just asking questions

Exploring the Secret History of Trump’s Women

Donald Trump, Mary Anne Trump, and Ivana Trump in 1985. Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage

Outside Donald Trump’s castle, the country becomes more tolerant of women in public roles. But Trump and his “Queens,” as Nina Burleigh calls them in her new book, Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women, are a link to a different era. His wives — and even to an extent the other women in his family — have made a deal to accept what Burleigh calls “long-term enslavement” in exchange for wealth and fame.

We know tabloid tidbits about Trump’s women, but Newsweek reporter Burleigh puts the pieces together in some surprising ways. The most nativist president in recent history has some of his most intimate relationships with women consumed by their immigrant roots, from his grandmother, to his mother, to his current wife. Trump in many ways treats women as inconsequential props, yet he deeply fears them, almost as if they were witches who, with their mysterious bodily functions, could steal away his mojo. It’s all so old–fashioned, yet part of his appeal undoubtedly comes from nostalgia for what his style of marriage represents. Herewith, what the six most important women in Trump’s life — his mother, grandmother, oldest daughter, and three wives — tell us about him and maybe ourselves.

Hanna Rosin: Here’s the thing I couldn’t figure out from your book — does Trump like women?
Nina Burleigh: In his own way. Or at least he likes to feel they like him, because it’s all about his ego and being flattered. But I don’t think he’s a woman hater.

In my head, I make a distinction between him and Bill Clinton. They’re both philanderers, but it feels like Clinton really likes women.
They’re cut from the same generational cloth, both ’60s guys in the Hugh Hefner mode. They think harems of women should be available to them.

I still get the sense from your book that a lot of Trump’s relationships seem devoid of romance, almost joyless.
I’d say they’re very transactional. Although he may have really loved Ivana. Someone described a scene to me of them kissing on a bridge and him looking besotted. But again, what’s love to him? It’s maybe not what we think of as love.

That’s a good transition to his childhood. Trump often talks about his father, Fred, but you write about his mother and grandmother as the most influential forces. 
Yes. His grandmother was this stern, probably cold woman who came from a tiny village in Germany. Then suddenly her husband dies, leaving her with three young children and a small nest egg. To survive, she transformed it into the Trump Organization in the 1920s.

So she’s the original Trump!
But she’s been written out of history. They tell it now as if Fred started the whole organization at age 16.

And Donald’s mother, Mary Anne — I had no idea she was a domestic! 
A domestic in one of the wealthiest homes in America. I couldn’t believe it when I looked her up in Census records. Her first address was in the Carnegie household, the closest thing to a castle that existed in the U.S. in that time. So she’s 19, coming from a place in Scotland where ten kids are crammed into a two-bedroom cottage. Then she’s polishing banisters or silver and watching this woman [Louise Carnegie] with the airs of a queen being chauffeured around with footmen. It marked Trump’s mother for life. She admired that wealth and wanted to be part of it, and Donald inherited that from her.

So it gave him an appetite for royal trappings. Do you think it also gave him a sense of always being an outsider?
It’s two sides of the same thing. The entire country is now living in this man’s conflict between a desire to be royalty and a profound feeling that he doesn’t belong.

People who feel left out can probably smell that insecurity on him and identify with it.

What about his father’s nostalgia for the German homeland and the sense of being persecuted as Germans. How much should we read into that, about Aryan tendencies?
Trump picked up from his family the idea that German blood is cleaner — he’s said stuff like when Germans have parades nobody has to clean up after them. German superiority is certainly a part of his sense of self.

Can you talk about the great Freudian moment of his young life?
When he was 2, his mother went to the hospital to give birth to his little brother, Robert, and didn’t come home for many months because she contracted peritonitis and had to go through numerous surgeries. And so he was alone, bereft of a primary caretaker. And his father is not warm and fuzzy. He’d tell the older kids, “Your mother may die today, but you need to go to school.” At 2 is when you’re making primary connections, learning about love and being loved — and his mother was gone. 

Coupled with that, I think, he had a learning disability, a reading problem, and probably ADHD, undiagnosed. Except in those days the rambunctious boys were regarded as the healthy ones; the readers were the sissies and neurotics. So Donald wasn’t regarded as having a problem. His aggressiveness was praised.

You have this phrase in there that stuck with me, which is that he thought of “women as consumables.”
In that they’re creatures to be taken for pleasure and then discarded. A source told me about New York parties where older men would hang out with aspiring models, most under 20, sent over by party organizers or agents. What he meant by “consumables” was that they were there to be ogled, and, if possible, taken back to hotel rooms or apartments, as sexual snacks.

And where did Trump get that idea about women from?
His dad had a mistress all of his life — he was known as the “King of Miami.” He’d go down there and have all these girls. Again, like Hefner.  

But there’s this other strain where Trump talks about women as “killers.” It’s an acknowledgment of the power of women or some force they have.
I think that comes from his grandmother, who was an intimidating woman. And it also goes back to the primal, female taboo thing the family had going on. You know his dad would not allow the word pregnant to be used in the home. The idea of women as unclean and also as witches. Watch out, they might take away your power!

What do you mean by “golden handcuffs”?
My original interest in this subject stems from wondering what kinds of women would want to be with a man like Trump. Most women I know find it close to impossible to imagine why Melania, this gorgeous woman who could have any guy — hot guys! Fun guys! — would choose this oaf. So why’d she do it? And what does it say about women’s place in 2018? Because it’s so archaic.

And did doing this book help you understand that decision?
A lot of women make these choices because they don’t see other ways to get power, and Trump’s administration isn’t making that any better.

But isn’t there something patronizing about what you’re saying? Someone like Melania may just have a different understanding of how power works. And, in fact, she’s gotten a lot of power and fame for herself.
But at what cost? I mean, the humiliation of being married to somebody who sleeps with porn stars right after you have a child. Or who’s accused by 19 women of gross acts. And of having to accept the pity of millions of people. Is that worth what you call power, just to have the ability to pick up the phone and have a stylist come to dress you?

But do you believe Melania and Ivana would wield more power if neither had married Trump?
No, but I think Melania has no interest in wielding power. She’s interested in financial security.

But what were her choices before? You flirt around the Melania escort question. The material you cite about the sexualization of women in Russia is amazing.
Russian and Eastern European women were sexualized the second that the Berlin Wall fell. The people of the former Soviet Union were looking across the wall at ads with scantily clad women selling cars and clothes. They equated capitalism with buying sex — that’s Melania’s generation.

And there was a thin line between the pageant and modeling world and being an escort. But if you’re asking specifically about whether Melania was an escort? All I can say is that I don’t know what her career was like between Slovenia and showing up in New York. When the Daily Mail was sued for looking into that, that avenue of questioning was closed down.

Well, clearly it was her sex appeal and beauty that got her into Trump’s castle. And that’s been a traditional source of power for women. Would you rather a world where that just wasn’t a tool women could use?
There are many examples of worlds where it wasn’t. In the former Soviet Union, women were expected to be educated and working. You don’t want a world where just because a woman is attractive, it’s assumed that being a model is her best route to success.

You talked about his Pygmalion relationship with his wives, but it seemed more alive with his daughter, Ivanka. She was actually interested in sitting at his knee and learning and never strayed.
She’s his greatest creation in his mind — and she’s him in a more palatable form. She’s the future of the brand, and I’m convinced that she really does think she can run for office someday.

Do you think she’ll succeed?
I don’t know — who thought that her father could win? Right now, it feels like anything is possible.

Exploring the Secret History of Trump’s Women