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29 April 2020

Inside the Trump nursery

The 45th president of the US acts like a toddler – and his aides treat him like one too.

By David Reynolds

Many authors of books on politics and history, present company included, enjoy using epigraphs to help signpost the argument and add erudition, or at least the appearance of it. But this is the first work of political science I can recall that heads every chapter not with some profundity from Marx, Gramsci, Foucault et al but with a quotation from Caring for Your Baby and Young Child by the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Daniel Drezner, a political science professor and regular contributor to the Washington Post, develops two propositions in this crisp, witty and highly readable philippic. The first is that “Donald Trump behaves more like the Toddler-in-Chief than the Commander-in-Chief”. Drezner does not dispute the physiological evidence that the 45th US president “is a borderline-obese white male over the age of 70” but argues that “Trump’s psychological make-up approximates to that of a toddler. He is not a small child, but he sure as heck acts like one.” 

This, of course, has been a frequent complaint of Trump’s critics. “I’m the mother of five, grandmother of nine. I know a temper tantrum when I see one,” exclaimed the Democrat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi after Trump shut down the federal government at Christmas 2018 because he couldn’t get money for his wall along the Mexican border. But the nub of Drezner’s argument is that Trump’s allies and aides have also repeatedly likened him to an immature child who they are trying to “manage” like “babysitters”. Between April 2017 and December 2019 Drezner recorded over one thousand such public utterances that emanated from inside the Trump nursery. 

Of course, all presidents lose their rag from time to time. But Trump is in a league of his own. His volcanic eruptions humiliate staff and deter them from supplying any information that runs against his prejudices; worse, such chronic petulance has often “sabotaged his administration.” A classic example is his peremptory dismissal of FBI boss James Comey in May 2017, which precipitated the Justice Department’s appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel. Even though Mueller’s report pulled its punches, the dirt it dug up contributed to the House of Representatives’ case for impeachment. 

Another toddler trait examined in the book is Trump’s notoriously short attention span, likened by one frustrated Republican strategist to that of “a gnat on meth”. The president flits from one idea to another, perhaps because – as a friend confessed – he’s “a guy whose most fundamental, minute-by-minute fear in life is of boredom”. Trump doesn’t read even short memos. Unlike all his predecessors since the 1960s, he rarely if ever looks at the collation of intelligence now known as the President’s Daily Brief, preferring short verbal presentations spiced with images and graphics. 

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These failings are exacerbated by his “knowledge deficit”. As the first incumbent of the Oval Office without either previous public service or military experience, Trump has little awareness of how government works and apparently scant interest – stating in 2016 that he had never read the biography of a single president and had no intention of doing so. He gets much of his information about events from watching cable TV, especially the ultra-conservative Fox News and Fox Business channels, during what is euphemistically known as “executive time” in the residence. Some close advisers say he spends between four to eight hours a day in front of a television. This is when he generates most of his notorious tweets, usually in response to something he has just heard (and often misunderstood), which is why aides often try – like responsible parents – to limit his screen time.

This depiction of the president, despite its lively prose and neat packaging, does not really surprise. And it’s arguable whether “toddler” is the right word for a leader who ponders in public whether his people should ingest disinfectant to combat Covid-19. But Drezner connects his amusing/scary stories with a second and larger argument, that “having a president who behaves like a toddler is a more serious problem today than it would have been, say, 50 years ago”. He likens the presidency to driving a fast car on a twisty mountain road, and warns that the “guardrails” preventing a bad driver from going over the edge have been badly damaged in recent years. 

Invoking Arthur Schlesinger’s indictment of the Imperial Presidency in the era of Vietnam and Watergate – an interpretation revived in this century by scholars such as Andrew Rudalevige – Drezner notes how recent presidents have “seized more power in response to a dysfunctional legislative branch” and how the judiciary – especially the Supreme Court – has failed to question presidential “power grabs”. In 2015, two major achievements of Barack Obama’s foreign policy depended on executive action to secure US adherence – the deal to contain Iran’s nuclear programme and the Paris accord on climate change – because he had no hope of getting a formal treaty through the Senate. In 2017-18 Trump used the same powers to pull out of both agreements, with destabilising international consequences. 

