I stayed up late the night of Nov. 8, 2016, eager to see the culmination of countless scandals, debates and upsets. I already knew the outcome: Donald Trump’s debate performances were catastrophic, his poll numbers were abysmal and his own party wasn’t fond of him. We could only wonder what a Trump presidency would look like; maybe Donald could have pleasantly surprised us. Regardless, it didn’t matter, because in the morning, America would say hello to President Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It has been nearly four years since that night, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. In my optimism, I underestimated the damage Trump could do, and how poisonous words could be. Now, I’m only dreading what another four years could look like. As we near the day that America will decide on another four years, we’re left to grapple with what created the man in office today and what that means for us. And perhaps one of the best insights we have into how that really happened is from the President’s very own niece, Mary Trump, Ph.D.

Admittedly, this close to the election, another “explosive” tell-all about the president is unlikely to change any minds, and in this regard, Mary Trump’s memoir “Too Much and Never Enough” isn’t any different. Nothing in it will surprise left-leaning readers at this point, and the political views Mary gives in the prologue — calling Hillary Clinton “the most qualified presidential candidate in the history of the country,” for example — are sure to lead right-leaning readers to dismiss her as another biased liberal.

But persuading unconvinced voters is not what Mary set out to do. The book’s value lies in her nuanced take on the president’s psyche. Donald might be as easy to read as a coloring book, but Mary paints him with complexity and nuance, tinged with unexpected sympathy and pity. With a first-hand account, she explores how her family history is mired in neglect, humiliation and manipulation, and how the emergent dynamics demonstrate just how complicated family can be. And from this, the reader can see how the consequences of those dynamics have affected our nation.

Donald, who experienced familial abuse, is an illustration of how the devastation of maltreatment can span generations. In spite of this, Mary refrains from exonerating her uncle, because in the end, Donald is still a 74-year-old man who has refused to change even when he’s actively harming others. It’s dangerously easy to dismiss his behavior, or that of any abuser, as harmless or even irrelevant — Donald Trump’s supporters continue to do this in dismissing his egregious faults in favor of the policies he supports. But in doing this, we become complicit in this cycle of abuse, and as a result, perpetuate it. As we approach the 2020 election, we must critically examine the tangible consequences of abuse, on a personal and a national level, and how they have beaten down our country.

“Freddy was terrified to ask Fred for anything … Whenever Freddy deviated even slightly from Fred’s often unspoken expectations, he ended up humiliated or shamed …”

The problem, Mary insists, began with Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump Sr., or simply “Fred.” Embarking in the real estate business shortly after high school, Fred Trump went on to found the Trump housing empire in Brooklyn, using political favors, government subsidies and cheap labor to build his fortune. Not only was Fred driven, he was shrewd and unrelenting to the extreme. One might even say to an inhuman degree.

Mary Trump goes further, though. Her grandfather was not merely a ruthless businessman, but a “high-functioning sociopath.” Mary states “his care of his children … reflected his own needs, not theirs. Love meant nothing to him, and he could not empathize with their plight.” His “lack of real human feelings, his rigidity as a parent and a husband” and his indifference to his five children fundamentally shaped their development.

The biggest tragedy to emerge from this was the fate of Mary’s father and President Trump’s brother, Freddy Trump. The relationship between Fred and Freddy serves as the crux of the book and is where Mary’s writing is at its strongest. In telling her father’s story, Mary also tracks her own development and growth, illustrating how she went from seeing her father as a deadbeat dad to a victim of decades of abuse and humiliation.

I’m sure many eldest children could attest to the pressure and high expectations their parents place on them, and Freddy Trump was no exception. Freddy was a normal enough kid to begin with. He’d play pranks on neighbors, go out boating with his friends and play ball. But he wasn’t the “killer” Fred wanted him to be. To Fred, “killer” was just “code for being invulnerable.” It wasn’t that Freddy wasn’t ambitious enough — he aspired to be a pilot, in fact — he was just interested in “the wrong things.” Over time, Fred systematically tore down any interest or individuality his son had. “Whenever Freddy expressed a desire to get a pet or played a practical joke,” his father would respond with “That’s stupid … What do you want to do that for?”

Dripping with contempt, those words took their toll, and Freddy, eager for his father’s approval, apologized. Of course, this was only another sign of weakness, and Fred would proceed to humiliate his son, often in front of his siblings or friends, driving home the point that there was no recovery from failure. Eventually, Freddy began lying about his leisure time to “avoid the mockery or disapproval he knew the truth would bring down upon him.” So, in spite of his father grooming him as his heir, Freddy continued to pursue his passion for flying. However, this, too, would lead to his downfall.

