By NOAH KEATE
In some schools of thought, politics is built around great - and terrible - leaders. Individuals who have historically risen to the top are viewed as separate from the rest of society. This is normally because so many don’t acquire power. When examining political figures, more focus is often given to how they gained power, rather than what they do with power itself.
Few figures warrant more examination than the US President. Despite the rise of China as a geopolitical force, America remains the most powerful country in the world. What happens in America, whether we like it or not, will affect the entire world. As a tweet I saw put it: in a sense, we are all the American electorate. It is only those within the US borders who are privileged enough to have a say.
Within this examination of leaders is a perception of the ‘strong man’. Though a term that has recently risen to the forefront to group together populist leaders - Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Orban - it is a defining theme throughout history, especially for American Presidents. Whatever their party or political loyalty, Americans want to see their leaders at every level convey strength, eliminate weakness, take on those who would cause the nation harm and ultimately triumph.
Who has attempted to embody the figure of a strongman more than Donald Trump? Formerly known only as a New York businessman and host of The Apprentice, his path to political power stunned the globe. Despite his defeat in last month’s election, books will continue to be written about him for many years to come. Books already published are usually deeply critical of Trump as an individual and what his success in 2016 means for Western liberal ideals.
Nonetheless, many of these books were somewhat detached from the President. Even legendary reporter Bob Woodward’s Rage, which involved interviews with the President, would never fully get to the heart of who Donald Trump is. Who better then to write such a tale than Mary L. Trump? The niece of Donald, her ‘tell-all’ book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man cuts to the heart of why Trump has been such a flawed, incompetent, unfit President. With both family ties and psychological qualifications, Mary reveals that his emotional and character vices are steeped in a childhood defined by neglect.
Trump has always been a man of contradictions. He presents himself as a self-made successful businessman despite going bankrupt on numerous occasions and inheriting immense wealth from his father. Some of his biggest support has been from evangelical Christian communities despite his own liberal lifestyle. Indeed, future books about Trump will no doubt investigate why his excessive wealth was so effectively able to win over those in the Rust Belt states who were so economically vulnerable.
Trump’s relaxed attitude to such contradicts originates, as Mary Trump argues, from his poor childhood mentally and emotionally. Though economically well off, the book provides overwhelming support to the notion that money cannot buy you happiness. Fred Trump, Mary’s grandfather and Donald’s father, bears much of the responsibility for Donald’s inability to emotionally express himself.
This absence of empathy and compassion stems from Fred’s idea of hierarchy. Throughout the book, Mary argues that Fred Trump generationally indoctrinated his children to act in a manner that ensured they would get ahead within life. Be tough. Don’t express your emotions. Defeat any opposition. Sound familiar? Trump’s ultimately contradictory life started young. On the one hand, Donald was forced to express positivity and the idea everything was fine. Vulnerability was unacceptable. At the same time, any success would be built around complete disrespect to those around him. Attack was therefore the best form of defence.
Donald Trump was not the only person affected by this ideology for life. Mary’s book is so excellent precisely because of its personal nature. Nobody else could write with such candour and detail about the realities of the Trump family. Mary’s father, Fred Junior, was brutally affected by the mantle and expectations of his father. Preferring to work as a pilot rather than join the family business, Fred Senior brutally neglected his son and expressed no love or warmth whatsoever.
Such absence of parental care continued after death. Following severe alcoholism, Fred Junior died of a heart attack aged 42. He’d expressed a desire for his ashes to be scattered, a point Mary Trump made clear at the time. Instead, the Trump family put his ashes in a box and buried them in the ground, explicitly against Fred Junior’s express wishes. After the death of Fred Trump Senior in 1999, Mary and her brother Fritz were cut out of a key portion of his will, unlike other siblings. Despite the wealth, it was never about the money for Mary. It was about being treated as an equal human being, something Fred Junior never enjoyed.
These psychological character traits have managed to drive Trump through business and into the White House. Mary highlights how an absence of any emotion and expressing minimal character vulnerability will inevitably jar someone’s decision making as Commander-in-Chief. Indeed, the book goes so far as to argue that Trump is not a strong man. Refusing to take any criticism, surrounding himself with ‘yes men’ and, since the book’s publication, unable to accept election defeat, Mary demonstrates that Trump’s childhood suffering never left him as an adult. While believers in liberal democracy should be thankful about his election defeat, it remains shocking that Donald Trump was allowed to wield such power for four years.