Mary Trump Speaks

12 mins read

One way to read Mary Trump’s book about her family is as a study of the overlap between fascism and sociopathy.

First a brief summary, then analysis.

I. Summary 

Fred—Donald’s father—was a lying, cheating, sociopath. His mother was selfish and needy.

Mary opens her book with a quotation suggesting that the villain of the story isn’t the twisted and warped Donald, but the parents who left his soul in darkness:

Fred, the patriarch built a real estate empire during the post-WWII housing boom. He was a competent builder. But his real skill was trading favors with politicians and taking advantage of the FHA loans set up by FDR to provide affordable housing for returning vets.

He demanded obedience from his five children. He despised weakness and despised people who apologized. Fred believed that there can be only one winner, and everyone else is a loser. He saw kindness as a weakness and humiliated people who didn’t fall in line. 

To cope with a sociopathic father and selfish mother, Donald developed “defenses” including hostility to others.

Donald became an aggressive schoolyard bully. He ended up in a “military school” or”reform school.” 

The oldest son, named Fred after his father, disappointed his parents when he wanted to become a pilot instead of taking after his father and becoming a lying cheating scumbag.

Donald became the favorite when he was eager to follow in his father’s footsteps, and turned out to be an even better liar. Donald couldn’t manage or actually build anything, but he was good at publicity, and creating the fiction that he was a successful businessman.

Being a publicity hound was enough for Fred because in Donald, Fred saw qualities that he lacked and envied. Donald’s personality served Fred’s purpose. Donald was the better showman, the better liar, better able to grab headlines and bring the family fame.

Fred “co-opted” Donald and short-circuited his development:

Donald and Fred formed a team: Fred did the managing while Donald manipulated the media, ruled the tabloids, and told mesmerizing lies. His father encouraged his worst impulses.

Any time Donald tried to manage something, he lost money. Fred often tried to bail him out. Once, to try to bail out his failing casino, Fred paid $3 million in cash for gambling chips with no intention of using them, to pump money into Donald’s casino. It wasn’t enough. Donald kept going bankrupt. 

Mary, who observed her uncle Donald up close for decades, presents him as petty, shallow, vindictive, vulgar, and incompetent. In other words, there is nothing more to Donald Trump than meets the eye. She was 29 in a bathing suit when:

Mary’s father (Fred’s oldest son) died a broken man at the age of 42, leaving two children, (the author) Mary and her brother.

Later in his life, when Fred became senile, Donald tried to cheat his siblings out of their share of the inheritance in the “codicil” incident.He almost tricked his father into signing a codicil to his will that would give Donald control. The siblings caught it in time. Donald’s sister Maryanne later said this about the incident:

Donald’s attempt to cheat his siblings was prelude to the four surviving siblings cheating Mary and her brother (the children of the deceased sibling) out of their share. Mary learned that she and her brother had been disinherited after her grandfather died. Mary and her brother took steps to challenge the will and hire a lawyer. To punish them, Maryanne (Donald’s oldest sister, the one who became a federal judge) got the idea to cut off their health insurance, even though Mary’s brother’s son, a baby, had serious health needs.

Mary and her brother settled. They were told that the estate was worth 30 million. Later Mary discovered that in fact, the estate was worth close to a billion, and Donald (the “deal maker”) sold the entire estate for cash in a stupid deal that left $300 million on the table.

As part of the settlement, Mary got access to the financial documents. That’s when she discovered tax crimes. 

She was watching her uncle unravel American democracy, and decided to live up to the hyperbole of her grandfather and uncle by being the very “best” at something.

What could she do on a grand scale? What could she do that might make a difference? In her words: “I had to take Donald down.” 

She called the New York Times and handed over all 19 boxes of documents and (obviously) decided to write this book. The New York Times went through the boxes and wrote this article.

Mary, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, thinks the armchair psychologists and journalists miss the mark: While she has no problem calling Donald a malignant narcissist, she says, “the label only gets us so far.”

She also suggests sociopathy (criminality, arrogance, disregard for the rights of others), dependent personality disorder, and perhaps a long un-diagnosed learning disorder, and even caffeine-induced sleeping disorder. Ultimately, she says, there’s no way to know because he’s been “institutionalized” all his life, and nobody knows if he could thrive, or even survive “on his own in the real world”:

The book is well written. In fact, Donald hired Mary to ghostwrite his third book. He had his publisher fire her when she couldn’t figure out what he did all day (LOL).

This thread no way captures the essence of the book. The book has a Tolstoy-like quality: It’s about family rituals and dynamics, and how families hurt each other. It also reads like a lurid beach novel.

II: Analysis

Reading Mary Trump’s book, I was struck by the overlap between the kind of sociopathy she describes and the tenents of fascism as described by scholars such as Paxton and Stanley. From Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works, in the fascist view of the world, winning is everything. Losing and losers have no value.

From Mary Trump: The family valued a certain form of success and crushed anyone who didn’t live up. 

Trump said, “I like people who weren’t captured.” 

From Stanley: Fascism embraces myth (lies)

From Mary Trump:

From Stanley: Fascists operate under the “leader principle,” or the belief in the iron infallibility of the leader. 

Trump: “I know better than the generals, believe me.” 

Here’s where fascism meets Max Weber’s views of power. Weber, in his classic essay, Politics as a Vocation, outlined three sources of authority for government: (1) Traditional / monarchy (2) What we might call Cult of Leadership (fascism) (3) rule of law/ democracy.

Mary Trump’s book offers a close-up view of the kind of personality that becomes a cult leader. Social and alternate media provide examples of people who claim to have all the answers, tell people what they want to hear, play on their fears, and instantly gather a worshipping following.

Yes, some Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell see Trump for what he is and use him for their personal gain. But others—including millions of cult members—are true believers. From Mary Trump’s book:

Hungarian scholar Bálint Magyar talks about the three stages of establishing autocracy. Stage one, the “autocratic attempt,” is when potential regime change from democracy to autocracy is still reversible.

Our elections still have meaning, so we are in the reversible stage. Thus if the puppet-masters succeed in 2020, it will be because Trump’s enablers and the true believers managed to successfully control and manipulate public opinion.

The worst thing we can do is feed into the myth that Trump is all-powerful by talking about how he’ll certainly win by some nefarious means. Trump’s true believers hear the libs melting down over how Team Trump is all-powerful and this makes them love Trump more.

Jason Stanley explains that fascism is not an ideology, it is a set of tactics used to seize and maintain power. Psychologist push back and say that Trump isn’t using a set of tactics. He’s acting from impulse.

Why not both? Putin studies Ivan Ilyin. Trump takes cues from Putin. We know that Bolsonaro takes his cues from Trump. How do we know? Because Steve Bannon has coached both of them on their methods.

But only a sick-o can do these things. 

(“Sick-o” is a recognized technical term)

Mary Trump offers an up-close look at how such a demagogue is born, how he wins a cult following, and why so many powerful people step in to shield him and protect him. We fight back. How? The antidote to a rise in fascism is democracy. How do we do that? Click here.

Follow Teri Kanefield on Twitter at

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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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