… with Donald Trump’s mother. I have said this out loud a few times, and invariably someone will say “but what about his father?” I know. It takes two parents, and maybe a village, to raise a child. But it’s Mother Trump I’m interested in. I have a lot of questions.
I am a child and family therapist, an early childhood specialist, a university instructor; a daughter, and a mother. In all of these roles, I have spent my life searching for the roots of social and emotional competency, all found in the earliest years of life, all emanating from the earliest experience of family. I can’t help but hold this lens to Mr. Trump and his mother, and to pose my questions. I am not one to feel sorry for failed adults — drug addicts, criminals, wife beaters — or to make excuses for the ravages of early experience. Adults need to be held accountable. But then we have to ask “What happened to you? How did you get this way? Mrs. Trump, what the hell have you done?”
In those early years, our children learn critical skills — truly the foundation for all of life. It is when a child develops empathy — the capacity of feeling for others; it is the seed of the golden rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. In some form, this is a tenet in every major religion, and I have come to believe that it is the tie that binds us; the heart of our social contract with one another. It is when a child develops an inner life and the capacity to imagine the inner life of another person. This rich gift emerges from care of an adult who holds the child with empathy; who sees the inner state; who calms and regulates with the child. Recent research shows that it is in this enveloping relationship that a child’s brain becomes organized. The term “executive function” is the result — the child who can think and feel; who can tolerate frustration; sustain attention; regulate feelings and impulses.
Five year olds are small works in progress, but they have learned a lot, possibly most of what they need to know, about other people in the world. In a Washington Post article about the childhood of Donald Trump, a neighbor recalls finding the five year old throwing rocks into the crib of her infant son. And Trump would agree that he hasn’t changed much.
“When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same,” the 70-year-old presumptive Republican nominee once told a biographer. “The temperament is not that different.”
By age seven, he recalls he gave his teacher a black eye. His classmates recall him as a bully and a liar. At age 12, he was an out of control child, sent to military school so that more force could be brought against him than he could inflict on others. In a state of rage against a classmate, he once had to be stopped from throwing the boy out a second story window. How does a child so young already show such careless disregard for other human beings? How could he not have developed any degree of empathy for another person’s experience of fear or pain? How is it that he lacked the capacity to regulate his emotions and behaviors? Would we know how to create that result, if we wanted to conduct such a bizarre experience? We would. We’d make sure that no one in that child’s life responded empathically; that no one modeled moderation in feelings; we’d make sure that he saw nothing in the eyes and faces of his caregivers except extremes of emotion — too much or not enough.
We are shaped by early family experience — and by prevailing cultural values — to become a particular model of success. There is a certain world that our parents and grandparents have in mind when they slap our hands — or don’t — when they throw us in the pool — or don’t — when they pick us up to comfort — or don’t — when they send us back to pick up the fight — or don’t. When they send us to military school as punishment — or don’t.
What did success in life mean to Trump’s parents? What world were they preparing him for? In an article in the New York Times (July 29, 2017), Maureen Dowd mentions a statement attributed to Fred Trump: “You’re either a killer and a king or a loser”. You succeed at the expense of others; you succeed by exploiting the weakness of others. How is that for a parenting proverb? Trump’s father has been described as …” a tight-fisted and dour disciplinarian who was determined to toughen up his sons so they could follow him into a life as a ruthless, cost-cutting businessman.” The classic divide of gender socialization in American families often places the father on the side of disciplinarian; the mother as nurturer. Children need both, they need them at every stage of development, and they need them from both parents. But too often, and as young in a boy’s life as seven or eight, the mother is fired from her role of nurturing her son, and the father takes up the task of toughening the boy and turning him into a man, saving him from the curse of being a “sissy” who can’t stand up in the world. As if mother had nothing else to say about that. Were you fired, Mrs. Trump? Did you put up a fight in defense of your son? Or did you chime in, harmonizing with the oppressor? “The Child is father of the man”, says William Wordsworth.
