Authors: Mary L. Trump;
Everybody laughed, and they couldn't stop laughing. And they were laughing
Donald. It was the first time Donald had been humiliated by someone he even then believed to be beneath him. He hadn't understood that humiliation was a weapon that could be wielded by only one person in a fight. That Freddy, of all people, could drag him into a world where humiliation could happen to
made it so much worse. From then on, he would never allow himself to feel that feeling again. From then on, he would wield the weapon, never be at the sharp end of it.
y the time Maryanne left for Mount Holyoke and, a couple of years later, Freddy for Lehigh University, Donald had already had plenty of experience watching his older brother struggle with, and largely fail to meet, their father's expectations. They were vague, of course. Fred had the authoritarian's habit of assuming that his underlings knew what to do without being told. Generally, the only way to know if you were doing something right was if you didn't get dressed down for it.
But it was one thing for Donald to stay out of his father's crosshairs and another to get into his good graces. Toward that end, Donald all but eradicated any qualities he might have shared with his older brother. Except for the occasional fishing trip with Freddy and his friends, Donald would become a creature of country clubs and offices, golf being the only thing on which he and his father differed. He would also double down on the behaviors he had thus far gotten away with: bullying, pointing the finger, refusing to take responsibility, and disregarding authority. He says that he “pushed back” against his father and Fred “respected” that. The truth is, he was able to push back against his father because Fred let him. When he was very young, Fred's attention was not trained on him; his focus was elsewhereâon his business and his oldest son, that's it. Eventually, when Donald went away to military school at thirteen, Fred began to admire Donald's disregard of authority. Although a strict parent in general, Fred accepted Donald's
arrogance and bullyingâafter he actually started to notice themâbecause he identified with the impulses.
Encouraged by his father, Donald eventually started to believe his own hype. By the time he was twelve, the right side of his mouth was curled up in an almost perpetual sneer of self-conscious superiority, and Freddy had dubbed him “the Great I-Am,” echoing a passage from Exodus he'd learned in Sunday school in which God first reveals himself to Moses.
Because of the disastrous circumstances in which he was raised, Donald knew intuitively, based on plenty of experience, that he would never be comforted or soothed, especially when he most needed to be. There was no point, then, in acting needy. And whether he knew it on any level or not, neither of his parents was ever going to see him for who he truly was or might have beenâMary was too depleted and Fred was interested only in whichever of his sons could be of most useâso he became whatever was most expedient. The rigid personality he developed as a result was a suit of armor that often protected him against pain and loss. But it also kept him from figuring out how to trust people enough to get close to them.
Freddy was terrified to ask Fred for anything. Donald had seen the results of that reticence. Whenever Freddy deviated even slightly from Fred's often unspoken expectations, he ended up humiliated or shamed. Donald would try something different: he chose instead to ingratiate himself with their father by smashing through every barrier his older brother never dared test. He knew exactly how to play it: when Freddy flinched, Donald shrugged. He took what he wanted without asking for permission not because he was brave but because he was afraid not to. Whether Donald understood the underlying message or not, Fred did: in family, as in life, there could be only one winner; everybody else had to lose. Freddy kept trying and failing to do the right thing; Donald began to realize that there was nothing he could do wrong, so he stopped trying to do anything “right.” He became bolder and more aggressive because he was rarely challenged or held to
account by the only person in the world who matteredâhis father. Fred liked his killer attitude, even if it manifested as bad behavior.
Every one of Donald's transgressions became an audition for his father's favor, as if he were saying “See, Dad, I'm the tough one. I'm the killer.” He kept piling on because there wasn't any resistanceâuntil there was. But it didn't come from his father.
Though Donald's behavior didn't bother Fredâgiven his long hours at the office, he wasn't often around to witness much of what happened at homeâit drove his mother to distraction. Mary couldn't control him at all, and Donald disobeyed her at every turn. Any attempt at discipline by her was rebuffed. He talked back. He couldn't ever admit he was wrong; he contradicted her even when she was right; and he refused to back down. He tormented his little brother and stole his toys. He refused to do his chores or anything else he was told to do. Perhaps worst of all to a fastidious woman like her, he was a slob who refused to pick up after himself no matter how much she threatened him. “Wait until your father comes home” had been an effective threat with Freddy, but to Donald it was a joke that his father seemed to be in on.
Finally, by 1959, Donald's misbehaviorâfighting, bullying, arguing with teachersâhad gone too far. Kew-Forest had reached its limits. Fred's being on the school's board of trustees cut two ways: on the one hand, Donald's behavior had been overlooked longer than it otherwise might have; on the other, it caused Fred some inconvenience. Name-calling and teasing kids too young to fight back had escalated into physical altercations. Fred didn't mind Donald's acting out, but it had become intrusive and time consuming for him. When one of his fellow board members at Kew-Forest recommended sending Donald to New York Military Academy as a way to rein him in, Fred went along with it. Throwing him in with military instructors and upperclassmen who wouldn't put up with his shit might toughen up Fred's burgeoning protÃ©gÃ© even more. Fred had more important things to do than deal with Donald.
I don't know if Mary had any say in the final decision, but she didn't fight for her son to stay home, either, a failure Donald couldn't help but notice. It must have felt like a replay of all the times she'd abandoned him in the past.
Over Donald's objections, he was enrolled at NYMA, a private boys' boarding school sixty miles north of New York City. The other kids in the family referred to NYMA as a “reform school”âit wasn't prestigious like St. Paul's, which Freddy had attended. Nobody sent their sons to NYMA for a better education, and Donald understood it rightly as a punishment.
When Freddy found out, he told his friends with some bewilderment, “Yeah, they can't control him.” It didn't really make any sense. His father always seemed to be in control of
. What Freddy didn't understand was that their father wasn't interested in Donald the same way he was interested in him. If Fred had tried to discipline Donald, he would have been disciplined, but before Donald was sent away, Fred just wasn't interested enough to bother with Donald or the other three children.
Parents always have different effects on their children, no matter the dynamics of the family, but for the Trump children, the effects of Fred and Mary's particular pathologies on their offspring were extreme. As the five, at different times and in different ways, got ready to go out in the world, their disadvantages were already apparent:
Maryanne, the firstborn, was saddled with being a smart, ambitious girl in a misogynistic family. She was the oldest, but because she was a girl, Freddy, the oldest boy, got all of her father's attention. She was left to align herself with her mother, who had no power in the house. As a result, after having her heart broken when she was rejected by the Dartmouth home economics program, she settled for Mount Holyoke College, a “virtual nunnery,” as she put it. Ultimately, she did what she believed she was supposed to do because she thought her father cared.
Freddy's problem was his failure to be a different person entirely.
Elizabeth's problem was her family's indifference. She was not just
the middle child (and a girl) but separated by her brothers on either side by an age gap of three or four years. Shy and timid as an adolescent, she didn't speak much, having learned the lesson that neither of her parents was really listening. Still she remained devoted to them until well into middle age, returning to the House every weekend, still hoping for “Poppy's” attention.
Donald's problem was that the combative, rigid persona he developed in order to shield him from the terror of his early abandonment, along with his having been made to witness his father's abuse of Freddy, cut him off from real human connection.
Robert's problem was that he was the youngest, an afterthought.
Nothing Maryanne, Elizabeth, or Robert did would gain Fred's approval; they were of no interest to him. Like planets orbiting a particularly large sun, the five of them were kept apart by the force of his will, even as they moved along the paths he set for them.
Freddy's plans for the future still entailed becoming his father's right-hand man at Trump Management, but the first time Freddy took off from the airstrip of the Slatington Flying Club behind the controls of a Cessna 170 in 1961, his perspective shifted.
