On October 7, 1885, Friedrich Trump, a 16-year-old German barber, bought a one-way ticket for America, escaping three years of compulsory German military service. He had been a sickly child, unsuited to hard labor, and feared the effects of the draft. It might have been illegal, but America didn’t care about this law-breaking—at that time, Germans were seen as highly desirable migrants—and Trump was welcomed with open arms. Less than two weeks later, he arrived in New York, where he would eventually make a small fortune. More than a century later, his grandson, Donald Trump, became the 45th president of Friedrich’s adopted home.
But for decades, Trump denied this German heritage altogether, instead claiming that his grandfather’s roots lay further north, in Scandinavia. “[He] came here from Sweden as a child,” Trump asserted in his co-written book The Art of the Deal. In fact, his cousin and family historian John Walter told The New York Times, Trump maintained the ruse at the request of his own realtor father, Fred Trump, who had obfuscated his German ancestry to avoid upsetting Jewish friends and clients. “After the war,” Walter told the Times, “he’s still Swedish. [The lie] was just going, going, going.”
Trump is the son, and grandson, of immigrants: German on his father’s side, and Scottish on his mother’s. None of his grandparents, and only one of his parents, was born in the United States or spoke English as their mother tongue. (His mother’s parents, from the remote Scottish Outer Hebrides, lived in a majority Gaelic-speaking community.)
Friedrich Trump came to the United States amid a flood of Germans—that year alone, an estimated 1 million made the journey to settle in America. It was, the Times reported, “the start of an adventurous life as a barber, restaurateur, saloonkeeper, hotelier, entrepreneur, gold rush prospector, shipwreck survivor and New York real-estate investor.”
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He married a woman from his German hometown, Kallstadt, where his parents had owned vineyards, and attempted to return home with his fortune. But when his draft dodging came to the fore, the couple lost their Bavarian citizenship and were obliged to return to America for good. There, they had three children: Trump’s father, Fred, was the middle child. Born in the Bronx borough of New York City in 1905, Fred Trump was an all-American child who spoke no German. Later, he would become one of the city’s most successful young businessmen, amassing a fortune even as many around him slumped into financial ruin.
In the mid-1930s, a young Fred Trump went to a party “dressed in a fine suit and sporting his trademark moustache.” Two Scottish sisters were at that same party in Queens: The younger one, Mary Anne MacLeod, was a domestic worker considering a return to her island homeland. “Something clicked between the maid and the mogul,” write Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher in their biography Trump Revealed. When Trump returned that night to the home he shared with his mother, the authors continued, he made an announcement: He had met the woman he planned to marry.
MacLeod might have been living in poverty in the United States, but her origins were even less palatable. She was the child of a fisherman and subsistence farmer, and the last in a family of 10 children born in the village of Tong on the Scottish Isle of Lewis. “It was not an easy existence,” reports Politico. This vast Gaelic-speaking family lived together in a modest gray pebble-dash house, “surrounded by a landscape of properties local historians and genealogists characterized with terms like ‘human wretchedness’ and ‘indescribably filthy.’”
Married to Fred Trump, MacLeod lived a radically different life of fur -coats and 50-foot yachts. In 1942, she became an American citizen and returned only occasionally to her native Scotland, where her son now owns multiple properties. While Friedrich Trump had had moderate success in real estate, he died unexpectedly in a flu pandemic before his 50th birthday, and so did not live to see many of his projects come to fruition. At his death, his net worth was around $510,000 in present-day dollars. Under the Elizabeth Trump & Son moniker, Fred Trump and his mother Elizabeth continued this work, and turned it into a flourishing business.
Trump’s international origins make him relatively unusual among American presidents. Of the last 10 presidents, only two—Trump and Barack Obama—have had a parent born outside of the United States. Trump’s own immediate family has been similarly international: Two of his three wives were naturalized American citizens, originally from the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Only one of his five children, Tiffany, is the child of two American-born citizens, while his daughter, Ivanka, is the first Jewish member of the First Family in American history. But so far as his biographers have been able to tell, none of his international roots extends to Sweden.