Donald Trump's Maternal Psychohistory
This page is about Donald Trump's maternal line and the cultural backdrop to his mother's emigration to New York in 1930. During the 1820s, two sides of the president's family were cleared (forcibly evicted) from their ancestral lands on the Isle of Lewis. This was during what were called the Highland Clearances. His mother grew up in hard times for the island, and a great many of her generation - especially the young men - emigrated if they had survived the First World War.
In Poacher's Pilgrimage: an Island Journey, I touched on Donald Trump but did not develop the theme as few people then thought that he would win the presidency. Now, through the Foreword the the American edition of the book (Cascade - and imprint of Wipf & Stock, 2018), the leading American speaker and writer, Brian D. McLaren, has integrated my research on Trump into the story. What follows here are links and visual material that illustrate the points that Brian makes.
Genealogy, pictures and maps of area from which Trump's maternal forbears were cleared in the 1820s
Cascade Books, Oregon, 2018
This is the pre-publication unedited text. If quoting, the edited version can be verified from the Cascade edition, pp. xvii - xxii, or from 'Look Inside' on the Cascade web page.
Poacher’s Pilgrimage has been, simply put, the most delightful read of the year for me. The writing is a joy and the experience of reading is the next best thing to donning a backpack and venturing out into fog, hail, mist, rainbows, and sunshine. And like any good journey, there are surprises along the way - gifts for the soul as well as the imagination.
But Alastair McIntosh’s account of a twelve day trek across the mountains, moors and treacherous bogs of his home island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland is far more than just a beautifully-crafted travelogue. Here is an urgent book for North Americans to read, especially in these times. Why, you might ask?
Consider this: Mary Anne Macleod, the mother of Donald John Trump, was from a village eight miles north from where Alastair grew up. This President of the United States, it turns out, was a child of the lands you will encounter in these pages. When Alastair made his pilgrimage through the isle that is called Lewis in the north and Harris in the south, he couldn’t have known that one of its native sons (already infamous in Scotland for building a golf course that impinged on a pristine natural area) would soon run for and win the American presidency.
In October 2016, while on a European speaking tour to promote The Great Spiritual Migration, I met up with Alastair in Glasgow. We spent a morning at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. There we viewed Salvador Dali’s painting, Christ of Saint John of the Cross. I will never forget that morning, just bathing in the gentle light of Dali’s cosmic Christ, so transcendent and yet so human - the very antithesis of the political carnival taking place back in my homeland.
Poacher’s Pilgrimage makes only a couple of mentions in passing of Trump, along with a detailed endnote to chapter sixteen. This is not a book about him. Rather, one of its key themes focuses on conservative politicians who prefigured him, especially the two presidents Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and the role of Billy Graham. However, those insights translate with radical effectiveness onto Donald Trump. Even more to the point, they shed light on the religious psychology of his electoral base. A quarter of the American electorate identify as evangelical or born-again Christians. These voted 81% for this second-generation immigrant son of the Isle of Lewis.
Alastair sets out on his island pilgrimage, complete as is a local custom with a fishing rod as if to do a bit of ‘poaching’ on the island’s salmon rivers. A Quaker, but versed in the island’s Presbyterian traditions, he had just returned from Geneva where he had addressed NATO diplomats and senior military. For over twenty years now he has lectured at military academies across Europe – on nonviolence. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were ongoing at the time. Libya, with its flood of refugees into Europe, had not yet happened. Alastair with over forty pounds of gear on his back set out to walk into the lonely heart of his familiar island. His mind was afire with the wretchedness of war and burning with a yearning to understand its psychological and spiritual roots. At the same time, he seemed to be seeking solace from the soil, the grass, the wind, the rain, and the symbolic wisdom of the salmon.
On one page, we may encounter in Alastair’s crisp prose the enchanting visible sights of the landscape he traverses: the welcoming inns, the mercurial weather, the holy wells, the ruins of tiny ‘temples’ or churches that can date back to Celtic times, the domed stone ‘beehive’ dwellings know as Druid’s houses that transport us to the Bronze Age, and the island’s haunting stone circles.
Turn the page, and the reader finds Alastair recalling a recent visit to a military institution, late at night in the officers’ mess, talking with soldiers about the effects on a human soul of having killed another human.
Sometimes the beauty and the violence are intertwined. As Alastair trudges through beautiful glens, stark and empty, and as he skirts the ruins of bygone settlements, he describes how these places were cruelly emptied of their native populations through a series of events called the Highland Clearances during the 19th century. The masters of the British Empire had either dispossessed the old clan chiefs, or turned them into rapacious landlords who favored sheep over people. The land was rendered a commodity, valued only for the profits it could return. The tenants were made outlanders - perhaps dispatched to fight imperial wars, or into intergenerational urban poverty - or onto emigrant ships that were bound for North America.
As you grasp this history, a more contemporary real estate mogul will come to mind, and you may feel resonances that are, at once, both fascinating and deeply disturbing.
Alastair tells me that after getting in touch with Bill Lawson, the islands’ expert on genealogy, he established some facts of Donald Trump’s lineage. Both sides of the president’s island grandmother’s families had been evicted from their homelands in the clearances of the 1820s. The MacAulays, from Kirkibost on Bernera off the south-east coast of Lewis. The Smiths, from Buanish (Budhanais, Gaelic) in the remote south-west. From there, Trump’s forebear, Malcolm Smith (1760 – c. 1845), nicknamed ‘Calum Taillear’ or Calum the Tailor, was removed in 1826 to the village of Tong that lies twenty miles across sea lochs and rugged territory to the north. It was here that Mary Anne was born. Meanwhile, back at Buanish, the ruins of their homesteads and the abandoned runs of their raised bed agriculture can still be seen to this day. Strikingly so, when viewed on Google Earth, as Alastair shows in a specially created web page, https://goo.gl/zzCMB8.
An added factor in Mary Anne Macleod’s background, is that the First World War had hit the island disproportionately hard. Not only did it leave an acute shortage of young men in her marriageable age group, but in the 1920s many of the surviving young men wagered their chances on emigration. It was an era when widowhood or spinsterhood were commonly a woman’s lot. However, Mary Anne had other ambitions. On the day after her eighteenth birthday, she arrived by ship in New York as near-penniless economic immigrant, and took up work as a domestic servant. She was, as they’d say on the island, ‘a bonnie lass’, and for one whose forbears had been evicted by the evils of landlordism, it was an irony of ironies that she should meet and marry an immigrant property developer from Germany, Frederick Christ Trump.
The Donald was raised perhaps with certain gifts from his island heritage, including his oratory and famously prolonged handshakes, but without the social checks and balances by which a traditional community raises a child.
As Alastair explores the psychohistory of landed power and land reform during the course of his walk, he explains how the oppressed so readily become oppressor: you either join them or get beaten by them. But how, then, do you live with yourself? How do you justify a presumption of supremacy over those you now oppress?
Here is where this book’s theological literacy aids interpretation. Mary Anne Macleod was baptised and raised in the Calvinism of the Free Church of Scotland. Ironically, that church’s roots in Lewis are in the hard line evangelicalism introduced by the clearance landlords of the 1820s, yet it was founded in reaction to their landed patronage. Trump credits his mother with his religious sensibilities. Back home, within its context of tightly knit communities, such religion can provide a deep and wondrous spiritual path. As Calvin put it, humankind is ‘knit together with a holy knot,’ and this can foster strong communities. But history also provides many examples of the ways in which Calvin’s theology of double predestination can project out a harshly binary worldview, a cosmic soul-sort or apartheid, that divides the mass of humankind into the Elect on the one hand, and the Damned on the other.
Poacher’s Pilgrimage argues that such theology has played out across the generations of American conservative political narratives, creating a strong cohesion for the in-group while projecting a callous dismissal of the out-group. In this binary geopolitics, you’re either with us or against us, a good state or a bad state. You’re either, as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush termed it, an ‘evil empire’ on ‘the axis of evil’, or you’re the chosen people in a ‘city on a hill.’
In a recent TEDx talk, Alastair surmised: ‘The wall with Mexico is a wall that cuts across the mind of Donald Trump.’ He added that it also cuts across the minds of his American evangelical constituency whose family psychohistories might often have echoed that of Mary Anne. In these pages, you’ll sense how Trump’s background perhaps intuitively helped him to exploit that divide, weaponizing an age-old theological controversy, lending the succor and impetus of divine legitimation to a politics of ‘divide and rule.’
To Alastair (and to me as well), many of our most important political problems have theological roots, and each step of his journey seems to lead him deeper into theological reflection. Notably, he challenges Calvin’s penal substitution notion of the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion. We have been fed, he says, a violent theology of violent men of violent times. Our burning task today must be to disarm such theologies, and decolonize the soul. That brings us back, as little children, to the gospels and the first apostles. Back to these, seen in a fresh, nonviolent light.
If this sounds heavy duty for a lovely walk, fear not. Alastair’s theology flows seamlessly through his acclaimed nature writing, his love of his own people and their history, and his frequent unexpected bursts of humor. That includes exploring ‘faerie’ legends of the landscape as a ‘metaphor for the imagination’ – a depth of imagination that, he shows from early Celtic texts, leads us into nothing less than God’s imagination of the creation. This deep imagination, you will feel, just might have the necessary magic to heal the psychic wounds of war, not to mention the ordinary background trauma that we take for granted but which numbs our sensibilities from day to day.
So this book leads readers both on a physical journey through a very earthy landscape, and on a spiritual journey into deep recesses of the soul and spirit. Just as pilgrims often undertake a pilgrimage in a quest for healing, Alastair’s pilgrimage invites us to face our own individual and societal scars and trauma, rekindling our inner life, reintegrating our inner and the outer imaginations, re-sensitizing our individual and social souls that have been so battered, savaged, and calloused by violence. In one pivotal scene, Alastair leads us to a kind of inner pinnacle, from which we see Christ’s crucifixion not as the outpouring of a violent God’s wrath on an innocent victim, but as Christ’s utter absorption of the violence of the world. As I read, I felt that I had been led to holy ground.
I am a better human being for having joined Alastair on this pilgrimage. And on a more mundane political level, I am better prepared to understand such figures as Mary Anne Macleod’s unavoidable son, a prodigal son, if you will, who has yet to come to himself and find his way home.
I learned recently that Alastair wrote a poem while writing this book, part of the closing stanza of which I include here, with his permission -
O Donald Trump, Woe Donald Trump:
Come home, Donald …
Come home in your mind!
Come home to gentle honest folks!
Come home to nature’s guileless way!
Come home, Donald …
just come on home
Brian D. McLaren
Author, speaker, activist
Marco Island, Florida