That seems like a lot, particularly because of the criteria I developed to merit an entry. As I noted in 2017, “what makes these stories stand out is that these descriptions are coming from fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill, in the Cabinet or loyal treaty allies or — most often — from within Trump’s own White House staff. The point is, this is how Trump’s most trusted advisers view Trump.”
The dynamics of the #ToddlerinChief thread are always changing, and as 2019 gets underway, there have been some subtle political shifts that suggest fewer entries in the future. Does this mean that Trump is actually growing into the presidency? Not exactly. It is more that shifts in the political balance of power in Washington are altering the incentives for who deploys the analogy.
Before the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives, the overwhelming majority of Trump’s presidential activities consisted of engaging with other Republicans. As a weak commander in chief, Trump had to browbeat his own Cabinet at times to get what he wanted. Even as he consolidated control over the Republican Party, Trump had only modest success at getting Congress to approve his preferred policies. Finally, the president’s incomplete understanding of power made it difficult for him to extract the concessions he wanted from U.S. allies.
All of this meant Trump clashed repeatedly with his allies and subordinates, and would react badly when he was not able to get what he wanted. This led to a high burn rate for staff and a surfeit of anecdotes of Trump acting like a spoiled brat to dish out to the media.
So how is 2019 different? Well, Trump now has to negotiate with Democrats. And in the brief time they have controlled a chamber of Congress, a certain analogy has been thrown about an awful lot. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has repeatedly accused the president of throwing a temper tantrum with respect to the partial government shutdown. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has used similar language:
When party leaders persistently deploy this kind of rhetoric — and when the president takes the bait — it inevitably diffuses into the wider conversation. See my colleague Dana Milbank’s column about how Trump is entering his “terrible twos.” Or Adam Serwer’s essay in the Atlantic about how Trump is negotiating like a toddler:
The inauguration of a new Congress means that for Trump, the days of easily getting his way are over. And like a child facing his first taste of discipline, he is chafing at the restrictions. But that’s what makes maintaining them so important—if Democrats allow Trump to use the well-being of the American people as a hostage, then he will do it again every time he is denied. As any parent knows, rewarding misbehavior only invites more of it.
I do not think the previous Congress was as pliant as Trump liked — hence the grist for the #ToddlerinChief thread — but that is not important right now. What is important is that Democrats have seized upon the toddler analogy and are running with it. Mainstream media commentators are amplifying it. And because Trump has no choice but to talk to Democrats, they will gleefully report to the media any further instances of toddler-like behavior.
Paradoxically, this probably means fewer entries in the #ToddlerinChief thread. The more Democrats try to pin the immaturity label on Trump, the more Republicans are likely to eschew it. We saw that dynamic play out last week when Republican participants in the shutdown meeting denied that Trump had a temper tantrum.
When Republicans held most of the levers of power, leaking about Trump’s misbehavior was a modest means of constraining him. Now the GOP can rely on House Democrats to shoulder some of that burden. And I suspect this means they will be less inclined to characterize the president of the United States as a toddler.
This does not mean Trump has grown into the office of the presidency. Far from it. What it means is that the incentive for his allies and subordinates to describe him in this way has been reduced.