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Lucid Interview: Mary L. Trump
Speaking out to protect democracy
I am very pleased to bring you this interview with Mary L. Trump, who is a trained Clinical Psychologist with a PhD from The Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies. She also has a Master in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. As an adjunct professor at Adelphi University, she taught graduate courses in developmental psychology, psychopathology, and trauma.
In 2017 Mary provided over 40,000 pages of documents to the New York Times, becoming a source for the paper's 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning article on Trump's finances. Her 2020 New York Times bestselling book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man, sold a million copies in its first week of publication. Her next book, The Reckoning: Our Nation's Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal, will be released in July 2021.
Mary has a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. She lives in New York with her daughter. This interview, conducted on March 7, 2021, was edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): In your book, you emphasize how your grandfather, Fred Trump Sr., was an authoritarian personality and imbued his son Donald with an "ends justify the means" mentality. You speak of these family dynamics not just as a witness, but also as a clinical psychologist. What are the lessons of having a dangerous man, as you call Trump, as president?
Mary L. Trump (MT): Well, we need to stop taking democracy for granted. It's really not a huge surprise that someone like Donald would get into the Oval Office, given just how thorough the project has been to burnish his reputation. People were so easily convinced by him. Racism and misogyny played a role, along with cultural, educational, and economic factors.
I have been thinking a lot about this because unfortunately we are not done with this [threat to democracy]. In fact, we are in more dangerous territory now because people are exhausted and they will let down their guard. It's been a really long four years - last year alone felt like 7,000 years long! (laughs).
RBG: Yes, and all that Trump did to try and stay in power after he lost the election means we were not able to properly celebrate the Democratic win. Of course, overwhelming us so we couldn't feel we had accomplished anything was more of the psychological warfare he waged against Americans for four years.
MT. It can be hard for people to understand that an atmosphere which enervates us, energizes Donald. He thrives in that divisive combative space because it is the only space in which he can actually succeed.
So, to get back to the lessons and what we can do to prevent someone like him from getting into office, I think that every [presidential] candidate needs to show ten years of tax returns. We must also establish non-partisan boards of medical and mental health professionals to evaluate candidates through physical, psychological, and neurological exams. And anyone running for the highest office should be able to clear a security check. That the president is the only person who does not have to do this is a big problem.
RBG: It goes back to the idea of democracy as an honor system - until someone like Trump comes along who has no respect for norms and protocols - even the custom of leaving office when you lose the election.
MT: What exactly do we lose by finally accepting that these things need to be codified? Isn't democracy worth it?
RBG: It's important for us to look soberly at what in our culture allowed this person to be seen in a positive manner. One striking thing is how the qualities Trump embodied - the obsession with being famous, with winning at all costs - are also defining characteristics of American culture. We are the land of "anyone can make it big," where "getting away with it," is seen as glamorous. Do you think people are ready, after the Trump experience, to aspire to something different?
MT: This is infuriating for me personally, because where I see a weak pathetic man who has everything handed to him, others see strength. People think he's being clever and strategic when he doesn't pay taxes or contractors or breaks the law. He fills that position of the emblematic powerful White guy who can do anything with impunity.
RBG: Your next book is about healing from historical and recent traumas. We are still in the midst of political, economic, and health crises. As a psychologist, how you see the path forward for Americans?
MT: It's complicated by the fact that we are so divided - many [are so influenced by disinformation] that they do not live in reality, or feel bound by the law. I am haunted by the 74 million people who voted for Trump, who seem to feel no obligation to protect or comfort or engage people who think differently or look different from them. These are people who feel comfortable putting themselves and their families and kids at risk.
RBG: Did you see the pictures of people burning masks? At one bonfire in Idaho in March there were children present. We have always had common sense public health guidelines rooted in some ethos of civic obligation, such as not sneezing on other people. For millions, that civic obligation now seems to be gone.
MT: What those parents are burning is their children’s' safety. There is a breathtaking ignorance and cruelty. People have always been led to hate and endanger other people, we did it with Africans and African-Americans and with Native Americans. But this might be the first time that to be a member of the community you must endanger your own life and the lives of people you care about and love. It's more like a cult than a government, or even an authoritarian movement.
RBG: You can be asked to endanger yourself in wartime, to prove your patriotism, but this is happening in peacetime. It’s tragic.
MT: One way through this is to realize that it's is not a monolithic experience among these 74 million [Trump voters]. Sure, nothing will change the minds of some, and there are the 30% with authoritarian leanings. But to those who say, "it's all about me and my family" [versus government mandates to wear masks], you can perhaps show them that government can work - Joe Biden is doing an exemplary job of that so far - and that government is us. It's not an alien creature out to get us. It's us.
RBG: Yes. The discussion about polarization is often too focused on political parties, whereas civic education around the idea of government itself is key.
You reacted early to Trump’s threats to democracy. In 2017, you gave documents to the New York Times for their investigation into his taxes. In 2020, the publication of your book turned you into a public figure. What was this journey like for you?
MT: Deciding to work with the New York Times was transformative. It was a private journey at first, just me and the reporters. As I told them stories about my family, I realized that this is actually important stuff. From there was born the idea of writing a book. I did not know how it would be received, and I am so gratified by the reception.
I discovered something I did not know about myself: I am actually incredibly comfortable in this more public role. That made the decision to write the next book easier. Using my skill set to do something more useful than writing about my awful family appealed to me. I also feel an obligation to do whatever I can. I finished the last book while in quarantine, and I am still sitting in my house a year later, but my life has changed in a profound way.