Mary Trump wants to heal the trauma caused by her uncle — problem is, it's still happening

Ex-president's niece: Yes, we've all been traumatized — but Democrats need to "take the gloves off" and get real

Published August 26, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

"The Reckoning: Our Nation's Trauma And Finding A Way To Heal" by Mary Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Avary L. Trump/St. Martin's Press)
"The Reckoning: Our Nation's Trauma And Finding A Way To Heal" by Mary Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Avary L. Trump/St. Martin's Press)

If you were emotionally invested in battling Donald Trump while he was in the White House, then you have suffered from trauma. There may be no one better equipped to help us cope with that trauma than Mary Trump, who is both a psychologist and a niece of the man who caused that pain. 

I spoke to Mary Trump for Salon Talks  about her new book, "The Reckoning: Our Nation's Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal." Arguably, Mary played a key role in defeating her uncle last year, from her TV appearances and to her runaway bestseller about Donald and the entire Trump family, "Too Much and Never Enough."

In her new book, Mary looks back at our nation's collective trauma caused by her uncle's presidency, his mishandling of COVID-19 and his attempted coup on Jan. 6 aimed at overturning the 2020 election. She also takes a broader look at the historical trauma that Black people and Native Americans have suffered and how the effort by some on the right today to whitewash that with laws attacking academic freedom and "critical race theory," seeking to enforce a particular version of history, makes it more difficult for these communities to heal from generational trauma.

Our conversation, which you can watch in full or read as an edited transcript below, focused much on the present and the threat that Donald, as Mary Trump refers to her uncle, poses to our nation. Mary explained why she thinks Democrats have so far failed to call out the danger presented by Donald and the GOP as they continue to misread the character of the contemporary Republican Party. She said that her uncle is still hungry to wield power, and that if he were somehow returned to the White House, she doesn't believe he would leave peacefully. Before the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, you could dismiss that idea as over the top. If you dismiss Mary's warning now, you do so at the peril of our nation.

We talked about your bestseller "Too Much and Never Enough" the last time you were on Salon Talks. Now you've got a new book, "The Reckoning: Our Nation's Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal." Let the healing begin, Mary, because I could use some.

Yes, let the healing begin. Man, we've been through the wringer.

Your last book was about your family, about the trauma your late father was put through by his father, who was also Donald Trump's father. On some level, Donald Trump is slightly sympathetic as a human being who went through trauma. I have no sympathy for him now, but as a human being reading your book, you can't help but feel that. Now we look at our trauma, and your new book looks at the collective trauma of African Americans and Native Americans on different levels at different times. Let's talk about what we've been through the last four years. You note candidly that you went for treatment at a place that deals with PTSD in mid-2017. First, as a psychologist, what is the working definition of trauma?

Trauma can be many things, and it can lead to many different outcomes. It could be a car accident, it could be being in war, it could be being denied medical treatment. It can be a very quiet thing as well. People think of trauma and they think explosions and plane crashes, but as we've seen in the last year and a half, it could also be being isolated, living in fear of a silent enemy, living with the kinds of division that my uncle has gifted us over the last four or five years. It's really anything that makes you feel like you are not in control of your safety. As we've seen, it can really have an impact on people's mental health. We're seeing it already, but going forward, we still haven't emerged. We're still being traumatized. It's going to manifest itself in many different ways.

I'm sure the incidents of PTSD will rise, but we're also talking about anxiety and depression and substance abuse and domestic abuse situations worsening. The one thing that would've helped mitigate the effects of the stress of COVID and the fear and the sense of constant danger we couldn't have, because of the fact that we were not allowed to unite as a country. The us versus them should have been us against COVID. Instead, Donald and Republican leadership made it Donald supporters against everybody else. That's also going to take its toll.

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I know every person is different, but how do you address trauma in a way that's productive and can actually help people?

The thing that makes it difficult to deal with trauma, in terms of recovering from it, is that you have to be very honest about what happened to you. That includes feeling the feelings that maybe got split off at the moment of traumatization. Disassociation is a very common symptom for people with PTSD because the attended feelings are unbearable. That also distances you from your ability to heal from it. We see the same thing, and this was the similarity I saw with what this country is going through. We continue to be re-traumatized because we've never dealt with our foundational traumas in a way that is honest, straightforward and healing.

What do you say to people who feel like they've been put through an emotional trauma by your uncle's presidency, which continues to this day because he's not gone. We just had a man in D.C. who claimed to have bombs and who wanted to eliminate Joe Biden to put Donald Trump back in office. That's not an outlier — we're going to see more of that. What do you tell people about how to heal?

First, I would just validate that feeling: You have been traumatized. That's one of the most egregious things about the last few years. It's people with empathy and compassion, who really do care about what happens, who have been the most negatively impacted by what's gone on. The people who are, quite frankly, the worst among us have been empowered and enabled by the horrors that Donald inflicted on us. 

I know we're talking in generalities here, but people are still going through difficult times, they don't want to hear his name. People will say to me, "It bothers me so much I change the channel. I don't want to hear his voice anymore." That was when he was the president. Now I really find no excuse, no reason, for hearing his voice.