In the 50’s many theories of psychological development espoused the poisonous effects of a cold mother. A cold mother could turn a girl into a lesbian, or a boy, more likely, autistic. Mothers aren’t normally cold. It goes against their better nature. But it can be done. Harry Harlow managed to engineer it perfectly, and horrifyingly, with primates. Which brings me to my questions for Trump’s mother. What kind of human being did you set loose on the world? How did you do it? How does an emotionally cold person become that way? There is a prescription that works: be dismissive of a child’s needs; withhold your attention; ignore crying; feed on schedule without regard to hunger; begin early to inflict pain to get compliance; outsource your childrearing to maids and nannies. It’s a pattern that at the extreme, can be experienced by the child as neglectful and intrusive by turn, in a state of “alarming misattunement”.
So I’d like to have a word with Mrs. Trump. Yes, I know she’s dead, so it’s a hypothetical conversation. Little is revealed about her in any public sources I can find. She was a Scottish immigrant, a domestic. Like Trump’s father, she started life poor and striving. She left a poor and struggling country — think how Trump would refer to it now — in search of better opportunities. That’s about it. Everything else is speculation, but informed speculation. I’ve read a number of news and magazine stories of a biographical nature, drawing the line, though, at cracking one of his self aggrandizing books. She was said to be a woman who loved to thrust herself into the center of things; who perhaps admired the Queen of England a bit over the top. Trump has that he’s always had to compare the women in his life to his mother; and often to find them wanting.
I heard Donald Trump comment on the news recently — in the summer of 2017 — that he doesn’t see how a relationship needs “work”. “You just do what you do”, he said. “My father never “worked” at a relationship” His father — killer and king — was the provider who went to work and came home. His mother prepared his meals and they watched TV and went to bed. The next day, the same thing. What is there to work at in a relationship? There was no mention here of paternal pussy-grabbing but one assumes that is all part of “not working at a relationship” As Trump utters these incredibly clueless words, we see beside him a silent and obviously awkward Melania, his third acquisition as wife. His track record of affairs with strippers and porn stars, within the span of this marriage, hangs in the background.
The cumulative evidence of this early failure is apparent in his life today. Ranting, self centered, impulsive; just as he was at five years of age. During the campaign, and in the aftermath of the election, it was sobering to see young children so readily able to categorize the behavior they saw, and the words they heard from him, so clearly — a playground bully, no more mature than a grade school child. There were editorial cartoons depicting a high chair at the table at the G20 summit; his need for naps or being picked up in a stroller — oops, a golf cart — when everyone else walked. But instead of a rattle, that’s a nuclear weapon in his hands. A White House insider describes the internal climate as an Adult Day Care Center, where Trump continuously resists any means of internal self control, and resists any control set from the outside by his so called Handlers.
His adult cruelty harks back to his days as a child bully. During the campaign he mocked a reporter with disabilities, and insulted the brave service of John McCain, the “loser” who got captured in the war that Trump evaded. It’s one in a long spew of juvenile name calling — insults; vindictiveness; reflexive cruelty. A series of slurs about women based on their appearance and (to him) attractiveness. We heard an open admission, during his campaign, of the privilege he has to view and grope any women he chooses. Not only did he deride the resignation of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe in January; but also took a parting jab at his wife — “Ask her what it’s like to be a loser”. There’s that Father Trump curse again. The worst thing to be is a loser.
Here is a man who demands loyalty, but gives loyalty to no one. Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist has said that “Trump betrays everyone: wives, business associates, contractors, bankers and now, the leaders of the House and Senate in his own party. They can’t explain this away as [a] 15-dimensional Trump chess game. It’s a dishonest person behaving according to his long-established pattern.”
It is clear that he lacks those fundamental human accomplishments of early childhood. There is no sense of inner life, his own or others’; no reflective capacity; such limited ability to sense what others feel – or care what others feel. In the so called listening session at the White House in the aftermath of the Parkland High School Shootings, he carried a note card reminding him to say “I hear you”
The early years in life are our opportunity to shape a human being; to prepare them for the future; to socialize them; to do unto others as they would want others to do to them. When I imagine the early years of Donald Trump, I hear the roaring of Father Trump in the background: “You are either a killer and a king, or a loser”. And in the background, I hear the silence of Mother Trump. This is the son you have sent into the world.