Since April 2017, I have been curating a#ToddlerinChief thread on Twitter. At last count I am up to 370 separate instances of close allies of the president treating him or talking about him like a toddler.
There has been the occasional objection to this project. Back in the fall, The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen argued that it was more accurate to think of Donald Trump as a teenager. My response to that was, in essence, reasonable people can disagree.
This past week, as the horror of Trump’s family separation policy at the border became clear, a somewhat different objection arose. According to the Chicago Tribune’s Heidi Stevens, “Comparing Trump to a toddler was simple and understandable at first,” but now it is “no longer tenable.”
You know who else behaves the way Drezner (and plenty of others) describes? Angry, entitled adults. And they don’t have the excuse of barely developed prefrontal cortices. Or the inability to meet their own needs. Or a lack of social interactions from which to draw upon for cues and learning.
Trump is not learning as he goes, forming millions upon millions of synapses in his brain, collecting lessons from each and every interaction, asking why, why, why, loving wide-eyed and openhearted.
He is who he is. He will remain that way, most likely, as long as he inhabits the White House. His legacy will include, among other things, the implementation of an immigration policy that goes against every human instinct we are born with.
That’s not childish. It’s heartless.
The images in the media contrast with more positive photos that Trump’s aides have shown the president depicting detained children smiling, playing video games and exercising outside, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
Rozen tweeted in response:
So, in essence, this criticism of the toddler thread is that as Donald Trump has evolved from ignorance to malevolence, the toddler analogy somehow strips him of his culpability.
I appreciate the objections. The danger with analogies in political analysis is well-founded. That said, the thread ain’t going anywhere.
The purpose of the toddler analogy is not to explain every single thing that Trump does. Clearly, there are aspects of his behavior — his misogyny, his casual racism — that are not toddler-like. If I had tried to shoehorn those elements into the thread, I would understand the objection.
There are other areas of Trump’s behavior that could be thought of as toddler-like in one way but not another. How, exactly, should one categorize this anecdote from Ian Bremmer?
President Trump reportedly tossed Starburst candies to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during his tense meeting with Group of Seven (G-7) leaders weeks ago, Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer said Wednesday….
“Trump was sitting there with his arms crossed, clearly not liking the fact that they were ganging up on him,” Bremmer said to the news outlet. “He eventually agreed and said OK, he’ll sign it. And at that point, he stood up, put his hand in his pocket, his suit jacket pocket, and he took two Starburst candies out, threw them on the table and said to Merkel, ‘Here, Angela. Don’t say I never give you anything.’”
In both of these cases, Trump sounds as petulant a toddler, but he also seems like a moody teenager who resents everyone( also, in my experience, toddlers do not give their candy to others).
The truth, however, is that there remain aspects of Trump’s behavior for which the toddler analogy remains apt. The quote from the Washington Post story that triggered Rozen shows how easy it is for staffers to slant his information diet to make him less cranky. In the past months, there have been plenty of other examples demonstrating how Trump’s intellectual immaturity, ranging from his impatience to his short temper to his desire for free time to the simplistic ways NSC staffers had to brief him.
There is no way to read this story by Politico’s Annie Karni without thinking about Trump like a toddler:
Under the Presidential Records Act, the White House must preserve all memos, letters, emails and papers that the president touches, sending them to the National Archives for safekeeping as historical records.
But White House aides realized early on that they were unable to stop Trump from ripping up paper after he was done with it and throwing it in the trash or on the floor, according to people familiar with the practice. Instead, they chose to clean it up for him, in order to make sure that the president wasn’t violating the law.
Staffers had the fragments of paper collected from the Oval Office as well as the private residence and send it over to records management across the street from the White House for Lartey and his colleagues to reassemble.
I mean, come on.
Does analogizing Trump to a toddler strip him of his moral agency? Only if one thinks the analogy is literal, and I have not seen any indication that anyone is taking it literally. None of the #ToddlerinChief tweets say that Tump is a toddler; they say that Trump is like a toddler. This analogy works when Trump seems ignorant and petty and ill-tempered and immature. But it obviously does not explain his cruelty on immigration or other issues.
I trust my readers to understand this distinction. That’s because they are far more mature than Donald Trump.