What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory. (Romans 9:22–23, KJV)
Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough stands apart from other President-Trump-as-nightmare books in that it is very well written. It reads like a novel, an American gothic tale of a cruel, heartless, and venal clan destined both to conquer and to collapse in due time, like Poe’s House of Usher. The fact that the time has not yet come due is the source of the United States’ current existential dread.
Nothing in Mary Trump’s book is surprising — how could Donald Trump’s family romance be anything but a dysfunctional horror? But it still is, or ought to be, shocking. If we are no longer shocked by the Trump era because we have become numb to its relentless, sadistic depravity, we need to wake up to it, and quickly. Poe’s narrator got out just in time. We may not be so lucky.
Tolstoy’s quip that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is almost, but not quite, contradicted by the Trump family saga. While reading Too Much and Never Enough, I couldn’t help thinking that the parallels of the Kafka family of Prague and the Trumps of Jamaica Estates are uncanny. The difference between them is both a matter of chance — Franz was the only Kafka boy who lived past infancy — and social context. Were the Kafka’s 20th century Americans, they would have been quite like the Trumps.
Hermann Kafka understood himself to be a successful, self-made man. As is always the case, this kind of self-congratulation is misleading. His upward mobility from the working to the upper-middle class was due to a confluence of his own determined efforts, a gregarious personality, and a healthy dose of good fortune. He married-up, had a knack for the retail business, and luckily his Jewishness in an antisemitic Prague did not seem to negatively affect his success. He was determined to speak German in his household rather than the Yiddish of his youth: it was the language of social mobility, and the tactic succeeded.
He ruled his family like a remorseless autocrat. He treated his wife Julie and his two daughters with the casual misogyny common to the age: women belonged in the kitchen and with the children, and their opinions did not matter. Two of his three sons died in infancy. It was the eldest child in the family, Franz, who had the bad luck to serve as the extension of Hermann’s hopes and wishes, his legacy to the world.
It is an understatement to say that Franz disappointed Hermann. Franz — bookish, skinny, introverted, and sickly — was at antipodes to his brash, robust, overbearing, bullying father. Hermann never missed an opportunity to berate and humiliate Franz: he thought his son to be so alien to what he believed essential in his heir apparent that Franz deserved whatever mentally sadistic torture he could dole out. The strategy worked. Franz’s life overflowed with self-loathing and self-doubt. That this proved to be the crucible of his genius is fortunate for us, but not for him. Kafka never thought his work was worthwhile, and the three novels on which his reputation rests — The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika — were never completed. Kafka ordered his friend Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts upon his death, a request that Brod, to his credit, did not honor.
When Franz Kafka was 34, five years before his death from tuberculosis, he wrote a letter to his father, over 100 pages long, detailing his highly conflicting feelings about being Hermann’s son. The Letter to the Father (no, not “my” father but “the” father — in German, Brief an der Vater — which is significant) is excruciating reading. Franz lays bare his soul, alternating between a refined anger and relentless guilt and self-reproach — and lets Hermann know exactly how he felt being the son of an overwhelming, overbearing, cruel giant:
You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking. (p.1)
Franz then recites a litany of actions and reactions that depict a father hell-bent on hammering his only surviving son, a disappointment to him in every fundamental way, into the ground:
What I would have needed was a little encouragement, a little friendliness, a little keeping open of my road, instead of which you blocked it for me, though of course with the good intention of making me go another road. But I was not fit for that. You encouraged me, for instance, when I saluted and marched smartly, but I was no future soldier, or you encouraged me when I was able to eat heartily or even drink beer with my meals, or when I was able to repeat songs, singing what I had not understood, or prattle to you using your own favorite expressions, imitating you, but nothing of this had anything to do with my future. And it is characteristic that even today you really only encourage me in anything when you yourself are involved in it, when what is at stake is your own sense of self-importance, which I damage (for instance by my intended marriage) or which is damaged in me (for instance when Pepa [Franz’s brother-in-law] is abusive to me). Then I receive encouragement, I am reminded of my worth, the matches I would be entitled to make are pointed out to me, and Pepa is condemned utterly. But apart from the fact that at my age I am now almost quite unsusceptible to encouragement, what help could it be to me anyway, if it only comes when it isn’t primarily a matter of myself at all? (p.15)
Hermann’s intolerance of any other point-of-view on the world was absolute:
From your armchair you ruled the world. Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild, meshugge, not normal. Your self-confidence indeed was so great that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right . . . The impossibility of getting on calmly together had one more result, actually a very natural one: I lost the capacity to talk. I dare say I would not have become a very eloquent person in any case, but I would, after all, have acquired the usual fluency of human language. But at a very early stage you forbade me to speak. Your threat, “Not a word of contradiction!” and the raised hand that accompanied it have been with me ever since. . . I was continually in disgrace; either I obeyed your orders, and that was a disgrace, for they applied, after all, only to me; or I was defiant, and that was a disgrace too . . (p. 17)
Franz’s ambivalence toward his father was set-in-stone: he both feared him and was dogged in his attempts to win his approval. The cost to Franz was immeasurable:
When I began to do something you did not like and you threatened me with the prospect of failure, my veneration for your opinion was so great that the failure became inevitable, even though perhaps it happened only at some later time. I lost confidence in my own actions . . . You put special trust in bringing up children by means of irony, and this was most in keeping with your superiority over me. An admonition from you generally took this form: “Can’t you do it in such-and-such a way? That’s too hard for you, I suppose. You haven’t the time, of course?” and so on. And each such question would be accompanied by malicious laughter and a malicious face. (p. 33)
Herman Kafka was almost, but not quite, a soul-murderer. What saved Franz Kafka was an ability to either sublimate or bypass his pathological lack of self-confidence, and the consequent self-loathing, by means of his art. While Franz thought his writing was worthless, be persisted in it. Its dark and absurd portrayal of human existence is his legacy to the ages. One must count his unhappy life vindicated by his work, a final, posthumous victory over a tyrannical and merciless family despot.
Fred Trump, Jr., “Freddie”, was not so lucky. Fred Trump Sr., like Hermann Kafka, never missed an opportunity to humiliate and marginalize Freddie after Freddie decided to leave his father’s real-estate corporation, Trump Management Inc., to pursue his dream of becoming an airline pilot. Fred Sr., retaliation on Freddie was relentless and irrevocable. His rejection of Freddie, for becoming “a bus-driver in the sky”, was so intense that Freddie, whose veneration for Fred’s opinion was as intense as Franz Kafka’s for Hermann’s, took to drink, resigned his position as a pilot on TWA’s premier Boston-to-Los Angeles route, lost his marriage and family, and returned to his father’s company penitent and defeated. But Fred Sr. was not in a forgiving mood:
Freddy quickly found that his father was unwilling to make room for him or delegate him any but the most mundane tasks . . . My dad’s dream of flying had been taken away from him, and he had now lost his birthright. He was no longer a husband; he barely saw his kids. He had no idea what was left for him or what he was going to do next. He did know that the only way for him to retain any self-respect was to walk away from Trump Management, this time for good. (pp. 88, 91)
Nothing Freddie did would occasion Fred Sr.’s approval or praise. In one of the most striking passages in the book, Mary Trump describes a Thanksgiving dinner at the family compound in Queens, where Freddie’s mother started choking on a piece of meat:
Halfway through the meal, Gam started choking. “You okay, Mom?” Dad asked. Nobody else seemed to notice. As she continued to struggle, a couple of people at the other end of the table looked up to see what was going on but then looked down at their plates and continued eating. “Come on,” Dad said as he put a hand under Gam’s elbow and gently helped her to her feet. He led her to the kitchen, where we heard some shuffling and the distressing sound of my grandmother’s grunts as Dad performed the Heimlich maneuver; he’d learned it when he had been a volunteer ambulance driver in the late 1960s and early ’70s. When they returned, there was a desultory round of applause. “Good job, Freddy,” Rob said, as if my father had just killed a mosquito. (pp. 113–114)
Freddie died at age 42 of a heart attack, exacerbated by his alcoholism.
Such was the dysfunctional toxicity of the Trump family.
The chief difference between the Trumps and the Kafkas was that neither of Franz’s two younger brothers survived past infancy. Hermann could not choose any other heir apparent. Fred Sr., had two sons younger than Freddie, one of whom was Donald.
As Mary Trump describes it, Donald’s fortunes were a direct result of Fred Sr.’s determination to destroy his prodigal son Freddie:
As a business move, promoting Donald was pointless. What exactly was he being promoted to do? My grandfather had no development projects, the political power structure he’d depended on for decades was unraveling, and New York City was in dire financial straits. The main purpose of the promotion was to punish and shame Freddy. It was the latest in a long line of such punishments, but it was almost certainly the worst, especially given the context in which it happened. (p. 89)
Even then it was apparent, even to Fred Sr., that Donald Trump did not possess any business acumen. That was not the point. Fred Sr.’s ego was at stake: he had always wanted to advance the family brand, and he thought that Donald had the personality to do just that:
Fred was determined to find a role for Donald. He had begun to realize that although his middle son didn’t have the temperament for the day-to-day attention to detail that was required to run his business, he had something more valuable: bold ideas and the chutzpah to realize them. Fred had long harbored aspirations to expand his empire across the river into Manhattan, the Holy Grail of New York City real estate developers. (p. 89)
Fred Sr.’s narcissism and sociopathy found its reflection in Donald, with the bonus of Donald’s self-confident oblivion of his own limitations. Fred Sr. did everything he could not to temper these character flaws of Donald’s but to amplify them:
Donald dedicated a significant portion of his time to crafting an image for himself among the Manhattan circles he was desperate to join. Having grown up a member of the first television generation, he had spent hours watching the medium, the episodic nature of which appealed to him. That helped shape the slick, superficial image he would come to both represent and embody. His comfort with portraying that image, along with his father’s favor and the material security his father’s wealth afforded him, gave him the unearned confidence to pull off what even at the beginning was a charade: selling himself not just as a rich playboy but as a brilliant, self-made businessman. (p. 90)
Donald Trump was both born that way and made that way. Lying, manipulation, ingratiation with the in-crowd of influencers and power-brokers, condescension to the lower strata of society are all features of real estate in New York City, and something every New Yorker who pays attention knows all too well. Real Estate and finance are the soft muck upon which the city rests, and if any types of commerce embody the ethos of sucking the life out of living labor, to paraphrase Marx, it is them.
Donald Trump was fed from birth on the ambrosia of a corrupt way of living, one that the wealthy cling on to for dear life when it is even remotely threatened by others, and one which, absurdly, is often wistfully longed-for on the part of their victims. He is indeed his father’s son — perhaps evan a paler version of Fred Sr.’s malignant narcissism. Franz Kafka, in that sense, might have been lucky. His father Hermann did not have the familial clay of another son to mold into a golem to do his bidding.
One of the disconcerting things about Too Much and Never Enough is that it paints a portrait of Donald Trump, against the background of his family drama, that makes who he is intelligible, understandable — perhaps even commonplace. It humanizes the Trumps. It is good that it does this. Too many Liberals, Leftists, and Conservative never-Trumpers view Donald Trump as sui generis, and his ascension to the presidency as a once-in-a-million-years aberration. But Donald Trump is not some inexplicable monster. He is not an inhuman Chthulu who was sleeping at the bottom of the sea in his hidden city in the muck and sand, accidentally roused from his slumber by an unwitting human being. Donald Trump has a very human history. There is nothing unthinkable or exceptional about him, even though his election was, indeed, exceptional. Unhappy families are abundant, everywhere, always. Those who oppose his re-election to the highest office in the country would be well-advised to keep this in mind. Mere change in government will not cleanse the country, and the world, of his brand of malignant influence. Who knows who else, with a similarly horrific childhood and adolescence, molded by sadistic parents and sibling rivals, waits in the wings to repeat the crimes and misdemeanors of the past four years?
I find the quote from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans to be quite appropriate to the stories of both the Trumps and the Kafkas. It almost seems that Freddie and Franz were fated to be one kind of vessel of wrath, Hermann and Fred Sr. quite another. The cruelty of the fathers was, ultimately, its own punishment, with Fred Trump Sr. ending his life ravaged by dementia and all but ignored by his “successful” son, and with Hermann Kafka without the son that could serve to continue his megalomaniacal legacy. The suffering of the sons was redeemed only in the case of Franz, who managed to create a legacy to counter that of his father — though it was a legacy he never foresaw. Freddie Trump was not so lucky.
Are the Trumps and the Kafkas “vessels of wrath”? Object-lessons from God on what not to aspire to? One need not hold to the Calvinist doctrine of “double-predestination” (that God creates some for irresistible salvation and others for inevitable damnation) to see something like that at work here. There is something star-crossed about both families, something tragically necessary about their fates. In the long run, violence and malice lose their hold and bring things crashing down, like the house in Poe’s dark story. But we need to avoid the complacency that comes with the relief that our family romances are not like theirs. The long run can be very long indeed.