Babysitters Club

The Toddler in Chief: What Donald Trump Teaches Us about the Modern Presidency BY Daniel W. Drezner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 272 pages. $14.

Institutionalists have been warning about the breakdown of democratic guardrails for quite some time. An optimist might have fretted about these trends but noted that everything would be okay so long as the President acted like, you know, a grown-up—someone who recognized that with great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, Donald Trump really does think and act like a toddler. He has done so for most of his life.

Beyond the checks and constraints studied by political scientists, pundits gravitated toward two additional “guardrail narratives” in the early months of the Trump administration. The first was that he would grow into the office of the presidency. Trump himself promised this during the 2016 campaign, stating repeatedly that he would be “so presidential you will be so bored.” At key junctures in Trump’s first months as President, if he demonstrated even a hint of maturity, commentators would describe it as the moment when Trump truly became the President.

Republicans relied on a variation of this line of argument during Trump’s first year in office. When news broke of Trump violating a norm or possibly a law, fellow Republicans often explained it away as “the actions of a political newcomer unfamiliar with what is appropriate presidential conduct.” The implication, of course, was that as Trump moved down the learning curve as President, he would engage in this kind of transgressive behavior less frequently and comport himself in a more presidential manner.

The other guardrail narrative was that even if Trump behaved erratically, he had surrounded himself with advisors and cabinet members who would function as an “Axis of Adults” to constrain the Commander in Chief. While many Americans questioned Trump’s maturity, no one viewed Gary Cohn, John Kelly, James Mattis, H. R. McMaster, or Rex Tillerson as immature. Political scientists put great stock in the power of advisors to shape and mold a President’s thinking on vital issues. Sure, Trump might rant and rave, the thinking went, but “the Generals” would rein him in. The core thesis of the anonymous New York Times op-ed by a senior Trump official was that there would be adults in the room to constrain Trump.

Photo: Flickr/Jane Scanlan
Photo: Flickr/Jane Scanlan

These narratives sounded savvy and knowing in 2017. They were designed to allay the fears of Americans anxious about President Trump. In retrospect, however, they were naive. Trump has not crashed the economy or started a nuclear war. However, there is simply no getting around the point that President Donald Trump has acted an awful lot like a badly behaved toddler, and there is little his staff has done to contain his outbursts.

The Toddler in Chief has failed to mature even in areas that ostensibly cater to his professed base. Trump has proclaimed that he is the biggest booster of the military and that the uniformed services support him. Yet he has done nothing to better understand his role as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The 45th President has restricted his encounters with the families of those killed in action because he finds the experience to be too intense. Despite repeatedly calling the top brass at the Pentagon “my generals,” the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff upbraided him for unproductive interventions in national security meetings. Colonel David Lapan, a retired Marine who served as the spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security during the first year of the Trump administration, told the New York Times, “There was the belief that over time, he would better understand, but I don’t know that that’s the case. I don’t think that he understands the proper use and role of the military and what we can, and can’t, do.” Trump’s former Secretary of the Navy acknowledged that “the President has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.” Military officers have expressed increasing discomfort with Trump’s use of the uniformed services as a partisan prop.

Furthermore, Trump’s Axis of Adults proved unable to rein in his toddler-like behavior. In the fall of 2017, Senator Bob Corker talked to reporters about “the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around [Trump] to keep him in the middle of the road.” Referencing White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Corker concluded that “as long as there are people like that around him who are able to talk him down when he gets spun up, you know, calm him down and continue to work with him before a decision gets made, I think we’ll be fine.” All of these people saw their authority denuded by the Toddler in Chief. Indeed, like burned-out nannies, most of them have resigned. Many others have been fired. By the start of Trump’s third year in office, all of them had left government service, along with Corker. As former Trump White House staffer Cliff Sims told Politico, “What we are seeing is the erosion of the presidency to where what is left is just the president.”

One can hardly blame the staff for the high burn rate. Normal parents shepherd their children through the terrible twos for only a short spell. Trump’s advisors are required to deal with a Commander in Chief who will never really grow up. Furthermore, the standard means of exercising authority in a childcare setting are unavailable to the White House staff. He is the President of the United States; in the end his staff must obey Trump’s dictates, resign in protest, or wait to be fired.

It does not matter whether Trump has been at the job for two years, or four, or six; he will never grow into the presidency. He is who he is, which happens to be the essence of a petulant child. In the first year of Trump’s presidency, one diplomat in Washington told the Washington Post, “The idea that he would inform himself, and things would change, that is no longer operative.” Two years later, a G-7 diplomat described coping with Trump’s behavior: “You just try to get through the summit without any damage. . . . Every one of these, you just hope that it ends without any problem. It just gets harder and harder.” Even Trump’s closest advisors acknowledge that he has not matured into the office. They have instead seen a devolution in his behavior. As one April 2019 Politico story surmised, “Even some former administration officials who admire the president and his policies acknowledge that he does not pay attention to traditional rules of the government and often does not know the legal boundaries of his job since he’s only two years into his term. . . . They perceive that Trump’s impatience with the obstacles standing in his way has only increased in recent months as he’s grown more comfortable in the office.” If anything, Trump’s toddler traits have become more visible over time.

Trump’s enablers now justify his transgressive behavior by extoling him as an “untraditional” President. When it was revealed that 60 percent of Trump’s daily schedule was unstructured “Executive Time,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded, “President Trump has a different leadership style than his predecessors and the results speak for themselves.”

Reprinted with permission from The Toddler in Chief: What Donald Trump Teaches Us about the Modern Presidency by Daniel Drezner, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2020 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.