Beginning next week, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts will focus on the administration of President Biden, the state of world politics, trends in popular culture, and all the other topics for which this column was originally conceived. For today, however, it seems appropriate to offer an after-action report on what it has been like to curate the #ToddlerinChief thread.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins recently provided the best short description of what it was like to cover this administration: “It’s funny and absurd, but it’s also incredibly serious.” I am an opinion writer rather than a reporter, but consuming the journalism about Trump produced the same mix of humor and horror. The purpose of the #Toddlerin Chief thread was to highlight both sides of this coin.
I started the thread in April 2017 on a lark, not thinking about whether it would be the best analogy to characterize Trump. That was more than 2,600 entries ago, an average of close to two instances a day in which someone with a rooting interest in Trump’s success nonetheless described him like a toddler.
Is it the perfect analogy? No, but not because it is mean to toddlers. Rather, it undersold Trump’s culpability. Consider this portion of a recent Axios story about Trump’s plan for election night last year, in an effort to capitalize on the “red mirage” of same-day votes giving the false impression of a Trump lead:
Trump had spent a bellicose summer and early autumn railing against mail-in ballots. After a toxic Sept. 29 election debate with Biden, Trump's internal poll numbers nosedived. He started choreographing election night in earnest during the second week of October, as he recovered from covid-19.His former chief of staff Reince Priebus told a friend he was stunned when Trump called him around that time and acted out his script, including walking up to a podium and prematurely declaring victory on election night if it looked like he was ahead.
That is malevolence rather than immaturity at work.
Still, no analogy or theory is perfect. The question is whether it explains a lot, and I would posit that it helped to explain much of the Trump years. As the presidency has grown in power compared to other branches of government, recent presidents have faced fewer constraints on political behavior. As a result, variance in individual leader attributes explains more. This also explains why Trump’s presidential behavior seems increasingly erratic. As his initial senior staff — the “adults in the room” — left the administration, their replacements were unable or unwilling to constrain his more reckless behavior.
It is time to move on, however. What I did only took a fraction of the effort that my Washington Post colleagues Josh Dawsey or Ashley Parker (or journalists Maggie Haberman, Annie Karni, Jonathan Swan, Asawin Suebsaeng, Lachlan Markay, Collins et al) put into their reporting. The fact-checking of CNN’s Daniel Dale and my Post colleague Glenn Kessler was far more arduous than my simple task of curation.
I am amused, however, by those on social media suggesting in recent days that I will miss making additions to the thread. I really, really won’t.
The opportunity cost of archiving Trump’s immature behavior for four years has been considerable. Don’t get me wrong — in a macro sense, paying attention to instability within the Oval Office made sense. But it exacted a cost. My scholarship has suffered, my knowledge about the rest of the world has eroded, my sense of equilibrium has succumbed to vertigo.
Ordinarily I take a break from Twitter once a quarter to gain my bearings, but this was impossible over the past six months of utter insanity. As Trump decompensated, being on Twitter became a constant demand. Prolonged exposure to Trump has made me meaner and dumber than I ever wanted to be. Sure, I produced a book out of it, but a part of me worries that this has merely been an exercise in functional addiction. It is time to detox.
Will I miss tweeting and writing about Trump? Some of his misadventures — Sharpiegate, wanting to nuke a hurricane, trying to swap Puerto Rico for Greenland — will always give me a chuckle. Over time, however, the ratio of humor and horror veered far too much toward horror. My fear that everything would fall apart became all too real.
What I will not miss, not even a little bit, was the feeling of dread I would get checking my phone or computer or tablet after spending time on other activities. What new disaster had consumed everyone’s attention?
The last paragraph of “The Toddler in Chief” begins with: “Donald Trump is never going to grow up. Expecting him to mature is indulging in make-believe. It will be up to the American people, and not the Toddler in Chief, to set aside childish things.” Thankfully, a majority of voters agreed with that assessment. I am grateful to set aside this very childish thing.