It’s been a big week around here. My oldest, who will be a teenager in a few weeks, has a girlfriend. After a year-long crush, he asked her on a date on the last day of school, and she’s moving this summer, so, from a parental perspective, she’s the ideal “starter girlfriend”–she likes him, and she’s going to disappear from his life soon. My middle child entered double digits (wisely announcing that “I’m a tween now, Mom, so things are going to be different between us.”), and my youngest turned five and is preparing for kindergarten. Barring very unforseen circumstances, we are out of the baby, toddler, and preschool years–all of which I’ve loved–and navigating some important developmental milestones, which I think we’re going to enjoy, too. My mind has been on Piaget, Erick Erickson (not that one but this one), and other developmental psychologists who have, over a century now, tried to help us understand how we grow up.
All of which prompts me to ask: Can we stop talking about Donald Trump as a baby, a child, or a teenager? (I’m looking at David Brooks’ “When the World is Led by a Child,” but the examples abound.)
Sure, Donald Trump whines and cries and is generally helpless to solve a problem. He’s also incredibly needy. But he’s not a baby. Babies have a future ahead of them. Babies deserve our affection, support, and attention. Babies also–not at first, but eventually–reward your efforts with affection and love. Most importantly, they are learning to trust others, to know that they can rely on people. Donald Trump’s relationships are transactional, which means he is always suspicious of other people besting him. A person who never trusts can never be trusted.
Above, world leaders meet in Sicily at the 43rd annual G-7 Summit. While Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, and others walked together in the street, Donald Trump, who repeatedly invoked ableist tropes to question Hillary Clinton’s stamina, followed behind in a golf cart, like a fool. The result was that he was absent in many photos showing the world’s leaders together. In the image above, Trump was reinserted into the photo–but in a toddler stroller, shaped like a car, being pushed by the German Chancellor.
Donald Trump may have little control over his emotions, try to manipulate people, make messes bigger than he can clean up, refuse to try new foods, and think that the world revolves around him, but he’s not a toddler. Toddlers are intensely curious, with increasing concern about fairness (even if they aren’t so good at making things fair). They want to learn. They desire to please others. They are trying to act in ways that will make them proud. They are taking initiative and acting autonomously. They are often compassionate and sweet. They want to know “what’s that?” and “but why?” They are sponges for language and new facts. None of this describes Donald Trump.
Donald Trump may not be able to think very far ahead and may not have a real, stable, developed identity (A brand is not an identity.); he cannot navigate complex moral situations, take responsibility for his mistakes, tolerate distress, or stay in ambiguity. He can’t control his mouth or spell difficult words. These are the tasks of adolescence, but Trump is no teenager. Teenagers are asking big questions about themselves and about the world. They are imagining a better future and trying to figure out how they will contribute to it. They are looking reflectively at history and seeing patterns–including patterns of injustice. (Injustice and hypocrisy are the natural enemies of teenagers.) They are yearning to get out of their social situations–to see the world, to make friends with people their parents don’t approve of, to test boundaries and limits, to be daring and bold and different. None of this describes Donald Trump, who has proudly said, “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same. The temperament is not that different.” This is a person whose worldview–growing up extremely wealthy in 1950s racist New York–was one he never thought to expand. He’s not a teenager, and I don’t see signs that he ever was one.
It’s tempting to throw up our hands and say, “Grow up!” to Donald Trump. Seeing him as childish is tempting because he lacks self-control, self-awareness, or empathy; he is unwise, incurious, intemperate, solipsistic, needy, and destructive.
But these aren’t the traits of babies, children, or teens. They are the traits of someone whose incredible privilege–rooted mostly in wealth but reinforced because of his gender and race (and, anyway, that wealth is due to gender and race)–has allowed him to surround himself with grubbers who only affirm him. He is the good guy in every story he tells. He is always right. When people tells him he is wrong, he discards or divorces them. When someone reflects poorly on him, they are gone. Men surrounded by yes-men lead us into war and death, because they will sacrifice everyone to insure their own righteousness. Lincoln, our greatest leader, assembled a “team of rivals”; Trump has assembled a team of investors, scavengers, and loyalists.
For those panicking that we’ve given a toddler with a temper problem the nuclear codes, the news is even worse: We’ve decided–and a decent number of voters still stand by that decision–to give it to an adult without any of the best qualities of children.