‘If only Donald Trump wasn’t such a nasty piece of work…” There are plenty in the Republican Party harbouring that sentiment at present, but for different reasons it also has resonance on the Isle of Lewis.
There has hitherto been nobody one step away from the title “most powerful man in the world” with such a direct Scottish, far less Hebridean, lineage. In other circumstances, it could be a source of community pride. Plans for a Trump Trail might already be in the making.
According to the Irish precedent, US presidential candidates with even the most tenuous connections to the old country milk them for all they are worth, while the place in which roots are claimed is only too willing to reciprocate. None of this translates into the case of Trump and Lewis – because Trump is what he is.
Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric would seem weirdly at odds with his own background, on any grounds other than race. He is the product of a second generation immigrant from Germany (though his father pretended for many years to be of Swedish origin) and a first generation immigrant from Lewis.
In the grim economic times of the 1920s, Mary Anne MacLeod, Trump’s mother, followed two older sisters to New York from the crofting village of Tong. She first made the crossing in 1928 at the age of 16 on the Transylvania, found work with a wealthy family as a nanny but lost her job when Wall Street crashed the following year.
Lewis in the 1920s had suffered not only the losses of war but also the incomprehensible trauma of the MV Iolaire when more than 200 homecoming men were lost while approaching Stornoway, just before the dawn of 1919. In the midst of poverty and gloom, emigration was the alternative option, actively encouraged by agents from North America and Australia. In a single 12-month period of 1923-24, 800 young men and women left Lewis alone.
This was the atmosphere that Mary grew up in as her siblings departed, one after the other. Light has been thrown on her own early travels through a diary and photographs kept by an old pen pal, Agnes Stiven, from Dundee. It has been suggested that Mary went first to New York “on holiday”, but nobody did that in these days – they went for work and work alone.
Agnes met Mary when she was on her way to New York for the first time and maintained contact until 1934 when she saw her off at Clydebank, when Mary sailed aboard the Cameronia. It would be 61 years before they met again.
Somewhere in these early years, Mary met Fred Trump at a dance. He was six foot tall with the looks, according to the New York Times obituary, of a “silent-movie star” and the reputation of being “New York’s most eligible bachelor”. Agnes’s pictures show Mary’s rapid transition from teenage island girl to poised young American woman, who had merged into moneyed New York circles.
On the 1934 visit, she bought a present for her boyfriend Fred and two years later they married. The Stornoway Gazette, which keenly followed the fortunes of those who had left for foreign parts, reported the occasion under the heading: “Tong Girl Weds Abroad”. The setting was Madison Avenue Church and the reception was at the Carlisle Hotel. One of Mary’s sisters – by then “Mrs Victor Pauley of Manhattan” – was the matron of honour.
Gazette readers in these hard times would have been impressed by the sartorial details. Mary’s “peach moiré frock was fashioned with short puffed sleeves banded in matching velvet, a velvet sash, a tight bodice and a full skirt”. The report noted that “when the couple return from a Southern trip, they will live in Jamaica [Estates]”.
In other hands, it would be a classic success story of an upwardly-mobile immigrant in classless US society. However, it is one in which Donald Trump has consistently shown remarkably little evidence of interest. I first wrote about this in 1988 after buying his ghosted autobiography Trump – The Art Of The Deal in New York. For many months, it rode high in the US best-sellers, long before “America’s most glamorous young tycoon” became either a reality TV star or a politician.
There was no reference whatsoever to his mother’s origins although he did recall: “We had a very traditional family. My father was the power and the breadwinner, and my mother was the perfect housewife. That didn’t mean she sat around playing bridge and talking on the phone. There were five children in all and as well as taking care of us, she cooked and cleaned and darned socks and did charity work at the local hospital”.
