What Trump's Ruthless Family History Means for America

What I learned about the Trumps from making a documentary digging into their notorious past.
21 February 2017, 12:39pm
Photo by Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images

On 17 July 1897, the headline of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer read, "GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!" and announced the return of "sixty-eight rich men on the steamer Portland." These men had struck gold on the Klondike River, a tributary of the Yukon in the far, far north. They weren't Astors or Rockefellers. They were ordinary working people who'd travelled far, suffered greatly, and hit the jackpot. When the news hit Seattle, it was a sensation. That headline launched a gold rush as a generation of dreamers headed north in search of great riches—and a group of savvier dreamers worked to make money off of them.

That rush jump-started the fortunes of the Trump family and set in motion a story reminiscent of The Godfather or a great American novel: Immigrant grit and hustle begets a thriving family business run by a succession of ruthless, cunning, single-minded men. That the last in that line of men is now the president of the United States makes this story a suddenly vital one to understand.

Having just finished working on a documentary about the Trump family—broadcast in the UK on Channel 4—one that tells the story from grandfather Friedrich Trump, Donald's grandfather, to the present day, I've been thinking a lot about that story, and how the Trumps have embodied the American dream and its hard realities.

On that July day in Seattle, Friedrich read the headlines screaming of gold and saw clearly his next move. He'd come to the United States from his native Germany in 1885, just 16 years old, and got a job as a barber, making a living wage in New York for five years. But a living wage was not what the young Trump wanted and so he headed west, winding up in Seattle, then a rough-hewn logging town.

In the end, the gold rush made Friedrich rich. Not because he went after the gold—that was for suckers—but because, in the words of Trump familybiographer Gwenda Blair, he "mined the miners." The prospectors traveling north needed food, drink and companionship. On the Dead Horse Trail, with horses dying in their droves (hence the name) as men toiled onward, Friedrich Trump set up a tent restaurant and sold the horses back to the men in burger form. In Bennett and then Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon, he ran hotels that served food and acted as brothels, with the men paying in gold dust if they needed to. The menus had an air of Trumpian grandeur—goose, moose, and swan were all on the menu, as well as fresh fruit, which was hard to come by.

This ability to thrive on the edge of the law in hard times is something Friedrich's son Fred also had. Life for these two men was red in tooth and claw, a Darwinian struggle to get on and get ahead. The American dream was something you realized by fighting and fighting hard, pushing the limits and testing the boundaries. "Desperation is the land they inherit and inhabit", the late, great reporter Wayne Barrett said of the family, from grandfather to son. "Dark times are times of great opportunity for people of great stealth."

During the Great Depression and then after World War II, when there was a desperate need to house returning servicemen, Fred Trump built a mighty property empire off the back of government funding and government connections. Just as Friedrich wasn't some sucker miner dreaming of finding gold in the river, so his son wasn't some sucker public official clocking in and clocking out in the great age of American governance. "It's a great irony", said Barrett, "that the Trump Empire as it was built in the 1930s was a consequence of great liberal policies. He's the original state capitalist, milking every dollar that he can, all of it through political connections."

Donald Trump took over the family business at the tender age of 25. He had learned at Fred's knee, and although his move across the bridge from Brooklyn and Queens to the old-money world of Manhattan real estate was not one his father would have made, Donald used Fred's money and political connections to do his landmark early deals.

He saw, like his father and grandfather, opportunity amidst the weeds. The Manhattan of the 1970s was not so different from the Wild Wests Friedrich and Fred had taken on—"cities were not considered too hot," as Donald put it in a 1980 interview. While the hip-hop and punk scenes were bursting into life, well-heeled residents were leaving. Trump saw the opportunity to pick up bargains with government help.

"I see the inner cities as being the wave of the future," he said, and so it proved, with artists and working-class residents pushed out by skyrocketing rents. In an unpublished memoir passed to me by an associate, the late real estate developer Ned Eichler wrote that at this time, the young Donald reminded him of a character in a 19th-century French novel who comes from the provinces to conquer Paris. His ambition knew no limits.

Trump took on Manhattan with the help of another ruthless outsider turned ultimate insider, Roy Cohn. The lawyer—whose mentor had been Joe McCarthy, the communist hunter, and who was the attorney for all five of New York's organized crime families—defended the Trumps against a racial discrimination suit brought against them by the Justice Department in 1973.

The Trumps settled after two years of fighting and Cohn stayed on, becoming Donald's mentor. "I would sit at lunch with Roy Cohn and feel as though I were in the presence of Satan," remembered Wayne Barrett, who categorized Cohn as the most important influence in Trump's life, bar his father Fred. "He ate with his hands, he was gay but you couldn't find a more anti-gay person in New York… he had frogs all over his house in Greenwich Village!"

While Donald was on the rise, his older brother Freddy was struggling. Having failed to show an aptitude for the family business, Freddy became an accomplished pilot. But, as his friend Annamaria Forcier told me, "For Fred Senior, and Donald, he was just a glorified bus driver." Forcier spoke with incredible warmth of her lost friend, whose story she said was "beyond tragic" and who she believes struggled a great deal with the pressure he felt from his family.

Alcohol took a hold of Freddy Trump and he died in 1981. Donald, who loved his brother, called him a "terrific personality," a kind, open, and caring man who had been undone by these characteristics, who could not hack it in the New York real estate business, with "some of the great sharks of the world."

Like many Americans, Trump clearly believes in winners and losers, but it's an ethos that runs especially deep with him. Reportedly he believes he can continue, at 70, to not exercise and eat more or less whatever he likes because of his strong genes. He's said that he thinks some people are born to succeed. You are either marked a winner or not. You're either an American or an outsider, either for us or against us. Is it any wonder that that belief has led, in his first month in office, to policies that have been blasted for their cruelty?

At a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, near the end of 2015, Trump told his audience that the American dream was dead. He has told his followers that he will bring it back, but there are some awkward truths he doesn't usually acknowledge. First, many of the jobs his supporters once had won't be coming back , no matter what he does. Second, the American dream of the sort that lifted up the Trump family is based on a kind of social Darwinism. Those prospectors Friedrich Trump sold swan dinners to mostly didn't strike it rich—they ended up broke or dead. The question is, will Donald Trump help those sorts of "losers" as president, or govern for the winners alone?

Follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter.