His uncle’s life story tells us nothing about the president’s knowledge of the coronavirus, but it does show us why he’s failing
President Trump on Wednesday delivers an address to the nation from the Oval Office. (Doug Mills/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
Last night, President Trump said that for “the vast majority of Americans” the coronavirus poses a “very, very low” risk and that if “we are vigilant … the virus will not have a chance against us.” And in the course of a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week, Trump attempted to show his mastery of the coronavirus situation by evoking his uncle, “a great super genius, Dr. John Trump. I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. … Maybe I have a natural ability.”
It’s not the first time Dr. Trump has come up. The president says he “used to discuss nuclear” with his uncle “all the time,” and in a rambling 2016 campaign speech, he referenced, “Dr. John Trump at MIT, good genes, okay, very smart.”
First, a basic fact check: Yes, Dr. John Trump was the president’s uncle, and he did teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for more than 40 years. There is no evidence, however, that he taught his nephew anything about “nuclear,” and it seems unlikely we will ever confirm the precise nature or frequency of their interactions, if indeed there were any.
But since Dr. Trump keeps coming up, and President Trump keeps making toxic suggestions based on his own personal interpretations of science — ranging from the notion that we should attack hurricanes with nuclear weapons to the more immediately pressing suggestion that it is perfectly fine for people who have the coronavirus to go to work — it is worth delving into the life of his uncle to unearth some lessons the president could sorely use.
John Trump earned degrees from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, Columbia University and MIT, where he eventually became a professor.
Trump’s research was impactful in three areas.
First, he was a pioneer in the study of using electron beams for food preservation. This was obviously of value to the military and agribusiness, but it also would benefit those without electrical refrigeration or ready access to local food. Second, Trump worked on the irradiation of sludge and sewage, which addressed the public health issue of removing pathogens from waste. Third, Trump was a maverick in cancer treatment, developing targeted radiation so that tumors could be precisely attacked, reducing damage to surrounding tissues. While all these innovations were profitable, there was also clearly a humanitarian impulse behind much of Trump’s work.
During World War II, Trump worked at the British branch of MIT’s Radiation Laboratory, and after the war he served as a consultant at Los Alamos, where it seems quite likely that he worked on constructing Van de Graaff generators, the machines that accelerate particles for atomic research. Other elements of his research also may have had military applications — as was true for so many MIT professors during the Cold War.
Archival papers inevitably offer only a partial picture of an individual’s private or professional life, and John Trump’s records, housed at MIT, are often impersonal. There are no intimate diaries or tell-all moments.
Regarding his politics, our only clue is that the sister of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter was a friend of the family, and she sent John Trump a copy of Frankfurter’s talks, produced as a tribute upon his passing in 1965. In his thank you letter, Trump refers to “the interesting and warm personality and other unusual qualities which your distinguished brother possessed,” offering friendly but vague words of praise for a Supreme Court justice renowned as a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet, it’s not at all clear whether Trump approved of Frankfurter’s politics or judicial record (which was far from liberal), as the impression conveyed in his letter is above all one of affable neutrality.
Trump’s 1985 obituary in Physics Today described him as “remarkably even-tempered, with kindness and consideration to all, never threatening or arrogant in manner, even when under high stress. He was … the mildest of men, with a convincing persuasiveness, carefully marshaling all his facts … he cared very little for money and the trappings of money.”
Obituaries often glorify people regardless of their actual character, but Trump’s papers do reveal a charitable and considerate man. For example, over the years Trump sent letters to doctors requesting reduced rates to help cancer patients. In one case in 1963, the reduction was not enough, and John Trump offered to pay expenses for a “fine old lady” of his acquaintance. In 1951, a grateful patient in recovery in New Hampshire sent Trump fresh maple syrup as a thank you gift.
The professor made frequent donations to Mount Holyoke, a women’s college his daughter attended. And in 1965, when a family friend sent him a report on her 14-year-old daughter’s prizewinning science project, he replied with generous praise, and a note that he had shared the young girl’s work with a colleague — a particularly egalitarian response given how severely women were underrepresented at MIT at the time. (The Class of 1964 graduated 25 women and 874 men.) Furthermore, he contributed to hospitals over the years and raised funds for Brooklyn Polytechnic, his alma mater, which gave him a public service award in 1963.
Among the haystack of polite correspondence, there is one little needle that perhaps reveals John Trump’s character most clearly. In 1947, he ran into an old acquaintance at a convention. The very next day, the man wrote a letter, exclaiming, “I was so glad to see you. It has been over six, almost seven years that we did not see each other. I frankly did not know how you will greet me, for with the rest of the MIT professors I am in such tense heavy clouded terms that meeting with them is unpleasant. … This is why, in contrast, your sincere and friendly handshake seemed to me to be so warm, and was so welcome.”
This former MIT employee was living in New York, working at a reputable firm under his mother’s maiden name, under which he also continued to publish technical papers. Was he ejected by the institute for being an embezzler, a communist, a gay man? Each of these offenses would carry a different valence in Cold War America, and each was the kind of thing that a prestigious institution might well sweep under the rug, quietly dismissing the offender without making a public scene.
Eight months later, the exile needed one final signature to support his application for a professional engineering license in New York. He wrote to Trump asking whether he would vouch for him, adding that the two had first met in 1931. That he had to remind Trump of this date pointed to the fact that they were not close friends. And yet within two days, Trump signed the support form, assuring his former colleague that he was entitled to the license and would no doubt receive it. It was a gracious gesture of support. A handshake and a signature are not really so much, unless they are everything.
There is very little in John Trump’s papers relating to his nephew Donald. In 1955, he set up trust funds for two of his nephews, both the children of his sister Elizabeth — but not for brother Fred’s children, including Donald. John Trump made this choice despite the fact that both of his sibling’s children seemed reasonably well off — Elizabeth was married to a vice president of the Manufacturers Trust Company in New York, a presumably comfortable position. Fred had been investigated a year earlier for profiteering from government contracts but was still well on his way to building his real estate fortune. We also know from Fred’s New York Times obituary that John briefly worked with him but quit because he didn’t like Fred’s system of selling houses before they were built. Were John’s trust fund choices a judgment about Fred’s side of the family? We cannot know.
But one thing is abundantly clear: John Trump had the strength of character that his nephew Donald lacks. The kindness and compassion that shine through in John Trump’s records, not to mention his philanthropic nature, are precisely what the president lacks today.
This is not the sort of man who would take a global pandemic as a personal affront — a “liberal media hoax”— rather than directing his energy and resources toward care and prevention. In his televised address on Wednesday, the president seemed to finally take the virus seriously, yet he also framed the U.S. response in xenophobic terms and did not realistically convey the immensity of the building public health crisis. The notion that “good genes” have made the president a natural expert in epidemiology is obviously dangerous nonsense. Rather than simply bragging about his inherited “natural ability,” Donald Trump should serve the nation by bringing his uncle’s values to the presidency.