As long as he fulfilled the requirements of his business major and kept his grades up, he could fly, pledge a fraternity, and join the US Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). On a lark, Freddy chose Sigma Alpha Mu, a historically Jewish fraternity. Whether it was a conscious rebuke of his father, who frequently used phrases such as “Jew me down,” Freddy's fraternity brothers eventually became some of his best friends. Joining ROTC served another purpose entirely. Freddy craved discipline that made sense. He thrived in ROTC's transparent system of achievement and reward. If you did what you were told, your obedience was recognized. If you met or exceeded expectations, you were rewarded. If you made a mistake or failed to follow an order, you received discipline that was commensurate with the infraction. He loved the hierarchy; he loved the uniforms; he loved the medals that were clear
symbols of accomplishment. When you are wearing a uniform, other people can easily identify who you are and what you've accomplished, and you are acknowledged accordingly. It was the opposite of life with Fred Trump, by whom good work was expected but never acknowledged; only mistakes were called out and punished.
Getting his pilot's license made sense in the same way ROTC did: you log a certain number of hours, you get certified on particular instruments, you get a license. His flying lessons eventually became his number one priority. Just as with boating, he took flying very seriously and began skipping card games with his fraternity brothers to study or log another hour at the flight school. But it wasn't just the pleasure of finding something he excelled at, it was the joy of total freedom, which he'd never before experienced.
In the summer, Freddy worked for Fred, as usual, but on weekends he took his friends out east on a boat he'd bought in high school to fish and water-ski. On occasion Mary asked Freddy to take Donald with him. “Sorry, guys,” he'd say to his friends, “but I have to bring my pain-in-the-ass little brother along.” Donald was probably as enthusiastic as Freddy was reluctant. Whatever their father thought about his older brother, Freddy's friends clearly loved him and always had a good timeâa reality that contradicted what Donald had been brought up to believe.
In August 1958, before the beginning of his junior year, Freddy and Billy Drake flew down to Nassau in the Bahamas for a short vacation before school started up again. The two of them chartered a boat and spent their days fishing and exploring the island. One evening back at their hotel, while they sat at the pool bar, Freddy met a pretty, petite blonde named Linda Clapp. Two years later, he would marry her.
That September, Donald arrived at NYMA. He went from a world in which he could do as he pleased to one in which he faced punishment for not making his bed and got slammed against the wall by upperclassmen for no particular reason. Perhaps because of having lost his
own father at twelve, Fred recognized his son's isolation and visited almost every weekend between the time Donald started as an eighth grader and the time he graduated in 1964. That somewhat mitigated Donald's sense of abandonment and grievance and gave him his first glimmer that he had a connection with his father that his older brother did not. Donald's mother went occasionally but for the most part was relieved to have him gone.
Though he hadn't wanted to attend NYMA, certain things made sense for Donald there, just as ROTC had for Freddy. There was structure, and there were consequences to his actions. There was a logical system of punishment and reward. At the same time, though, life at NYMA reinforced one of Fred's lessons: the person with the power (no matter how arbitrarily that power was conferred or attained) got to decide what was right and wrong. Anything that helped you maintain power was by definition right, even if it wasn't always fair.
NYMA also reinforced Donald's aversion to vulnerability, which is essential for tapping into love and creativity because it can also expose us to shame, something he could not tolerate. By necessity he had to improve his impulse control, not only to avoid punishment but to help him get away with transgressions that required a little more finesse.
Freddy's senior year was one of the best and most productive years of his whole life. The BA in business was the least of it. He'd been made president of Sigma Alpha Mu, and he completed ROTC and would enter the Air Force National Guard as a second lieutenant after graduation. Most important, he became a fully licensed commercial pilot, although he had no intention of using the license; he was going to work with his dad in Brooklyn with every intention of someday taking over.
By the time Freddy joined Trump Management in the summer of 1960, Fred's company comprised more than forty buildings and complexes, with thousands of units, spread across Brooklyn and Queens. Fred had been taking his oldest son to construction sites for years;
his largest developments, including Shore Haven and Beach Haven in Brooklyn, as well as smaller projects closer to home in Jamaica Estates, had all been built while Freddy was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. During those visits, the importance of cost cutting (if it's cheaper, do it yourself; if not, outsource it) and cost saving (red bricks were a penny cheaper than white bricks) were drilled into him. Fred also dragged him to meetings of the Brooklyn Democratic Party and political fund-raisers, making sure he got to know the most important and influential politicos in the city.