The Toddler-In-Chief (Getty Images)

Man-baby smashes democracy: Daniel Drezner on our "Toddler in Chief"

Tantrums, poor impulse control, short attention span, oppositional behavior — unfortunately, it all fits



Chauncey DeVega
August 6, 2020 12:00PM (UTC)

President Donald Trump is an adult brat, a very young child in the body of an elderly man: He throws temper tantrums and lives in his own alternate reality. He cannot self-regulate, understands very little about the world, and must be the center of attention at all times. He cannot play well with others if he does not get his way, and overall possesses limited cognitive, emotional and intellectual abilities.

But Donald Trump is not a child. He is 74 years old. Donald Trump is also president of the United States of America, the commander in chief of the country's military, and possesses the sole, exclusive power to destroy the world on a personal whim with nuclear weapons.  

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During a recent interview with Jonathan Swan on the series "Axios on HBO," Donald Trump displayed his toddler-like nature in the extreme. When confronted about his malicious lies, willful negligence and delusions regarding the coronavirus pandemic, Trump became frustrated and enraged and proceeded to accuse Swan of not playing fair. In response to questions about the recent death of Rep. John Lewis, the American freedom fighter and civil rights icon, Trump expressed his anger that Lewis did not attend the 2016 inauguration or the State of the Union Address. Like a child, Trump was mad because Lewis was "mean to him." 

Because Trump was hurt, he then made up absurd, spiteful fictions about "doing more for African Americans" than almost any other American president in history. 

In perhaps the most important moment of his Axios interview, Donald Trump showed himself to be very different from the vast majority of babies, children and other human beings of any age: When asked about the more than 158,000 Americans who have been killed by the pandemic, Trump responded, "It is what it is." Trump has no human care or concern for other people. By comparison, normal babies and other children — as well as animals such as rats — have empathy for others of their kind.  

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How is Donald Trump impacting the presidency and America's political and social institutions more generally? What went so wrong with America's political culture and institutions that a person like Donald Trump, with such serious and obvious emotional and intellectual deficits, could become president and thus exercise so much power over the country's destiny? If Donald Trump is indeed the toddler in chief and an adult baby, how do his advisers and other Republicans in his orbit go about "parenting" him? Or is he in fact controlling and manipulating the so-called "adults in the room?" Why would any reasonable adult want to serve in the Trump administration and be sucked into the chaos of his world?

In an effort to answer these questions, I spoke with Daniel Drezner. He is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Drezner is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has written op-eds and articles for the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy and The New Republic, and is also the author of numerous books, including "The Toddler in Chief: What Donald Trump Teaches Us About The Modern Presidency."

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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How are you making sense of the Age of Trump?

If you are a political scientist in the Age of Trump, you now have a sense of what it must be like to be a doctor at most social functions. What political scientists generally try to do is to develop more general models about the way that politics works and then input a particular leader (or leaders) to see how it all fits together. Donald Trump breaks that model. Moreover, in some ways the model is dangerous because it can lead to "analytical normalization," whereby Trump is treated like a normal president and that is not what he is. And by normalization, I do not mean in a normative sense that Trump is evil. By "normal" I mean in terms of his decision-making capabilities. Trump is radically different in that regard from most presidents in American history.

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How do we locate Donald Trump's presidency relative to the country's existing political norms, institutions and values?  

As I explain in my new book, Donald Trump has all of the psychological capabilities of a toddler. There is an abundance of evidence in that regard.

Trump having the psychological capabilities of a toddler is a much bigger problem now than it would have been 50 years ago because the country's political institutions have shifted in such a way as to essentially give the president much greater power and therefore fewer checks on his authority than there used to be.

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Donald Trump has taken all of the slowly eroding guardrails on America's political institutions and political culture and eroded them even further. This is seen in a number of ways such as how Congress has been showing greater amounts of deference to the executive branch. Trump's psychology is especially important here because he does not care about norms and the other standard rules of behavior that one would expect from the president of the United States. Ultimately, with Donald Trump what we are seeing is not just his dangerous behavior but the way that the institutions have allowed him to act.

Why did so many prominent voices in the news media and American political life more generally keep trying to normalize Donald Trump? They kept sounding off about the country's social and political institutions and how they would "restrain" Donald Trump's behavior — and persisted in saying that for years.

I don't want to be too critical of such voices in the sense that I think partly what was going on was just an aching desire for normalcy. This yearning for normalcy was amplified by an exhausting campaign. If the institutions would somehow check Trump's worst impulses, then in a sense it would not matter that he was not a terribly well-behaved or mature individual who demonstrated good judgment. The system would work. To be fair, that is what Americans have believed for quite some time. As a people, Americans have great faith in the Constitution and the notion of checks and balances. Trump has helped to reveal the degree to which such beliefs as part of a broader American civil religion were unspoken assumptions that are struggling to survive the weight of this emergency.

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As it turns out, partisanship matters much more than America's civil religion and other assumed beliefs and norms. In the end, Donald Trump gets to do almost anything that he wants if he has a sufficient number of Republicans in Congress that will back his play.

How do toddlers behave? And what does toddler behavior reveal about Donald Trump?

Temper tantrums, poor impulse control, short attention spans, knowledge deficits, oppositional behavior, aversions to new things, too much time looking at TV or tablets or smart phones and related behavior. Each of the chapters in my book opens with a quote from the American Academy of Pediatrics' "Guide to Raising Children." A great deal of Trump's behavior is described by that very book. The analogy of Donald Trump as a toddler is a powerful one.

