FOR DECADES, FATHER WAS A CONSTANT PRESENCE & . . .
“To make the child in your own image is a capital crime, for your image is not worth repeating. The child knows this and you know it. Consequently you hate each other.”
– Karl Shapiro, The Bourgeois Poet, 1964.
“When Donald Trump moved into the Oval Office in January, he placed on the table behind the Resolute Desk a single family photo – of Fred Trump, his father. Sometime in the spring, Donald added one of his mother, Mary Trump. But when, exactly, and why, no one knew,” wrote Michael Kruse in Politico magazine.
Intriguingly, Kruse noted, it was a continuation of the setup in Donald’s office at Trump Tower where only a photo of his father was always prominently displayed on his desk – and his mother ‘prominent’ only by her inexplicable absence on that desk for decades.
Trump has talked often about the profound influence of his father. “That’s why I’m so screwed up, because I had a father that pushed me pretty hard,” he wrote in his 2007 book, Think Big. Mary Trump, by contrast, has been more of a ghost in his voluminous public record, a cardboard cutout of a character. She was, from all accounts, one who relished pomp and planted the seeds of her second son’s acumen for showmanship and promotion.
The 45th president of the United States seems to be the product of one domineering parent. But, noted Kruse, Trump’s relationship with his mother, while less explored, is just as consequential.
Trump’s mother, who died in 2000, had in some ways been fading from view for many years before her son on Inauguration Day placed his hand on the Bible he got from her. But to discount her role in the creation of Donald’s persona is to disregard decades of study about family dynamics. Most psychologists agree: Your mother helps make you who you are.
Who, then, was Mary Trump?
Donald tweeted on February 5, 2013: “Advice from my mother, Mary MacLeod Trump: Trust in God and be true to yourself.” The same tweet again on July 30, 2013, October 24, 2013 and October 25, 2013, and also on March 21, 2014, May 15, 2014 and January 28, 2015 – which itself was recycled from a page in his 2004 book, How to Get Rich. “I didn’t really get it at first, but later I realized how comprehensive this is.”
Friends and family members described Mary Trump to Kruse as generally ‘tight-lipped’ and ‘conservative’, but ‘nice’, ‘friendly’ and ‘pleasant’. But her relative trace existence in the President’s own narrative of his life is a reflection of his upbringing in Jamaica Estates, Queens. “When I would play with Donald,” recalled Mark Golding, an early pal, “his father would be around and watch him play. His mom didn’t interact in that way.” Lou Droesch, a buddy of Fred Trump Jr. recalled: “We rarely saw Mrs. Trump. Donald was in awe of his father and very detached from his mother.”
Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump’s behaviour – as much as, or more than, any policy he’s advanced – stands as a subject of consternation, fascination and speculation, wrote Kruse, adding: “Psychology experts have the same basic curiosity: What makes somebody act the way Donald acts? None of them has evaluated Trump in an official, clinical capacity – but they nonetheless have been assessing from afar, tracking back through his 71 years, searching for explanations for his belligerence and his impulsivity, his bottomless need for applause and his clockwork rage when he doesn’t get it, his failed marriages and his ill-tempered treatment of women who challenge him. And they always end up at the beginning: With his parents, both of them. Trump might focus on his father, but in the experts’ view, the comparative scarcity of discussion of his mother is itself telling.
“You don’t have to be Freud or Fellini to interpret this,” says Mark Smaller, the immediate past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association (APA).
“I’m not talking specifically about any individual, including the President, or his mother,” adds Prudence Gourguechon, another former president of the APA, issuing an important caveat I heard from many of her peers as well. “But a solid relationship with what we call an ordinary, devoted mother establishes a foundation on which critical personal and emotional architecture can be built. Your mother helps you identify your feelings and develop a cognitive structure so you don’t have to act on them immediately. And I think it’s fair to say that the capacity for empathy develops through your maternal relationship.”
Many of the array of psychologists, psychiatrists and family therapists Kruse talked to had a question Mary Trump actually once asked herself, at a moment when she was feeling something less than pride in her celebrity son.
That was in 1990. Donald Trump was divorcing his first wife, Ivana, philandering with the model Marla Maples and floundering in hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, facing high-profile humiliation and ruin in his early 40s. Mary Trump, on the other hand, was approaching 80.
After being married to the business-centric Fred Trump for more than half a century, Mary and her husband had sent their fourth and most incorrigible child, Donald, who as a boy threw cake at kids at parties and erasers at his teachers at his private elementary school, first to Sunday morning Bible classes, like his siblings – and then, unlike his siblings, to a stringent military academy shortly after he turned 13.
Now, in the twilight of her life, beset with debilitating bone loss, she was being sucked into his tawdry, nonstop soap opera, rendered a bit player in a media frenzy, captured by paparazzi while sitting in the rear of her chauffeured car, looking steely and peeved.
That year, according to Vanity Fair magazine, Mary Trump asked Ivana Trump, her soon-to-be-ex-daughter-in-law, a pointed question: “What kind of son have I created?”
Mary Trump gave birth in 1937 to Maryanne, in 1938 to Fred Jr., in 1942 to Elizabeth, in 1946 to Donald, and in 1948 to Robert – her final child, and final pregnancy. Severe hemorrhaging necessitated an emergency hysterectomy, which led to a serious abdominal infection, which led to more surgeries. It was uncertain whether Mary Trump would survive. “My father came home and told me she wasn’t expected to live,” Robert said, “but I should go to school and he’d call me if anything changed. That’s right – go to school as usual!”
Donald was then a little more than 2 years old; how might this near-death experience for his mother have shaped him? Many psychology experts were of the view that age 2 is too young to truly comprehend the event and its stakes – though not too young, they said, to internalize the experience in a deep-seated way.
Psychiatrist Leonard Cruz, one of the editors of a recently published collection of essays, A Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Era of President Trump told Kruse “From a child’s perspective, they’ve experienced the withdrawal of a mothering figure. It might evoke ways of acting that are increasingly bombastic and attention-seeking. The child becomes almost exaggerated in the ways they try to court attention.” He paused before adding, “I’m not speaking specifically about Donald Trump, but boy. . .”
“It’s interesting,” Trump said to journalist Charlie Rose, back in 1992. “One of my attorneys said, ‘Always count on your mother.’ Now, you know, I maybe took advantage of my mother. I never appreciated her as much . . . ”
Mary Trump died, at 88, in 2000 – 10 years after she wondered how she had created this kind of son.