Trump the ‘Bully’: How Childhood & Military School Shaped the Future President

September 22, 2020

From a very young age, Donald Trump was taught there were only two kinds of people in this world: winners — or “killers” — and losers.

It was a lesson imparted by his father, Fred, a stern and demanding real estate developer. Donald was determined to end up a “killer.”

“I strongly suspect that he had a relationship with his father that accounts for a lot of what he became,” Tony Schwartz, who co-authored The Art of the Deal with Trump, tells FRONTLINE. “And his father was a very brutal guy. He was a tough, hard-driving guy who had very, very little emotional intelligence, to use today’s terms.”

Fred Trump decided to send Donald at age 13 to military school, where the lessons in how to dominate would reach another level.

“He talks about it as almost this, you know, rite of passage,” says Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien, author of TrumpNation. “He said to me that when he arrived at the military academy, for the first time in his life, someone slapped him in the face when he got out of line.”

In the above clip from FRONTLINE’s The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden, a documentary that premiered Sept. 22 and is now streaming online, sources describe Trump’s time in military school as a five-year lesson in bullying.

“Donald Trump yelled at his classmates,” says Trump biographer Marc Fisher, co-author of Trump Revealed. “He pushed them around. … He ruled dormitory life with an iron fist.”

“All of us were part of this culture of you beat on kids when they didn’t do the right thing,” says Trump’s former military school classmate Sandy McIntosh.

Echoes another classmate, Harry Falber: “You got hit. You may have gotten slammed against the wall.”

Trump would emerge from military school with a blueprint for leadership by force and ridicule.

“He loved it,” says Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps. “He loved all that stuff, because it was also really competitive. Other kids didn’t like him all that much. He wasn’t that popular because he was so competitive. … But it was an environment that he thrived in.”

It was also a climate amenable to the lessons of Fred Trump: “Donald’s father’s overall message to his children was, and it was a very different message to the boys than to the girls … was compete, win, be a killer,” Blair says. “Do what you have to do to win.”

Donald Trump’s relationship with his mother, Mary, was formative in a different way. She had become seriously ill for a time when Trump was two-and-a-half years old.

“Donald, who was at a very, very critical point in his development as a child, was essentially abandoned by her,” Mary Trump, Trump’s niece, a psychologist and the author of Too Much and Never Enough, tells FRONTLINE.

“When you ask him about how she showed her love, he has nothing to say,” Marc Fisher says.

That left more room for Fred Trump’s lasting influence on his son.

“The only way you would get an acknowledgement out of Donald that he may have not done it right,” says Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s personal lawyers: “He would say, ‘I think my dad would have done that differently.’”

Since 1988, FRONTLINE’s election-year series The Choice has brought viewers in-depth, interwoven biographies of the two major-party U.S. presidential candidates. This year’s installment, The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden, examines how both men have responded to crises throughout their lives. The documentary premiered Tues., Sept. 22 on PBS and is now streaming online:

In tandem with the premiere, FRONTLINE is publishing the transcripts of 47 original interviews conducted by filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team, as well as 13 interviews from their archive, as part of the ongoing Transparency Project. You can also listen to extended audio interviews with six sources, plus Kirk, on the FRONTLINE Dispatch podcast.

This story was updated to include embeds and links to the full documentary once it became available, as well as links to extended interviews.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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