In the end, Drezner argues, “the most important check on the Toddler-in-Chief will have to come from the American people” when they vote in November 2020. His book was completed last Christmas, when the economy was booming and before coronavirus, though he did include a prescient sentence about how it is “truly frightening” to imagine Trump coping with “a true crisis” such as a terrorist attack, a clash with China or “a global pandemic”. 

Today, the president’s critics hope that his slow and fumbling response to Covid-19 will finally prove his undoing. But the immediate effect was to boost his opinion poll ratings amid the familiar rally- around-the-flag response to national jeopardy. And remember that his antics since inauguration have hardly dented the loyalty of his core base. 

This contrasts with the way the approval ratings of most presidents gradually slide over time, while spiking in response to specific events. For instance, George HW Bush registered a high of around 90 per cent at the end of the Gulf War in 1991, as his son George W Bush did after the 9/11 attacks. 

Yet Trump’s approval ratings stayed steadily around 40 per cent throughout 2017, 2018 and 2019. In other words, the sort of evidence Drezner sets out in his book seems irrelevant to committed Trumpers. They simply say their man is “unorthodox”.

Which reminds us that studies of leaders must also consider their followers. Why do millions of Americans ardently support a man whom millions more are sure is transparently unfit for office? A vote for Trump in 2016 was arguably less an endorsement of him as a vote against Hillary Clinton – and against what and whom she was seen to represent. 

Whoever wins this November, that cleavage in US society is not going away. The polarisation between Republicans and Democrats is at root a battle over national identity, with Barack Obama being literally the face of the US’s future and Trump that of its past. That continuing struggle will impede efficient and consensual government regardless of whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden occupies the Oval Office in 2021. 

The wider world also has a huge stake in that election, because of Trump’s “US First” isolationist tendencies and his distaste for international institutions such as Nato, the UN and the EU. Covid-19 has highlighted the need for concerted multilateral cooperation under US leadership, yet it would be shortsighted to assume a Biden presidency will herald a return to Atlanticism as usual. 

The likely trend of American foreign policy in the 2020s was signalled in the first years of Obama’s presidency, before he was diverted by the resurrection of Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president in 2012 and the Syrian Civil War. In 2011, Obama declared that the US was “turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia-Pacific”; Clinton, then his secretary of state, predicted that “the 21st century will be America’s Pacific Century”. Recently, the assertiveness of Xi Jinping, particularly his “Belt and Road” global development project, has intensified the pressure for the US to “pivot” towards the challenges from the Asia-Pacific. 

That’s why Europeans should not assume that evicting the Toddler-in-Chief from the Oval Office would be any panacea. The calls for western Europe to do more for its own defence and security will increase whoever is president – Americans are no longer ready to “pay any price” and “bear any burden”, in Kennedyesque vein – while the EU must gear up as a serious decision-making body and transcend its recent sauve qui peut reaction to coronavirus. Both Nato and the EU matter more than ever as instruments of internationalism, but each is a mid-20th century institution that desperately needs reform and revitalisation. 

 It also remains to be seen whether, in a pandemic world, Brexit Britain has the same appetite to go it alone. Will it still yearn to chase the global dragons of “mercantilism” across the high seas, as Boris Johnson exuberantly imagined in the fantasy-filled Painted Hall at Greenwich’s Royal Naval College only three (long) months ago?

David Reynolds is emeritus professor of international history at Cambridge and an NS contributing writer. His most recent book is “Island Stories: Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit” (William Collins)

The Toddler-in-Chief: What Donald Trump Teaches Us About the Modern Presidency
Daniel W Drezner
University of Chicago Press, 282pp, £12

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This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave