Here is part of an email alert that The New York Times sent to its readers over the weekend: “Breaking News: President Trump wore a mask publicly for the first time.”
The announcement would not seem, at first glance, to merit the urgency. Breaking news is typically the stuff of shock, its revelations suggesting a rupture in the assumed order of things—and this was, after all, an update about face fabric. But the sad truth was that the bit of news, for all its absurdity, also deserved the designation. After months of resistance—the seeming result of vanity and spite and stubbornness—Donald Trump, on Saturday, had finally deigned to model the simple public-health protocol proven to halt the spread of a virus that has killed more than 129,000 Americans. Changing Trump’s mind—the result, reportedly, of negotiation and “pleading” on the part of his aides—wasn’t just an exercise in optics; it would save lives. The belated development could not qualify as good news. But it was news.
And it was a type of news that is, more than three years into the Trump era, all too familiar. Americans’ awareness of their president exists, now, at almost the cellular level: Never has the public been so intimately acquainted with the body of the executive, its impulses and its fickle humors. The 5 a.m. tweets tell us when he has awakened. Their tone tells us when he is angry, or indignant. Their ellipses invite us to fill in the blanks: What did he mean? What will he do next? Presidents, traditionally, have operated at a public remove; Trump, by contrast, is inescapable. News stories regularly report on his funks and his furies, turning what was once merely the subtext of national news events—the president’s feelings—into the text. The reporting is rational: Trump’s wayward whims are matters of national security. His rage can threaten. His pride can harm. That grim knowledge has turned Americans, over time, into a nation of armchair psychologists, struggling to understand the workings of one particular psyche. The efforts are fruitless, but they continue all the same. The public—both in spite of Donald Trump’s ubiquity, and because of it—remains ever tuned to his frequency.
Around the time that Trump’s aides were finding ways to cajole their charge into putting on his mask, a book began to make its way around American media outlets. Too Much and Never Enough, by Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, is both a memoir and a manifesto. One of its theses is that the mind of the president, the subject of so much fixation, is beyond fixing. Donald Trump, she suggests, is not a riddle to be answered or a mystery to be solved; he is what he is, full stop. He is a tautology wrapped in a spray tan. And he has been what he is now, really, all along. Mary Trump, chastened by her own, earlier silence about her uncle’s unfitness for office, is sounding a belated alarm. People have suffered, she writes, because her uncle is incapable of understanding other people’s suffering. People have died because her uncle cares more about the illusion of competence than its realization. “His ability to control unfavorable situations by lying, spinning, and obfuscating,” she writes—a power he has relied on throughout his life—“has diminished to the point of impotence in the midst of the tragedies we are currently facing.”
With this psychographic reading of the president, Mary Trump is doing the work many other Americans have been: analyzing, decoding, explaining. She is, however, uniquely qualified for that effort. In addition to her membership in the Trump family, Mary Trump holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. (She also has a master’s degree in comparative literature: As political tell-alls go, her book is remarkably well written.) The author’s assessment of her uncle is both hedged and blunt. “I have no problem,” she writes, “calling Donald a narcissist—he meets all nine criteria as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)—but the label gets us only so far.” She adds that Trump likely has dependent personality disorder, an undiagnosed learning disability (making it difficult for him to process and retain new information about the world), and sleep disorders (likely related to his habit of ingesting some 12 Diet Cokes a day), and that he is also, very possibly, a sociopath.
That helps to explain why the Trump family tried, and failed, to halt the book’s publication. And why the White House responded to the book’s claims using the familiar rhetoric of “fake news.” (The president’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said of the book last week, “It’s ridiculous, absurd allegations that have absolutely no bearing in truth.” She added: “I have yet to see the book, but it is a book of falsehoods.”)
Mary Trump’s diagnoses are ultimately made at a distance. “The fact is,” she concedes, “Donald’s pathologies are so complex and his behaviors so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would require a full battery of psychological and neurophysical tests that he’ll never sit for.” Mary’s status as a member of the Trump family, though, means that she can bolster some of her assessments with anecdotes. She notes, repeatedly, Donald’s penchant for bullying. She writes that, when Don Jr. and Eric were young, Donald would wrestle with the kids without pulling punches—and tired of the game as soon as they were big enough to fight back. She recalls, ruefully, a day when her father, Freddy, the second-oldest Trump child, was near death, at the Trump family home in Queens, at the age of 42—his body weakened not just by alcoholism, she believes, but also by the accumulated insults of a family that saw him as a disappointment. Mary was away at school at the time; Donald called her mother, Freddy’s ex-wife, to inform her that “Freddy probably won’t make it.” She rushed to the Trump family home. “When my mother arrived a short time later,” Mary writes, “my grandparents were sitting alone by the phone in the library; Donald … had gone to the movies.”
His brokenness, she argues, has a source. When Donald was a toddler, as Mary Trump tells it, his mother nearly died of an infection that was left untreated after she gave birth to her fifth child, Robert. She was in recovery—and effectively absent as a parent—for more than a year. And so, the book argues, a woman who was already prone to cold selfishness became even more withdrawn from her children’s lives. The two youngest kids, Donald and Robert, were especially affected. They were left to the mercies of a father who seemed to enjoy the idea of parenthood more than its practice. Fred Trump, according to his granddaughter, was self-centered and manipulative and a misogynist who saw parenting as women’s work. (He was also, she writes, a probable sociopath.) That combination of circumstances, Mary Trump suggests, left Donald craving attention and love that never came. In place of the comfort that children typically seek from their caregivers, she argues, Donald learned instead to seek simple approval—and he sought it from the parent who was there. He honed his behavior so that it would please his domineering father. He internalized what each of the Trump children would, in varying ways, be made to understand: In the Trump family, cruelty was a currency.
Donald, in Mary’s telling, would not be required to understand much else. Because of the particular circumstances of his childhood, Mary argues, he was halted in his development. The 74-year-old man, she contends, is cognitively still a child. Without a parent to model empathy for him, she suggests, Donald closed in on himself until his own demands and desires became all that there was for him. Watching his father, Donald came to equate kindness with weakness. He fashioned himself as a “killer.” He treated commitments to other people as an intolerable kind of compromise. Years ago, Donald’s mother told Mary that, when she and Fred sent Donald to the New York Military Academy at the age of 13—a punishment for a son who was prone to violence and who refused to follow any rules—she had been glad to see him go. “I shouldn’t say it,” she admits, years later, “but when he went to the Military Academy, I was so relieved.”
When I read that, I felt a pang. I felt another pang when reading Mary Trump’s conclusion that “in the end, there would be no love for Donald at all, just his agonizing thirsting for it.” To read this book is to feel desperately sad for Donald Trump, the boy, unmissed by his mother and failed by the people meant to nurture him. But to read this book is also to feel infinitely worse for all the others who have suffered because of his pain—for those who have been made to live in the orbit of Trump’s tragedy. Mary Trump highlights the mechanisms that have turned her uncle’s wounds into national ones. The president is not, in his hurt, unique; the world is full of need and want and ache. The difference is that most people’s emotions will not escalate into national emergencies.
The question would have been remarkable had it involved any other president than Trump. But Wallace was engaged in the kind of reporting that has become revealingly common during the Trump era—the kind that treats the president’s capricious emotions as the stuff of national urgency. The New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich, in 2018, dubbed the genre “Breaking Moods.” And ever since Trump glided down the escalator of his gilt-layered lobby, announcing his intention to become president, the genre has flourished. Through it, the American public has been informed that the president has been, at varying times, “furious” and “embittered” and “emboldened” and “brooding” and “lashing out” and “fuming” and “fretting” and “explod[ing] with rage” and “subdued, almost sullen” and in “one of the deepest funks of his presidency.” Through it, as well, Americans have been repeatedly told that the president is “increasingly isolated,” which considerably worsens his emotional condition: For a president whose diet consists of red meat, Diet Coke, and regurgitated praise, solitude can contribute to a “dark mood” (or a “sour mood,” or a “foul mood”). It can cause the leader who is in charge of the military and the economy and the nuclear codes to retreat into “a cocoon of bitterness and resentment.”
The Breaking Mood, as a genre of journalism, exists for roughly the same reason that the president’s decision to don a face mask, this weekend, was breaking news: Trump’s feelings have become facts of American political life, and matters of life and death. As the madman theory turns inward, reading Trump’s emotions becomes, for an addled public, a form of self-protection—and an act of last resort. We know what happens when he feels threatened. We know what comes of his rage. The neurons fire, their impulses unchecked, and the children are caged and the general is killed and the peaceful protesters are tear-gassed in the streets. The path from one event to another, presidential power being what it is, is alarmingly short. His mood becomes others’ misfortune, all too easily.
Americans—and those watching the proceedings from abroad—live in the chaos that results. We navigate the consumptive fear. Yesterday morning, in an interview with ABC News, Mary Trump called on her uncle to resign. That call, of course, will go ignored. The Constitution, which layers psychological insight atop its tiers of political realism, accounted in advance for many of the character flaws that might beset American presidents. It did not, however, anticipate the depth of Donald Trump’s moral vacuity. A political framework that once hoped to check its own worst impulses offers little answer for a leader who is, as a 1997 New Yorker profile described the future president, “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”
What is perhaps most shocking about Too Much and Never Enough—a book in which, it bears repeating, a clinical psychologist who has known the president of the United States all her life diagnoses him as a likely sociopath—is how profoundly unshocking its arguments are. Donald Trump’s defining self-regard, whether you consider it a pathology or, as some of his apologists prefer to, a refreshing rebuke to the status quo, is widely understood. But Mary Trump connects the dots between the president’s psyche and the nation’s. She mourns the ease with which the dynamics of her “malignantly dysfunctional family” have settled themselves onto the American public. One of the ironies of Donald Trump’s nearly lifelong battle against vulnerability, she suggests, is that its effects have left him—and his country—uniquely vulnerable:
His pathologies have rendered him so simple-minded [that] it takes nothing more than repeating to him the things he says to and about himself dozens of times a day—he’s the smartest, the greatest, the best—to get him to do whatever they want, whether it’s … betraying allies, implementing economy-crushing tax cuts, or degrading every institution that’s contributed to the United States’s rise and the flourishing of liberal democracy.
In the process, the very thing the American Founders sought to avoid in the experiment they laid out—a public held captive by the whims of a fickle ruler—has come to pass, not in spite of the Constitution’s protections, but precisely because of them. Mary Trump blames her grandfather and her grandmother for the rise of Donald Trump; she also blames the banks that, having vested interests in Trump’s self-mythology, financed him through bad investments and bankruptcies. She blames the media—the tabloids of the 1980s, the television shows of the early 2000s, the political press of 2016—that treated his lies as harmless entertainment. She blames all those who know what he is and still do nothing. Earlier this year, the New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie observed how tempting it is—and yet how foolish, given all we know—to seek legibility in Trump’s behavior. There is none. There is no strategy. There is only animal instinct, sharpened over decades, unfettered by empathy or loyalty or love. The uncertainties unfurl. Their arcs bend unsteadily. What will he do now?