Effective presidencies are all alike; ineffective presidencies are ineffective in their own ways. Recounting and explaining why the Trump presidency is ineffective has become a cottage industry. Two recent books, John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened and Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man are the latest of a collection of expose books on Donald Trump that describe a dysfunctional presidency and why. While Bolton describes the Trump presidency, Mary Trump offers the reader a psychological portrait of a president as a young person, locating the roots of a troubled presidency in a troubled upbringing where the worst of Donald Trump’s behavior which is presently reinforced by his staff was originally imprinted upon him by his family, and especially his complicated relationship with his father
Biographies of effective presidents tell the same story. James MacGregor Burns, perhaps the best scholar on presidents ever tells in Leadership that the mark of all great leaders is a set of skills that include selflessness, an ethical vision, and an understanding of needs and beliefs of their followers. Simply put: Leaders put themselves second, the people they serve first, and they exercise power guided by principle. Others, such as Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power, locate the core of presidential authority in the power to persuade, with a cluster of similar factors determining effectiveness and greatness in a presidency. Stephen Skowronek echoes much of what Burns and Neustadt argue, while also emphasizing historical context as key to what makes for a great president. The lessons of history tell us what matters in determining what are the attributes and traits of an effective presidency.
Yet while effective presidencies share common traits, as Leo Tolstoy nicely stated in Anna Karenina’s opening line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Among the worst presidents, James Buchannan, Andrew Johnson, and Richard Nixon there was a unique Hamlet like fatal flaw that doomed them, with the source of their problems located in their personalities and characters. Erik Erickson’s Young Man Luther was the first in a line of powerful psychobiographies that located adult behavior and struggles in family upbringing and lessons learned as adolescents. James David Barber’s Presidential Character applies psychobiography to the study of upbringing to explain presidential behavior. All presidents have the same constitutional powers, yet some perform better than others and we can locate in family upbringing the source of why some do what they do and whether they learn the skills needed to be good leaders.
This is potentially why Mary Trump’s book is so interesting. She is the president’s niece but she is also a Ph.D. in psychology. Her book is part psychoanalysis, biography, and yes even self-revelatory. There is no question she has issues with her uncle and she is part of the larger dysfunctional family she describes in her book. Her uncle is not her patient and therefore American Psychological Association ethics rules preclude her from offering a diagnosis of him and, even if she did, it would be colored by the conflicts of interest of being related to him. Yet nonetheless her book offers a psychological and biographical context for understanding the Trump presidency.
John Bolton is not the first to tell us that Donald Trump is a self-absorbed narcissist. Trump does not read his intelligence briefings, he makes hasty emotional judgments, ignores advice, and simply is lazy and disinclined to accept advice, criticism, or lean anything about what his job entails. Had he any work ethic his presidency would have lived up to what his supporters wished and his distractors feared. Bolton’s book offers no new accounts of the problems within the Trump presidency.
Mary Trump tells us why. Reading her book, we learn two major points. One, as quoted numerous times in this essay, Leo Tolstoy’s comment about unhappy families is true—they are unhappy in unique ways. The Trump family into which Donald was born was unhappy and dysfunctional. It was a family with an overbearing father Fred who coddled Donald. It was Donald who learned quickly how to play off people’s weaknesses, how to self-promote and self-indulge, and lie to achieve what he wanted. His family reinforced this. As did first the New York City social and financial circles. Then the national media, then the cult he created with the Apprentice. The message of her book is that father son and sibling rivalries of Donald Trump’s youth produced the person he is today. Trump is narcissistic and insecure because of his family. Had Mary Trump been a Freudian, she could have located Donald’s neurosis in some masculine competition and insecurity regarding penis size, as evidenced by his famous 2016 debate statement about his private parts and his need to conquer women. Stormy Daniels’ calling Donald Trump “tiny” was the comment that most got the president’s goat in the last four years.
The other major point we learn about Donald Trump is inspired by a quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Rich Boy where he said “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” To which the critic Mary Colum said yes, they are different, “they have more money.” Mary Trump’s book describes a family of privilege. Donald, or rather his father Fred, buys his way into schools by hiring exam takers. His father buys chips to buoy Donald’s sinking casinos. Trump uses money—rarely his own—to buy access, image, and anything else he wants. Combine a dysfunctional family with economic privilege and what do you get? As Mary Trump stated in a recent interview, the dysfunctionalism of the Trump presidency is an outgrowth of the same in the Trump family.
What Bolton and others describe in the White House is explained by Mary Trump’s book. Donald Trump is James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus or J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield gone malignant and elected to the presidency.