This is the problem, though. We can't ignore him. We ignore him at our peril, because Republicans are keeping him relevant, keeping him empowered. Who knows what's going on behind the scenes. I wish I never had to speak his name or think about him ever again, that would be healing. It's tricky because we're all so exhausted and demoralized, but things are only going to get worse if we look away. I agree with you, we shouldn't be playing clips. It's gratuitous and it feels mean to be subjected to him. 

There are two different ways to look at this. There is the direct mental health aspect and strategy, and to that I would say there should be a Cabinet position dealing exclusively with the mental health fallout from COVID. I'm not kidding, this needs to be a structural innovation that operates at the local, state and federal level. People need access to resources. I am not the only person on the planet who came into this with complex PTSD. A lot of people already had pre-existing conditions that made them more vulnerable. Then there are those of us who were perfectly fine, but now find themselves with stress-related disorders or anxiety, etc. The fact that everybody doesn't have the same access, it's ridiculous. Mental health isn't a luxury. Mental illness isn't a moral failing. Everybody should have access to trauma therapy, regular therapy, EMDR, etc.

The second thing I would say is that in order to help those of us who've suffered so much over the last four years, and particularly the last year and a half, and continue to suffer because we're being held hostage, again, by the worst among us, the Democrats need to take the gloves off and start acting as if they understand the unbelievably dangerous situation we currently find ourselves in.

I want to touch on one more thing about healing and how it intertwines with today's GOP. You've got the GOP today banning and threatening to defund schools that teach what they call "critical race theory," which, if you look at the laws, it's not critical race theory. It's literally teaching about the history of systemic racism, of slavery, of Jim Crow, of Native American genocide. You note Rick Santorum's infamous statement, talking to a group of young white people about white Europeans saying, "We birthed a nation from nothing." With this white fragility in play, how much harder does it make it for people who are African American, Native American and others to heal, if we're not going to talk about what really happened to them as a people.

It makes it impossible. Just a small data point: So far the few reviews I've read of my book have all been by old white guys who take great umbrage with what I have to say. They're very defensive about it for some reason. It is this knee-jerk need to look away. We saw it with the Capitol police officer's testimony. Not one Republican admitted to watching that hearing, as if it wasn't worth their time. Ted Cruz was playing basketball, for God's sake. 

It's as if they feel that facing this stuff head-on somehow makes them guilty when the truth of the matter is, by continuing to ignore racism, not just our racist past, but the fact that white supremacy is currently a major platform of one of our two political parties, then we do become guilty of the thing we want to avoid being guilty of. It's terrible for all of us to fail repeatedly, to grapple with why we are where we are. It's not an accident; this isn't because of Donald. Somebody said to me recently, "Donald Trump was 250 years in the making," and that's exactly right. This isn't just something that happened over four years. We've been building towards this for centuries. When did taking personal responsibility become a terrible thing? It's mystifying to me.

We're seeing that right now in current events with Afghanistan. You've got your uncle spinning a new tale, yet you actually have people like H.R. McMaster, who was Trump's national security adviser, saying that Trump's secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban. What's your reaction — I'm sure it's not surprise — about how Donald is trying to say this is all Biden's fault when it was Trump who pulled our troops out. We got nothing in return, zero. He pressured for 5,000 Taliban prisoners to be released over the objections of the Afghan military, and released the co-founder of the Taliban from prison in Pakistan, after Obama put him there in 2010 for killing our troops. What's your reaction to Trump, again, doing the blame shifting?

First of all, the master deal-maker is at work, as always. I'm not surprised. Listen, I'm not an expert in Afghanistan by any stretch of the imagination, but the revisionist history we're seeing is just appalling. It's literally as if Joe Biden started the war seven months ago, and just decided to pull out five minutes ago, and that George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump had nothing to do with it. Simultaneously, they're basically saying, "Just give us 20 more years, and we'll get there. Who cares how many other lives are lost, or how many more trillions of dollars we waste." 

The fact that Donald is evading responsibility makes perfect sense. One, because he never takes responsibility for anything, but also because he's still on a mission to delegitimize and undermine President Biden. We also see this with what he said about getting a third booster shot, that it's just a money-making thing for Pfizer to push a third shot onto people, when it's actually because the efficacy of the first two shots loses power over time. It's just to keep people safe. Nothing Donald does in that regard should surprise us. Again though, it's the fact that he's continuing to be amplified and enabled by the Republican Party.

This deal that Trump made with the Taliban is really like the Trump vodka of peace deals. 

Or the steaks, too.

In your book, you quote President Biden on Jan. 20, being sworn in and saying, "We've learned again that democracy is precious, democracy is fragile, and at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed." Why doesn't it feel like democracy has prevailed? It doesn't feel like that at all to me.

Because it hasn't. We're still on a knife's edge here. If Democrats fail to hold both houses in 2022, I think the American experiment will have failed. It's not just 2024 we need to worry about. The other reason it feels like democracy hasn't prevailed is because there was an armed insurrection against our government, incited by the person in the Oval Office, encouraged and participated in by members of Congress, many of whom were trying to overturn the results of a free and fair election, and yet they all still roam free. All of them, with the exception of Donald, are still running our government. How is it possible that traitors to this country, active seditionists who no longer believe in American democracy, if they ever did, are still allowed to be sitting senators and representatives? It's appalling.

If Donald Trump is not charged and prosecuted for his crimes in connection with Jan. 6, do you think that will lead to even more violence down the road by his supporters? 

Of course it will. The message that is always sent with Donald is, "I can get away with anything, and if I can get away with it, so can you." That's the message that's being sent by Attorney General Merrick Garland. I don't know who else could possibly investigate these things, but anybody who has the power to and isn't, is failing us. This guy in D.C. [Floyd Ray Roseberry] is a direct result of two things, what happened on Jan. 6 and the fact that it was done with impunity, just as so many other things in our history have been done by powerful white men with impunity. Also because of this misinformation echo system that our politicians seem not interested in doing anything about. Why is Fox News allowed to spread propaganda and misinformation and white supremacy, and racism on a daily basis? It's killing us.

I think more and more people are asking themselves that question. Before, I think we were all defending it by saying, "Freedom of speech and the First Amendment, but there are limits that our Supreme Court has recognized regarding freedom of speech, and I think that knowingly misleading people to their death is crossing one of them. Cheerleading for terrorists who wanted to overthrow our government. These people are literally defending the people who attacked our Capitol, who are terrorists, because the FBI has said that Jan. 6 was an act of domestic terrorism. I think people are saying, "What about the lines?" The FCC, I really believe, should look into Fox News. The FTC should look into violations of the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act by Fox News. I believe we're at that point.

I completely agree. I also believe that governors like [Greg] Abbott and [Ron]DeSantis are committing crimes against humanity on a daily basis, yet they continue to be allowed to advocate against the best ways to keep people safe. It's quite horrifying. The problem is, as you say, there could be adverse long-term effects. On the other hand though, the situation is so dire, it's such an emergency that I think the Democrats need to govern as if they have the majority, which they do, while they have the majority. They need to understand that playing by rules that no longer exist, because the Republicans burnt the rulebook to a crisp, is going to lose us our democracy. 

People like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin are pretending that the filibuster is some great mechanism of democracy, which it's not. By clinging to that, they are literally risking the future of this country. We have to play hardball and we have to think short-term right now, because otherwise there won't be another free and fair election, and Democrats won't be able to win states like Arizona, Georgia or Pennsylvania. What good does that do anybody?

You write in your book that Democrats continue to misread the character of the Republican Party and that they fail to realize the rules no longer apply. What would you like to hear Democratic leaders say?

I would like to hear them say that the filibuster is an anti-democratic, racist thing that needs to go, and that we, the Democrats, believe in democracy. We believe that government is a force for good, and we're going to do everything in our power to make sure that we make the American people's lives better. Even though the Senate is split 50-50, the 50 Democrats represent 41 million more people, and we should have the power to enact whatever legislation we believe will make the biggest difference during this incredibly fraught period.

Do you think Democrats should be calling for the criminal prosecution of your uncle?

Yeah. Again, this is what's so mind blowing. They're more focused on bipartisanship, which legitimizes the people who tried to overturn our election. It legitimizes Donald, in a way. This was the biggest problem, in my view, in his not getting convicted in the Senate both times. There was plenty of evidence to prove that he should have been. He gets away with it. He gets impeached, not convicted, and then the media treat him, in the fall of 2020, like he's just a normal, legitimate candidate, when in fact, he was trying to steal an election. It's this need to normalize things, which is so powerful and destructive that it's all the more important that we stop pulling punches, that we use language that's accurate. It took the media three years to call Donald's lies "lies." I'm not entirely sure they ever called his racism "racism."

I don't know that they have it in them to use the fascism word. We've got to be really clear about what's going on. Republicans can call us Marxists, communists, socialists, Leninists, whatever, but they're never asked to define their terms. You ask any of us who are calling them fascist why they are, we can explain it to you. The Democrats just need to stop pretending that we can all be polite and get along under the current circumstances.

The GOP today is not a political party as Americans understand it. It is a white nationalist movement. Because we only have two parties, I think it's hard for Democrats to say that. Because they're like, "We got to work with these people a little bit." I think they're doing it at our nation's peril. Before we wrap up here, I've seen you say in other interviews that you think your uncle will run for president in 2024. Things could change, but if he runs and wins, does he ever leave the White House peacefully?

Nobody will be able to make him. By then, the Republican Party would have consolidated power. I think a lot of Republicans would be perfectly happy to turn this country into a theocratic apartheid state. I think that's what Mitch McConnell has in mind. It will be minority rule. If he were to get in again, first of all, he wouldn't win, because he would be cheating. I don't think he could win legitimately, but if the voter suppression laws are enacted in just three states and he feels like he can't lose, then sure. And then four more years of that. How do we ever regain power? I don't think we do, which is, again, why I completely empathize with your frustration at the Democratic Party. Can they not see what's coming our way if we don't head it off immediately?

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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