Authors: Mary L. Trump;
As Donald was later alleged to do with Trump Tower and his casinos in Atlantic City, Fred was said to have worked discreetly with the Mob in order to keep the peace. When he got the green light for another developmentâBeach Haven, a forty-acre, twenty-three-building complex in Coney Island that would net him $16 million in FHA fundingâit was clear that his strategy of building on the taxpayer's dime was a winner.
Though Fred's business was built on the back of government financing, he loathed paying taxes and would do anything to avoid doing so. At the height of his empire's expansions, he never spent a dime he didn't have to, and he
acquired debt, an imperative that did not extend to his sons. Bound by the scarcity mentality that had been shaped by World War I and the Depression, Fred owned his properties free and clear. The profits his company generated from rents were enormous. In relation to his net worth, Fred, whose children said he was “tighter than a duck's ass,” lived a relatively modest life. Despite the piano lessons and private summer campsâof a piece with his notion of what was expected for a man of his station in lifeâhis two oldest children grew up feeling “white poor.” Maryanne and Freddy walked the fifteen minutes to Public School 131, and when they wanted to go into the city, as everyone in the outer boroughs of New York refers to Manhattan, they took the subway from 169th Street. Of course, they weren't poorâand aside from some early struggles after his father's death, Fred never had been, either.
Fred's wealth afforded him the opportunity to live anywhere, but he would spend most of his adult life less than twenty minutes from where he had grown up. With the exception of a few weekends in Cuba with Mary in the early days of their marriage, he never left the country. After he completed the project in Virginia, he rarely even left New York City.
His business empire, though large and lucrative, was equally provincial. The number of buildings he came to own exceeded four dozen, but the buildings themselves had relatively few floors and were
uniformly utilitarian. His holdings remained almost exclusively in Brooklyn and Queens. The glitz, glamour, and diversity of Manhattan might as well have been on another continent as far as he was concerned, and in those early years, it seemed just as far out of reach.
By the time the family moved into the House, everybody in the neighborhood knew who Fred Trump was, and Mary embraced her role as the wife of a rich, influential businessman. She became heavily involved in charity work, including at the Women's Auxiliary at Jamaica Hospital and the Jamaica Day Nursery, chairing luncheons and attending black-tie fund-raisers.
No matter how great the couple's success, there remained for both Fred and Mary a tension between their aspirations and their instincts. In Mary's case it was likely the result of a childhood marked by scarcity if not outright deprivation and in Fred's a caution deriving from the massive loss of life, including his father's, during the Spanish flu and World War I, as well as the economic uncertainty his family had experienced after his father's death. Despite the millions of dollars pouring in from Trump Management every year, Fred still couldn't resist picking up unused nails or reverse engineering a cheaper pesticide. Despite the ease with which Mary took to her new status and the perks that went along with it, including a live-in housekeeper, she spent most of her time in the House, sewing, cooking, and doing laundry. It was as if neither of them could quite figure out how to reconcile what they could possibly have and what they would actually allow themselves.
Although frugal, Fred was neither modest nor humble. Early in his career, he had lied about his age in order to appear more precocious. He had had a propensity for showmanship, and he often trafficked in hyperboleâeverything was “great,” “fantastic,” and “perfect.” He inundated local newspapers with press releases about his newly completed homes and gave numerous interviews extolling the virtues of his properties. He plastered south Brooklyn with ads and hired a barge covered
with ads to float just off the shoreline. But he wasn't nearly as good at it as Donald would come to be. He could handle interacting one on one and currying favor with his politically connected betters, but speaking in front of large groups or navigating television interviews was beyond him. He took a Dale Carnegie public speaking course, but he was so bad at it that even his usually obedient children teased him about it. Just as some people have a face for radio, Fred had a level of social confidence made for back rooms and print media. That fact would figure significantly in his later support of his second son at the expense of his first.
When Fred heard about Norman Vincent Peale in the 1950s, Peale's shallow message of self-sufficiency appealed to him enormously. The pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in midtown Manhattan, Peale was very fond of successful businessmen. “Being a merchant isn't getting money,” he wrote. “Being a merchant is serving the people.” Peale was a charlatan, but he was a charlatan who headed up a rich and powerful church, and he had a message to sell. Fred wasn't a reader, but it was impossible not to know about Peale's wildly popular bestseller,
The Power of Positive Thinking
. The title alone was enough for Fred, and he decided to join Marble Collegiate although he and his family rarely attended.
Fred already had a positive attitude and unbounded faith in himself. Although he could be serious and formal, or dismissive to people such as his children's friends, who were of no interest to him, he smiled easily, even when he was telling somebody he or she was nasty, and was usually in a good mood. He had reason to be; he was in control of everything in his world. With the exception of his father's death, the course of his life had been fairly smooth and full of supportive family and colleagues. Since his early days building garages, his success had been on an almost constantly upward trajectory. He worked hard, but unlike most people who work hard, he was rewarded with government grants, the almost limitless help of highly connected cronies, and immensely good fortune. Fred didn't need to read
The Power of Positive Thinking
in order to co-opt, for his own purposes, the most superficial and self-serving aspects of Peale's message.
Anticipating the prosperity gospel, Peale's doctrine proclaimed that you need only self-confidence in order to prosper in the way God wants you to. “[O]bstacles are simply not permitted to destroy your happiness and well-being. You need be defeated only if you are willing to be,” Peale wrote. That view neatly confirmed what Fred already thought: he was rich because he deserved to be. “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities!â¦ A sense of inferiority and inadequacy interferes with the attainment of your hopes, but self-confidence leads to self-realization and successful achievement.” Self-doubt wasn't part of Fred's makeup, and he never considered the possibility of his own defeat. As Peale also wrote, “It is appalling to realize the number of pathetic people who are hampered and made miserable by the malady popularly called the inferiority complex.”
Peale's protoâprosperity gospel actually complemented the scarcity mentality Fred continued to cling to. For him, it was not “the more you have, the more you can give.” It was “the more you have, the more you have.” Financial worth was the same as self-worth, monetary value was human value. The more Fred Trump had, the better he was. If he gave something to someone else, that person would be worth more and he less. He would pass that attitude on to Donald in spades.
reddy's status as the oldest son in the family had gone from protecting him from Fred's worst impulses as a parent to being an immense and stressful burden. As he got older, he became torn between the responsibility that his father had placed on him and his natural inclination to live life his own way. Fred wasn't torn at all: his son should be spending time at the Trump Management office on Avenue Z, not with his friends out on Peconic Bay, where he learned to love boating, fishing, and waterskiing. By the time Freddy was a teenager, he knew what his future held and he knew what his father expected of him. He also knew that he wasn't measuring up. His friends noticed that their usually laid-back and fun-loving friend became anxious and self-conscious around Fred, whom Freddy and his friends called “the Old Man.” Solidly built and standing six feet one, Fred was an imposing figure with hair slicked back from a receding hairline who rarely wore anything but a well-tailored three-piece suit. He was stiff and formal around kids, he never played ball or games of any kind with them, and it seemed as if he had never been young.
If the boys were tossing a ball around in the basement, the sound of the garage door opening was enough to cause Freddy to freeze. “Stop! My dad's home.” When Fred came into the room, the boys had the impulse to stand and salute him.
“So what's this?” he'd ask as he shook each boy's hand.
“Nothing, Dad,” Freddy would say. “Everybody's getting ready to leave soon.”
Freddy remained quiet and on high alert as long as the Old Man was home.
In his early teens, Freddy started lying to his father about his life outside the House to avoid the mockery or disapproval he knew the truth would bring down on him. He lied about what he and friends got up to after school. He lied about smokingâa habit Maryanne had introduced him to when he was twelve and she was thirteenâtelling his father that he was going around the corner to help his best friend, Billy Drake, walk a nonexistent dog. Fred, for instance, wasn't going to find out that Freddy and his buddy Homer from St. Paul's School had stolen a hearse for a joyride. Before returning the vehicle to the funeral home, Freddy pulled into a gas station to fill up the tank. As he got out of the car and walked toward the pump, Homer, who was lying down in the back to see what it was like, sat up. A man at the pump across from them, thinking he'd just seen a corpse rising from the dead, screamed, and Freddy and Homer laughed until they cried. Freddy lived for that kind of prank, but he regaled his brothers and sisters with his exploits only if their father wasn't home.
For some of the Trump kids, lying was a way of life, and for Fred's oldest son, lying was defensiveânot simply a way to circumvent his father's disapproval or to avoid punishment, as it was for the others, but a way to survive. Maryanne, for instance, never went against her father, perhaps out of fear of an ordinary punishment such as being grounded or sent to her room. For Donald, lying was primarily a mode of self-aggrandizement meant to convince other people he was better than he actually was. For Freddy, the consequences of going against his father were different not only in degree but in kind, so lying became his only defense against his father's attempts to suppress his natural sense of humor, sense of adventure, and sensitivity.