Interestingly, my description and the evidence of Trump's toddler-like behavior is echoed by his own staffers as well as the press coverage of him. Trump has almost no control over his temper. He has temper tantrums. He cannot sit still and focus at all. Like a toddler, Donald Trump does not know a great deal about the world. As White House insiders have shared, it is almost impossible to brief Donald Trump on important matters of national security and other concerns because of his attention span and inability to focus.

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Donald Trump is different from toddlers in at least two rather important ways.

The first is that toddlers grow up. Toddlers behave the way they do in terms of temper tantrums because they are just trying to navigate the world and have yet to develop the cognitive capacities to engage the world in a more mature fashion. Trump is more than 70 years old and he is not going to change.

The second difference is that toddlers have parents or some other caregivers. Toddlers have authority figures that they will at least acknowledge or respect their authority. Donald Trump is president and commander in chief. He has no parents or other authority figures to tell him what to do. His staffers have various tactics that they use to try to engage with or constrain him. But in the end Donald Trump has the authority to do what he wants. As such, the White House is like a poorly staffed and maintained day care center where the turnover rate among employees is massive.

What happens when the tyrant child controls the parents?

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There is no higher authority figure that can be appealed to. Furthermore, the Republican Party is perfectly willing to follow Trump, even if it means abandoning what were previously core beliefs and values.

The history of boy kings is not a great one. A disturbing parallel historically is to the German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II. Like Trump he also had a serious temper. He also did nothing but read press stories about himself. He would vamp during speeches. Wilhelm II was manipulated by his advisers. And of course, he started World War I.

Trump is a symptom of much bigger cultural problems in the United States. He is an adult baby, but America's culture is infantilized and has been increasingly so for the last few decades.

Trump is as much a symptom as he is a cause of what we are experiencing right now in the United States — although now he is making things much worse. In all, Donald Trump has tapped into a deep strain of political immaturity in American life. One of the last lines in my new book is, "If we re-elect Donald Trump, the true toddlers in chief would be us. Because in the end, this is on us much more so than it is on the president."

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When I think of Donald Trump the toddler in chief I keep thinking about child TV and film stars where they get all this money at a young age and are manipulated by all of the people around them. And of course, the life of a child star usually does not end well. Who is manipulating Trump, if anyone? What are they getting out of it?

The people who wind up serving Donald Trump or staying the longest are either essentially the quislings, the Philistines or the incompetents. These are people who are willing to do anything to demonstrate loyalty to Trump. All they care about is being in his orbit. These are the people who are willing to make significant sacrifices to their reputation to stay in power in order to advance their own agendas. Attorney General William Barr would be an example of such a person. And then finally there are the incompetents, the people who get hired by the Trump administration because there is no one else that will take the job.

Much has been written about the president's daily briefing and Trump's lack of attention to it. What are some strategies for communicating with a man who has Trump's emotional, cognitive, intellectual and other shortcomings?

This is where, again, officials in the Trump administration have had to adapt to the toddler mindset. They put Trump's name in the briefings because he likes reading about himself. Visual aids are also important for communicating with Donald Trump. Trump is also given incredibly short briefings, essentially a page or two, if that. In some cases, Donald Trump's briefing materials consist of half a page.

Why do Donald Trump's followers love him so much? Why would anyone be so loyal to an adult baby?

What are you, as an adult, more comfortable doing? Are you more comfortable putting on a suit and going outside and having to be well-mannered when you deal with other people? Or are you happier wearing your pajamas and just being able to say or do whatever you want? There was an anecdote about Donald Trump which explains a great deal about him. Apparently, Donald Trump sits down for dinner with Mike Pence and several other people. After dinner Donald Trump gets two scoops of ice cream with chocolate sauce while everyone else at the table is only allowed one. He is president of the United States and can have anything he wants for dinner.

I had two thoughts upon hearing this story. I was like, "Oh my god, this is such a toddler move." But then there was a part of me, and I will acknowledge this, that, if you're president, the idea that you can have anything that you want is mildly appealing. Trump's supporters like this. To them Trump gives them permission to convince themselves that, "Finally, we can act the way we really are, not the way we want our better angels to be." Acting well-mannered is hard for some people.

Part of Trump's appeal is also his war on so-called political correctness. That phrase is really just a floating signifier that means whatever the America right and Fox News types want it to be. "Political correctness" for them is the nonexistent "War on Christmas" or "antifa" or "Black Lives Matter". "Political correctness" is also all those "East Coast liberals and experts" telling "real Americans" what to do.

It is the toddler style of discourse, if you yell loud you win. That is why acknowledging experts and other respectable points of view is to be rejected. For decades, Trump's supporters have seen themselves as losing cultural capital. Like a toddler there is something appealing about throwing a fit.

Beyond the infant metaphor, how else would you describe Donald Trump and his time in office?

Frankly, the Age of Trump is like an alternate version of the movie "Idiocracy," except instead of President Camacho we have President Donald Trump.

And Terry Crews' character, President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho was actually trying to do a good job. He actually cares about the United States of America.

I would prefer President Camacho to Donald Trump. Camacho, for all his faults, is actually trying to be an effective leader. He's actually trying to hire the smartest person in the world to save the country. Trump, on the other hand, constantly wants to be the smartest person in the room, or make it appear as if he's the smartest person in the room, when he is not.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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