: we might begin to plumb the depths of the unconscious that we have tried so hard to scrub away. We might consider that torrid and morbid tales about stupendously rich people don’t tell us anything about the state of things if we don’t understand that the problems lie with the massive political and cultural systems that create such wealth—and fetishize it—in the first place. Has Donald Trump been a greedy, rapacious, abusive, and destructive force creating havoc in the world? Yes, of course. But these are the same qualities of capitalism, the far bigger problem that is actively destroying the planet and everyone in it. The answers are bigger than we may be comfortable with, and finding them may involve a shattering.

With many thanks to Julian Hayda. 

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