In a recent New York Times op-ed column, David Brooks claimed to discover a “moral vacuum in the House of Trump.” Brooks noted that President Trump’s grandfather operated a bordello during the Alaska Gold Rush; Trump’s success-obsessed father used various accounting measures to collect an extra $15 million in rent (in today’s dollars) from a government housing program; and Trump’s son Donald Jr. “seems to be simply oblivious to the idea that ethical concerns could possibly play a role in everyday life.”
To Brooks, this disturbing narrative suggests that over four generations “the Trump family has built an enveloping culture that is beyond good and evil. The Trumps have an ethic of loyalty to one another. . . . But beyond that there is no attachment to any external moral truth or ethical code. There is just naked capitalism.”
As a former editor of Family Business magazine as well as the author of a book on genealogy, I found this exercise in pop sociology dismaying. Brooks has muddied a legitimate issue — the egregious behavior of several members of the Trump family — by perpetuating a popular but fallacious myth: the notion that whole families can be classified as “good” or “bad.”
Ever since Tolstoy (in Anna Karenina) famously divided the world into happy and unhappy families, conventional wisdom has routinely stamped families as “rich,” “poor,” “good,” “evil,” “effective,” or “dysfunctional.” To be sure, it’s great fun to generalize about the Kennedys, Rockefellers, and Bushes — not to mention seemingly dysfunctional families like the Mondavis and Guccis or seemingly malevolent ones like the Koch brothers.
But do these generalizations make any sense? Some individuals are surely more capable, reliable, creative, and ethical than others. But families are complex, constantly shifting organisms that defy simplistic labels, if only because their survival depends upon replenishing their gene pools through marriages to unpredictable outsiders. Perhaps for that reason, several recent academic studies have concluded there’s often greater personality and income variation within families than between families, and that sibling rivalries and cousin jealousies are the rule rather than the exception, if only because parents, spouses, and children instinctively tend to carve out niches for themselves within the family. Maybe one will be the team leader, another the team player, another the rebel, another the artist, another the hippie, and so on.
Einstein and Eisenhower
To put it another way: If you’re a 40-year-old first-born woman, you’re likely to have more in common with an unrelated 40-year-old first-born woman than with, say, your 35-year-old younger brother.
This perception explains why, for example, Albert Einstein’s parents and siblings were merely ordinary; why a financial titan like J.P. Morgan Sr. produced a son who was an empty suit; and why many a U.S. president had some sibling he wished he could hide in a closet. (No doubt you recall Jimmy Carter’s beer-swilling brother Billy and Bill Clinton’s equally embarrassing half-brother Roger.) It explains why Dwight D. Eisenhower had one brother (Milton) who was a liberal intellectual and another brother (Edgar) who joined the John Birch Society; why William Bulger was a respected politician and university president, while his older brother James “Whitey” Bulger was a murderous crime boss. It explains why Richard Mellon Scaife actively supported conservative causes while his sister Cordelia Scaife May championed liberal causes just as zealously. It also explains why Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt made such good use of their remarkable gene pool even as their own children were overwhelmed by the same legacy.
Hope for Barron and Tiffany?
Memo to David Brooks: Sometimes apples fall close to the tree, and sometimes they roll very far away. Besides, a tree has many branches. When it came to ancestral role models, young Donald Trump had two parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents to choose from. Or he could, like Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Edison, have struck off in an entirely new direction. (Come to think of it, I’m the first journalist in my family.)
Who succeeds within a family? According to Dalton Conley, director of New York University’s Center for Advanced Social Science Research, the answer “turns out to be not all that different from explanations of who succeeds across families: the timing of economic shocks to the household, gender norms, even cultural changes taking place in society.” Next time someone tells you that “the Trumps should act more like the Kennedys,” ask: which Trumps? And which Kennedys? And if Ivanka, Donald Jr., and Eric have fallen ludicrously close to their father’s tree — well, there’s always hope for Tiffany and Barron.