When you look below the surface of the man who was once the US President – and beyond all the celebrations and anger around the end of his regime – you begin to see that his life and work are orientated around the traumas he experienced and entangled in, and the mental and emotional frameworks he seems to have put in place to survive them.
One of his most frequent experiences was powerlessness and so he made a deep inner decision to move towards positions of power so he would never have to feel that vulnerable again. This is perhaps the strongest appeal of explicit authority, a position of power: it appears to offer protection from unbearable feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness.
Getting into apparently unchallengeable positions of power is a common defence, a survival strategy against ever feeling powerless again.
So, to understand the man and in particular his relationship with power – rather than take sides with or against him and fuel the endless repeating patterns connected to ideas about ‘right and wrong’ – we must understand a little more about what he comes from and, in particular, how he learnt to survive it.
It is the strategies we develop to survive our childhood pain that set up the patterns of our behaviour for life – as leaders, as parents, as leadership coaches.
“I’ve always believed that, deep down, Donald is a terrified little boy.”
Mary Trump, Donald’s niece, clinical psychologist and author of ‘Too Much and Never Enough’
The ancestral field
If you want to think and work ‘systemically’ you are, by definition, thinking and looking from a multi-generational perspective. After all we are all born into an ongoing family drama in which each generation passes on something to the next.
Donald Trump was born – like all of us – into a complex family system. His ancestral field had difficulties and resources in it, just as mine and yours does. You’ll already know that his maternal grandparents lived on the remote Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides off the wild west coast of Scotland. They lived there, not because they liked the scenery, but because they were thrown off the land their people had lived on for hundreds of years (the mainland) by the English government in order to make it more profitable.
Their daughter, Mary Anne MacLeod, who would later become Donald’s mother, understandably felt isolated and trapped and so moved, aged just 17, to America in 1930 to find better opportunities in the land of the free, as it was already known.
On his paternal side, his grandfather escaped German military service by travelling, aged just 16, to North America. Long story short, he ended up running a series of barber shops, then brothels and, having made a small fortune from trading in sexual services, he invested that money in a low-rent housing business in New York. He died of the ‘Spanish flu’ in 1918, leaving his young son, Donald’s father, grief stricken but loyal to his father’s survival strategy – the accumulation of wealth through property. And perhaps his views about the value of women.
That is the briefest glimpse of the field of the family system young Donald emerged from. But he also, like many of us, endured childhood wounding and complex developmental trauma as well.
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain perpetually a child. For what is the worth of a human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors?”
Marcus Tullius Cicero
The family system
When Donald was barely three, his mother nearly died as the result of an emergency hysterectomy, and she had to go through several operations to save her life over a period of weeks and then months. For a long while it seemed she wouldn’t survive or return home.
“Trauma is not what happens to us but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.”
All children, especially those under five, will feel overwhelmed and powerless by sudden separations and fear of abandonment. Especially if the separation is from the mother and especially if the father is in shock or denial, or is not well resourced to take care of children.
A break in the bond with the mother is the most painful of attachment traumas, one with long-lasting impact. Some of those who experience a disconnect from their mother can grow up to have an ‘attachment style’ that is described as ‘avoidant’, ‘disorganised’ or ‘unregulated’. However you describe it – an attachment trauma; inner splitting or disassociation – it is a natural response, designed to protect the vulnerable sense of self. And when connected to our relationship with the source of our life, our mother, the impact is particularly powerful.
“What cannot be communicated to the mother cannot be communicated to the self.”
The ways in which we respond to our experiences of disruption in childhood will soon become, unless we are forunate enough to have compassionate informed support, our deep patterns for surviving the challenges of life and work. For years to come.
Donald was nearly five years old before his mother could be present again. He kept his distance when she returned, just in case.
Donald’s emotional separation from his mother lasted for decades and was never fully repaired or recovered.
After all, it feels too risky to reconnect and trust someone who disappears, most especially if it is your mother.
If the family environment is not one in which that is understood, then an inner split can occur and the personality can fracture. Defence mechanisms emerge and get stronger, more entrenched, over time. And you look elsewhere to have your needs met.
Little boy Donald’s reaction and the internal defence mechanisms he put in place are natural and need, if we are to see him with compassion as just another human being, to be understood, resourced, supported and healed, not judged as right or wrong.
Other attachment and developmental traumas continued in several different ways through his childhood, school and beyond. He was bullied at school and then, as he himself has described, his father set him and his siblings, in particular his older brother, up against each other. There was an implicit and later an explicit competition between the sons for who was the favourite, who would inherit the three-generation male-line property empire.
Donald watched his father humiliate and bully his older brother Freddy for years.
When Freddy couldn’t tolerate it any longer he left the family business to become an airline pilot, so his father “dismantled him by devaluing and degrading every aspect of his personality” (Mary Trump). It then became Donald’s turn to try and survive his father’s search for an ‘invulnerable’ son and heir. He had already learnt that leaving the family business would mean leaving the family – and that showing feelings or other signs of ‘weakness’ about that or anything else would be a very dangerous road to go down with his father.
As this powerful combination of generational and attachment trauma combined to entangle him, his choice was bleak: risk exclusion forever if he left like his older brother, or be bullied and threatened if he stayed. There was shame in either choice. So he agreed to the unwritten rule of belonging in his family system: ‘I will stay in the family business, to survive…’ and then perhaps: ‘Dad, it’s us against the world – and the rest of the family.’
Belonging is the deepest human need and we will do anything to meet that need.
Like any of us might, he chose what felt like the safest, perhaps the only option. His other option was to escape and then be systematically destroyed and de-humanised by his father.
He found another way to survive.
“Children are traumatised in the context of relationship. Trauma has a pervasive and long-term influence on their self-concept, on their sense of the world and on their ability to regulate themselves.”