Peale's ideas about inferiority complexes helped shape Fred's harsh judgments about Freddy, while also allowing him to evade taking
responsibility for any of his children. Weakness was perhaps the greatest sin of all, and Fred worried that Freddy was more like his own brother, John, the MIT professor: soft and, though not unambitious, interested in the wrong things, such as engineering and physics, which Fred found esoteric and unimportant. Such softness was unthinkable in his namesake, and by the time the family had moved into the House when Freddy was ten, Fred had already determined to toughen him up. Like most people who aren't paying attention to where they're going, however, he overcorrected.
“That's stupid,” Fred said whenever Freddy expressed a desire to get a pet or played a practical joke. “What do you want to do that for?” Fred said with such contempt in his voice that it made Freddy flinch, which only annoyed Fred more. Fred hated it when his oldest son screwed up or failed to intuit what was required of him, but he hated it even more when, after being taken to task, Freddy apologized. “Sorry, Dad,” Fred would mock him. Fred wanted his oldest son to be a “killer” in his parlance (for what reason it's impossible to sayâcollecting rent in Coney Island wasn't exactly a high-risk endeavor in the 1950s), and he was temperamentally the opposite of that.
Being a killer was really code for being invulnerable. Although Fred didn't seem to feel anything about his father's death, the suddenness of it had taken him by surprise and knocked him off balance. Years later, when discussing it, he said, “Then he died. Just like that. It just didn't seem real. I wasn't that upset. You know how kids are. But I got upset watching my mother crying and being so sad. It was seeing her that made me feel bad, not my own feelings about what had happened.”
The loss, in other words, had made him feel vulnerable, not because of his own feelings but because of his mother's feelings, which he likely felt were being imposed on him, especially as he did not share them. That imposition must have been very painful. In that moment, he wasn't the center of the universe, and that was unacceptable. Going forward, he refused to acknowledge or feel loss. (I never heard him or
anyone else in my family speak about my great-grandfather.) As far as Fred was concerned, he was able to move on because nothing particularly important
Subscribing as Fred did to Norman Vincent Peale's ideas about human failings, he didn't grasp that by ridiculing and questioning Freddy, he was creating a situation in which low self-esteem was almost inevitable. Fred was simultaneously telling his son that he had to be an unqualified success and that he never could be. So Freddy existed in a system that was all punishment, no reward. The other children, especially Donald, couldn't have helped but notice.
The situation was somewhat different for Donald. With the benefit of a seven-and-a-half-year age difference, he had plenty of time to learn from watching Fred humiliate his older brother and Freddy's resulting shame. The lesson he learned, at its simplest, was that it was wrong to be like Freddy: Fred didn't respect his oldest son, so neither would Donald. Fred thought Freddy was weak, and therefore so did Donald. It would take a long time before the two brothers, in very different ways, came to adapt themselves to the truth of this.
It's difficult to understand what goes on in any familyâperhaps hardest of all for the people in it. Regardless of how a parent treats a child, it's almost impossible for that child to believe that parent means them any harm. It was easier for Freddy to think that his father had his son's best interests at heart and that he, Freddy, was the problem. In other words, protecting his love for his father was more important than protecting himself from his father's abuse. Donald would have taken his father's treatment of his brother at face value: “Dad's not trying to hurt Freddy. He's only trying to teach us how to be real men. And Freddy's failing.”
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. It wasn't his inability to fix his oldest son that infuriated him,
it was the fact that Freddy simply wasn't what he wanted him to be. Fred dismantled his oldest son by devaluing and degrading every aspect of his personality and his natural abilities until all that was left was self-recrimination and a desperate need to please a man who had no use for him.
The only reason Donald escaped the same fate is that his personality served his father's purpose. That's what sociopaths do: they co-opt others and use them toward their own endsâruthlessly and efficiently, with no tolerance for dissent or resistance. Fred destroyed Donald, too, but not by snuffing him out as he did Freddy; instead, he short-circuited Donald's ability to develop and experience the entire spectrum of human emotion. By limiting Donald's access to his own feelings and rendering many of them unacceptable, Fred perverted his son's perception of the world and damaged his ability to live in it. His capacity to be his own person, rather than an extension of his father's ambitions, became severely limited. The implications of that limitation became clearer when Donald entered school. Neither of his parents had interacted with him in a way that helped him make sense of his world, which contributed to his inability to get along with other people and remained a constant buffer between him and his siblings. It also made reading social cues extremely difficult, if not impossible, for himâa problem he has to this day.