Up until this point, Mary’s tone had been wistful, reflective and even somewhat warm. She was recounting a period of her father’s life in which he was truly happy. Mary’s memoir is a love letter to her father. Not only was that warmth unexpected, it was refreshing. This variety in tone accentuates the poignancy the story takes once Fred finally breaks his eldest son. After years of mounting disapproval and pressure from his father, Freddy slipped into alcoholism, lost his career, his wife and his vitality. No matter what he did, it was never enough. Even still, Freddy was desperate for his father’s approval, so when Fred told Freddy to quit his one remaining joy, flying, Freddy obliged. Things only went further downhill, culminating in his death at age 43.

Freddy’s story is tragic, but it’s not entirely surprising. Oftentimes, in spite of any abuse they may suffer, a victim can’t bring themselves to completely hate the abuser. For Freddy, Mary states that “protecting his love for his father was more important than protecting himself from his father’s abuse.” As children, we are taught our parents have our best interests at heart, that on some level they have to love us. And to a certain extent, that’s true. But it’s important to realize someone can have your best interests at heart and still be a total bastard.

“Fred liked (Donald’s) killer attitude, even if it manifested as bad behavior. Every one of Donald’s transgressions became an audition for his father’s favor … ”

For many on the left, viewing Donald as anything other than a monster far past the point of redemption is difficult. Once upon a time, though, Donald was just a child, like everyone else. He might have been born into a wealthy family, his success already preordained, but at one point, Donald was as much of a victim as Freddy. But Donald and Freddy had very different fates, so while a neglectful childhood may have been unavoidable, an abusive adulthood was not.

My sister has often said that the benefit of having older siblings is that you can watch them get in trouble for being idiots and learn how to not get caught being an idiot yourself. For Donald, this much was true. The mistakes of his older brother, Freddy, were constantly exploited and paraded by their father, and all Donald had to do was watch. As Mary Trump puts it, “The lesson he learned … was that it was wrong to be like Freddy.” In Donald’s eyes, Fred’s constant humiliation of his son wasn’t abuse, it was Freddy failing to be good enough. All Donald had to do to slip by was to have what Freddy did not: a killer instinct.

That killer instinct wasn’t there to start with, and neither was the man we know as our president today. The issue, according to Mary, was the tension between “too much” and “never enough.” When you look at Freddy, you can see Fred placed too much on him. The attention, the expectations and the humiliation crushed Freddy’s soul. Donald, on the other hand, never got enough care. He was arrogant, belligerent, entitled and cruel. Donald would get into fights with other schoolchildren, he’d bully his siblings and he did what he wanted. And Fred did nothing. So Donald continued.

As it turns out, failing to discipline your child when they act out shows them that there is nothing wrong with their behavior. And Mary believes that because Fred was the only person whose opinion Donald valued, any attempts at discipline from his mother fell flat. As Donald’s sister recently put it, “He was a brat,” and not much has changed. Mary states “… he wasn’t yet being rewarded for selfishness, obstinacy, or cruelty, but he wasn’t being punished for those flaws, either.” So those traits only festered.

When Fred began encouraging these behaviors, the problem only intensified. The ways Donald tried to cope with his neglect — lashing out at weakness, avoiding emotional intimacy and feigning indifference to his unmet emotional needs — were suddenly valued: “Fred Trump came to validate, encourage, and champion the things about Donald … that were … the direct result of Fred’s abuse.”

But for Fred, this didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Donald learned one simple lesson: “… In life, there could be only one winner; everybody else had to lose.”

And just as Fred taught him to do, in 2016, Donald did win, and everyone else lost. Now he’s sitting in the Oval Office, and has upended almost everything that has defined what it means to be president. It’s clear the man in the White House today is still the same emotionally stunted boy Fred Trump replaced his firstborn son with. What is more clear is how far-reaching the effects of Fred’s abuse and neglect have been. Regardless of Fred’s material success, the impact of his words and behavior have proven far more devastating than anything he did in life.

Donald’s belligerence, temper and sensitivity are evident from his countless tweets; his disregard for the truth is obvious and his sense of superiority manifests in his proclamation that he is a “great looking and smart … true Stable Genius!” After decades of abuse and neglect, these behaviors have crystallized into personality traits, and those of us who have the luxury can ask: Is he too far gone? Maybe it doesn’t even matter. The damage has been done. 

“Abuse can be quiet and insidious just as often as, or even more often than, it is loud and violent. As far as I know, my grandfather wasn’t a physically violent man or even a particularly angry one. He didn’t have to be; he expected to get what he wanted and almost always did.”

I grew up in a conservative household. At this point, I know how I must sound. To certain family members, I’m just a product of my time, a young liberal cultivated by a culture of progressivism and indoctrinated by the anti-Trump agenda. But they’re the ones who raised me; if anything, I understand their political views more than most. I may be baffled by their continued support of Donald Trump, but on some level, contrary to what they may think, I get it.

Yet, on another level, I’m deeply concerned. Even putting policy differences aside, Donald has unquestionably destabilized the U.S. with his rhetoric and behavior alone. There have been so many times I thought the spell would’ve broken, when my otherwise reasonable family would realize the damage Donald has been wreaking. But that hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t know if it will.

I can understand the appeal. Many of us want to believe that our flawed political system can be fixed. But Donald hasn’t fixed it. He’s only gotten millions to drink the Kool-Aid. The stock defenses for Donald tend to gloss over his less desirable traits and recontextualize them with the question: “What does it matter?” In light of these other promises he’s keeping, in light of the fact that he’s not part of the establishment, what does it matter if the president makes an average of 23 false claims a day? Well, if “Too Much and Never Enough” has taught us anything, it’s that his behavior does matter, and that Donald’s conduct is far from inconsequential.

You don’t even have to dig very deep to see the tangible ways Donald’s dishonesty has hurt millions. When Donald “sarcastically” suggested injecting disinfectant to combat COVID-19, for example, there was a significant uptick in people trying just that

But I hear a family member now: “OK, OK, but there will always be a few thousand idiotic outliers, no one in their right mind would actually inject disinfectant.” Perhaps, but Donald is the leader of one of the most powerful countries on the planet. He has a lot of influence, both domestically and internationally. His words set a precedent for what is acceptable and what is not, and a lot of people take him seriously. 

So even though the disinfectant incident might be extreme, there are subtler and more insidious ways Donald’s mistruths harm the U.S. Three separate studies found that those who watched conservative programming, particularly programs frequented by Donald Trump, were more likely to ignore CDC regulations. While it could be argued that Donald is not directly to blame for what the likes of Sean Hannity peddle, it’s important to note just how frequently Donald interacts with these media figures. There is a massive amount of reciprocal influence between Donald and those he watches, so when these outlets begin to peddle misinformation, or downplay a threat (as Donald recently admitted to doing), the president is complicit in, and responsible for, the distribution of that misinformation.

“Yeah, but Tate, with COVID-19, Donald was only trying to keep everyone calm so there wasn’t pandemonium.” Maybe, but was that really a wise action to take? Downplaying the virus falls in line with so many of Donald’s other actions, namely sowing public distrust in the media. Trust in the truth itself has decayed, and the result is yet more harmful conspiracy theories and fake news that influence the public and, eventually, legislation. What’s even more tragic is just how much Donald has alienated us from one another. Americans are more polarized than ever, and many believe that issues such as race relations have worsened under the Trump administration.

But it’s not just Americans who are appalled by Trump and his supporters. Donald has made our key allies look upon us with disgust. Everyone else in the world has seen how Donald abuses us, why can’t we?

***

I often question whether there is any real value in understanding Donald on a deeper level, whether Mary Trump’s memoir serves any purpose at all. At this point, it all feels so futile. The election looms closer every day, and tensions continue to rise. The president has already swindled millions into supporting him. After four years, why bother continuing to try to impress upon them the ramifications of his behavior?

But I do take solace in the fact that this memoir was written at all. At the very least, Mary Trump was able to escape the volatile environment that killed her father and warped her uncle, offering insight into how to avoid creating another monster. More than that, though, in shedding light on this vicious cycle of abuse, Mary Trump gives readers the opportunity to consider how everyone, including Trump supporters, has somehow been victimized by our president. It absolves no one of guilt, but it does help me to more clearly understand the blind fervor with which Trump’s supporters defend him. Mary Trump’s ability to confront these difficult truths proves that she was able to break free of the cycle of abuse. I like to believe that confronting these truths ourselves might help us to maybe, just maybe, break the cycle too.

Daily Arts Writer Tate Lafrenier can be reached at tlafren@umich.edu.

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