The only other cameo involving Mary recalled her “sitting in front of the television set to watch Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and not budging for an entire day… I also remember my father that day, pacing around impatiently. ‘For Christ’s sake, Mary’, he’d say, ‘Enough is enough, turn it off. They’re all a bunch of con artists.’ My mother didn’t even look up. They were total opposites in that sense. My mother loves splendor and magnificence while my father, who is very down-to-earth, gets excited only by competence and efficiency”.
According to Art Of The Deal, Trump’s grandfather “came here from Sweden as a child”. When Fred Trump died in 1999, the New York Times obituary clarified the story: “His father was a barber who arrived from Kallstadt, Germany, in 1885, and joined the Alaska Gold Rush… From World War II until the 1980s, Mr Trump would tell friends and acquaintances that he was of Swedish origin. John Walter, his nephew and the family historian, explained: ‘He had a lot of Jewish tenants and it wasn’t a good thing to be German in these days.’”
Though Fred Trump’s career was frequently controversial, notably over alleged profiteering on public sector contracts and the methods he used to get rid of inconvenient tenants, the New York Times was generous in recognising that he “helped change the face of Brooklyn and Queens with thousands of homes for the middle class in plain but sturdy brick rental towers, clustered together in immaculately groomed parks”.
It is difficult to imagine a more different environment from the one Mary Anne MacLeod had left behind in Tong. It generated wealth on a grand scale – when Fred Trump died, his fortune was put at around $300 million. He and Mary had become noted philanthropists, mainly in support of medical causes.
However, it was Fred Trump’s reputational misfortune to have had as a tenant the greatest American balladeer of the 20th century, Woody Guthrie, among thousands of ex-GIs who moved into Trump-built properties in the post-war years. Guthrie became a resident of a complex named Beach Haven in Brooklyn which later became the subject of a Senate inquiry into profiteering on a public contract.
It was not the fiscal aspects of the development which upset Guthrie but the racial ones. In short, Beach Haven was run as a white preserve, prompting Guthrie to write: “I suppose Old Man Trump knows / just how much racial hatred he stirred up / In the bloodpot of human hearts / when he drawed that color line / here at his Eighteen Hundred family project”.
As Donald John Trump so aptly put it at the start of his campaign: “My legacy has its roots in my father’s legacy.” He might have added: “For good or ill”.
Trump recalled having visited Lewis once as a child but did not return until 2008. As his celebrity status grew on the other side of the Atlantic, occasional attempts were made to contact him from the island on the off-chance that he might be interested in supporting some worthy cause or other. They all met with the same silence.
His visit, when it eventually happened, bordered on farce due both to its brevity and rampant opportunism. By this time, Trump was engaged in his notably successful bid to trample all opposition and build a golf course on a Site of Special Scientific Interest on the Menie Estate. He stopped over at Stornoway en route to the public inquiry in Aberdeen.
Trump spent less than three hours of media circus in Lewis including 97 seconds in his mother’s birthplace. He then told a press conference in Stornoway: “I think this land is special and I think Scotland is special and I wanted to do something special for my mother.” This ambition certainly did not extend to doing anything for her native island.
The naïve harboured hopes that he might be interested in funding the redevelopment of Lews Castle. Trump promised to consider it; then weeks and months passed and that was the last that was heard. (The building has since been restored to a high standard as an hotel and museum, mercifully without the name Trump attached to it.)
His mother continued to visit the family in Lewis until shortly before her death in 2000 – as one acquaintance recalled, “holding forth in the croft house kitchen as if she had never left”. Trump’s elder sister, Maryanne – a judge in the US Appeals Court – usually accompanied her mother and has maintained a genuine interest in the place, donating generously to the Bethesda hospice in Stornoway.
It is attractive to think that if Donald John Trump had been more influenced by his mother and less by his powerful father, his trajectory in life would have been a little different – with all sorts of subsequent ramifications.
Perhaps there is hope yet and that, when it is all over in November, he will have plenty time to visit for more than three hours and to learn a little more about the forces which, throughout history, have driven poor emigrants in search of a better life.