Ideally, the rules at home reflect the rules of society, so when children go out into the world, they generally know how to behave. When kids go to school, they're supposed to know that they shouldn't take other children's toys and they're not supposed to hit or tease other children. Donald didn't understand any of that because the rules in the House, at least as they applied to the boysâbe tough at all costs, lying is okay, admitting you're wrong or apologizing is weaknessâclashed with the rules he encountered at school. Fred's fundamental beliefs about how the world workedâin life, there can be only one winner and everybody else is a loser (an idea that essentially precluded the ability to share) and kindness is weaknessâwere clear. Donald knew,
because he had seen it with Freddy, that failure to comply with his father's rules was punished by severe and often public humiliation, so he continued to adhere to them even outside his father's purview. Not surprisingly, his understanding of “right” and “wrong” would clash with the lessons taught in most elementary schools.
Donald's growing arrogance, in part a defense against his feelings of abandonment and an antidote to his lack of self-esteem, served as a protective cover for his deepening insecurities. As a result, he was able to keep most people at arm's length. It was easier for him that way. Life in the House made all the children in one way or another uncomfortable with emotionsâeither expressing them or being confronted with them. It was probably worse for the boys, for whom the acceptable range of human feeling was extremely narrow. (I never saw any man in my family cry or express affection for one another in any way other than the handshake that opened and closed any encounter.) Getting close to other children or authority figures may have felt like a dangerous betrayal of his father. Nonetheless, Donald's displays of confidence, his belief that society's rules didn't apply to him, and his exaggerated display of self-worth drew some people to him. A large minority of people still confuse his arrogance for strength, his false bravado for accomplishment, and his superficial interest in them for charisma.
Donald had discovered early on how easy it was to get under Robert's pale skin and push him past his limits; it was a game he never tired of playing. Nobody else would have botheredâRobert was so skinny and quiet that there was no sport in tormenting himâbut Donald enjoyed flexing his power, even if only over his younger, smaller, and even thinner-skinned brother. Once, out of frustration and helplessness, Robert kicked a hole in their bathroom door, which got him into trouble despite the fact that Donald had driven him to it. When his mother told Donald to stop, he didn't; when Maryanne and Freddy told him to stop, he didn't.
One Christmas the boys received three Tonka trucks, which soon
became Robert's favorite toys. As soon as Donald figured that out, he started hiding them from his little brother and pretending he had no idea where they were. The last time it happened, when Robert's tantrum spiraled out of control, Donald threatened to dismantle the trucks in front of him if he didn't stop crying. Desperate to save them, Robert ran to his mother. Mary's solution was to hide the trucks in the attic, effectively punishing Robert, who'd done nothing wrong, and leaving Donald feeling invincible. He wasn't yet being rewarded for selfishness, obstinacy, or cruelty, but he wasn't being punished for those flaws, either.
Mary remained a bystander. She didn't intervene in the moment and didn't comfort her son, acting as if it weren't her place to do so. Even for the 1950s, the family was split deeply along gender lines. Despite the fact that Fred's mother had been his partnerâshe had literally started his businessâit's clear that Fred and his wife were never partners. The girls were her purview, the boys his. When Mary made her annual trip home to the Isle of Lewis, only Maryanne and Elizabeth accompanied her. Mary cooked the boys' meals and laundered their clothes but didn't feel that it was her place to guide them. She rarely interacted with the boys' friends, and her relationships with her sons, already marred by their early experiences with her, became increasingly distant.
When Freddy, at fourteen, dumped a bowl of mashed potatoes on his then-seven-year-old brother's head, it wounded Donald's pride so deeply that he'd still be bothered by it when Maryanne brought it up in her toast at the White House birthday dinner in 2017. The incident wasn't a big dealâor it shouldn't have been. Donald had been tormenting Robert, again, and nobody could get him to stop. Even at seven, he felt no need to listen to his mother, who, having failed to heal the rift between them after her illness, he treated with contempt. Finally, Robert's crying and Donald's needling became too much, and in a moment of improvised expedience that would become family legend, Freddy picked up the first thing at hand that wouldn't cause any real damage: the bowl of mashed potatoes.