I talked to Donald Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, the morning after Tuesday’s presidential debate, perhaps the worst debate in the history of U.S. politics. The spectacle was made miserable by Donald Trump, a political animal whom after almost four years as our president we still don’t know quite how to handle.
Mary Trump brings perhaps the best view of anyone into the inner workings of the brain of the man who simply would not stop talking on the stage on Tuesday night. She’s seen him from the inside of the family, has been burnt by him, and is also a psychologist who’s written about Trump’s formative years and family relationships in her book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. Watching the debate, she saw some familiar traits pushed into overdrive on national television, outside his Fox News comfort bubble and newly exposed by a damning new revelations about his tax avoidance and debt.
“Get a moderator who can do his job”
Fast Company: During the debate, many of us were surprised by Trump’s constant interruptions. Biden didn’t exactly ignore it, but is there any effective way to deal with that?
Mary Trump: Yeah, get a moderator who can do his job. And I had the same question not just about the interrupting but about the lying. I don’t believe moderators are supposed to be invisible.
FC: Do you think that in future debates they should turn off Trump’s microphone?
MT: They need to do something. It’s not even about cutting his mic. They just need to set it up so that the person who is supposed to be speaking has his mic on and the person who isn’t has his mic off.
But I personally think the one condition of the next debate is real-time fact-checking.
In terms of [former] Vice President Biden, I think at the beginning, it was like getting hit by a freight train over and over again, and it took him a bit of time to find his feet. But when he did, I think he handled it as well as anybody could be expected to.
“It’s a tactic to keep things unfocused and chaotic”
FC: I think the main reaction people had to the whole thing was that nobody learned much. There wasn’t much real policy discussion. People are saying it was a shit show, and that’s pretty much what it was.
MT: Yeah, it was a Donald shit show, because who benefits? In what ways does he benefit from talking about actual policy? So this was a tactic. First of all, let’s not forget that part of this was based in his desperation. It was unfortunately not a major topic of conversation, but the only thing he’s thinking about right now is that New York Times article. How do you keep from talking about things you don’t want to talk about? You don’t let anybody else talk.
But it’s also a tactic to keep things unfocused and chaotic because you know he thrives on division and chaos. He had four or five talking points which were lies and insults that, whatever the topic, he was going to get those in. No matter how absurd.
Donald spends an enormous amount of energy trying to get people to believe he’s someone he’s not.”
FC: I wonder if you’d ever seen him behave like that before. In his past, have you ever seen him become completely belligerent and try to stonewall people away from talking about something that he doesn’t want to talk about?
MT: In the context of the family, he never had to behave that way. Because he got everything he wanted. He was always the center of attention. He was always right. He was always the best. He was always the favorite.
FC: Returning to The New York Times article, is there something about that article that points to something that hurts him or plays on his fear of failure?
MT: It’s not a fear of failure, because he’s never been successful. Donald spends an enormous amount of energy trying to get people to believe he’s someone he’s not. And trying to protect himself from the knowledge of who he really is, and that he’s never been the person he claims to be. So this story gets to the heart of that fear. And it’s on public view. Hopefully this time it sticks, because the story two years ago [also by the Times, about Trump’s tax evasion] should have been enough to end this monstrosity. The two stories are very closely related thematically, and, in my view, this [new one] is just sort of an extension of the last one.
The first one made it very clear he’s not a self-made man. It’s a lie. The last  Times article had [tax] documents, but they weren’t his documents. These are his. There’s no way that didn’t have an impact on his performance last night, because how do you hide from that? He can either admit to his egregious failures as a businessman and that he’s been lying to the American people all along, or he can admit to tax fraud. He’d rather admit to tax fraud.
“Donald is incapable of evolving”
FC: The people in his base have a tireless devotion to this guy—a dedication to him and an unwillingness to question what he says. Do you have any thoughts about the psychology that contributes to that kind of behavior?
MT: They see themselves in this other person, who by virtue of luck or what have you, is in a position of power, and it makes them feel hopeful. We also can’t discount the fact that there are a lot of horrible racists and misogynists in this country who suffer from the same disorder. He’s their guy, because he’s made it clear he stands on the side of white supremacists.
I’ve always believed that one of the main purposes of liberal democracy is to contain such people. And we get ourselves into a lot of trouble when the containment wall breaks—and that’s what happened. Not simply with Donald getting to the Oval Office, but because between 2016 and 2018, 100% of the federal government represented that 22%, and it emboldened them and gave them power that they should never have been allowed anywhere near.
It’s devastated our institutions in ways that were probably unimaginable four years ago. I think if Joe Biden wins we’re going to have to spend a lot of time as a country figuring out why people are like that and what we can do about it.
FC: From what you’ve seen of your uncle during his presidency, do you have any thoughts about how he might have evolved as a person, and if so, in what ways?
MT: Donald is incapable of evolving. He has essentially the same psychology as he did as a toddler.
Part of the reason for that is because early in his life he developed certain defense mechanisms that became hardened into personality traits. Bullying, aggression, mendacity—all the stuff we can see. An intervention might have helped mitigate those effects, but unfortunately what happened is my grandfather [Fred Trump] admired and rewarded those things about him.
So it may seem that he’s deteriorated or changed in some particular way, but he’s just dealing with stressors and pressure and scrutiny the likes of which he’s entirely unfamiliar with.
“He is essentially a nihilist”
FC: It seemed to me during the debate that he’s been working and continues to work hard to develop mail-in voting as a pretext for contesting the election result in the event he loses.
MT: But he’s already doing it. He’s already saying if Biden wins then it must have been rigged. So he’s actively cheating already. He’s cheating by putting somebody in charge of the Post Office who is dismantling the Post Office. He’s doing it by making people believe there’s a difference between absentee voting and mail-in voting and that mail-in voting will be subject to fraud somehow.
He’s already calling the legitimacy of the election into question. That’s cheating, because he’s using the power of his office to do it. It’s a very difficult thing to combat, because of the active measures he’s currently taking with the support, by the way, of people like Louis Dejoy and Bill Barr and Mitch McConnell.
FC: Do you believe that there’s some point where he’ll stop? If he’s looking out at the country and seeing that we’re moving into authoritarianism and the possibility of civil war, is there any limit where he realizes he has to do something to heal the country before it breaks apart completely?
FC: That scares me.
MT: You know, every day I’ve continued to be sad—and that’s not a big enough word for it—horrified that from the 63 million people who thought it was a good idea, they let this guy anywhere within 100 light years of this kind of power.
He is essentially a nihilist. He’s one of those people who cannot believe that anything can exist beyond him. He also knows what’s at stake for him if he loses. Also, he thrives in the midst of chaos and division.
The debate is kind of a minor example. He said some very disturbing things, but mostly people are talking about how he behaved—not about the white supremacy, not about the despicable way he responded when Biden was talking about his dead son—so he knows that that is always to his benefit, too.
The country’s heading toward authoritarianism. Well, who’s the authoritarian going to be? Donald. So why would he want to stop that?
“Can you run for office from a federal penitentiary?”
FC: Are there any other family members, other than Donald’s immediate family, that still support him and defend him?
MT: I don’t know. I’d be surprised, but I don’t know. And in terms of his immediate family members, let’s just be really clear that they don’t support him. They support what they can get if he stays in power. And also they support the idea of staying out of prison.
FC: When we look forward to 2024, do you have any thoughts about what member of the family is next?
MT: I don’t know—can you run for office from a federal penitentiary?
Obviously somebody in the Republican Party is grooming Ivanka. Somebody is grooming Donnie [Donald Trump Jr.]. The fact that we even have to be making that assessment is enough to be angry about because they are worthless and unqualified beyond comprehension. But here we are.
Right now Don is probably the guy because he appeals to the base because he is the base. He’s a racist, misogynistic, fear-mongering murderer of innocent animals, and that’s what they like. Right now I think Ivanka’s a little bit too polished and moderate-seeming, because she’s obviously not a moderate.
“We need to be prepared”
FC: Do you think Donald Trump is a real conservative? I mean, did you see evidence before he was president that he shared values like limited government and low taxation and pro-life?
MT: No, he has no values.
The only thing he ever cared about is that his taxes are low, or, as we now know, that he never had to pay any. Anybody who believes that is completely deluding themselves. He has no values. He has no ethics. He has no ideology of any kind.
To the extent that he and my grandfather were involved in New York politics, which they were, it was simply to figure out which candidate would give them the biggest tax breaks or the biggest tax abatement, or get them the property they wanted.
FC: Is there anything else you want to add, not only about last night, but about the situation the country is in right now because of this man?
MC: The only thing I can say that I hope resonates with people is that he is never going to get better. He’s only going to get worse. We literally can’t imagine how bad it can be.
So we need to be prepared. I don’t say this to demoralize anybody. I say it to give them an incentive to get out there and vote because everything is at stake here. That’s not hyperbole anymore; that’s the way it is. If last night’s performance wasn’t enough to convince you, I’m not sure what would be.