Trump the Toddler

The president is pursuing a child’s strategy for getting what he wants.

Donald Trump
Jim Young / Reuters

Donald Trump wants his wall, and he’ll hold your breath until he gets it.

Twenty days into a partial government shutdown, the impact on government workers, their families, and basic services is coming into view. Food is not being inspected. Transportation Security Administration workers are calling in sick rather than working without pay. Millions could be evicted from their home, hundreds of thousands of workers are about to miss their paycheck, and tens of millions could lose food assistance. All because the president isn’t getting his way.

As with so much of what Trump does, holding Americans hostage to partisan goals is a logical extension of what the Republican Party was already doing. During Barack Obama’s administration, Republicans shut down the government demanding the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. They threatened to put the U.S. government in default on its debt in order to cut the deficit, then as soon as they regained power, they vastly expanded it by passing upper-income tax cuts. Demanding that the Democrats cough up money for a wall on the southern border or the American people get it is different only in the degree of its absurdity.

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.

What makes this shutdown distinctly Trumpian is not only that the president has taken credit for it, but that it was provoked by his most reliable trigger, being humiliated by a woman. Democrats and Republicans had already negotiated a deal to fund the government and border security without the wall. But after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Trump that he lacked the votes to pass a bill with money for a wall and Ann Coulter mocked him, Trump erupted and demanded that the lame-duck Republican House pass funding for a wall, scuttling the deal. When Trump met with Democrats on Wednesday and they repeated that they will not fund his wall, the president said “Bye-bye” and walked out. Making maximalist demands, offering nothing in return, and then withdrawing in anger the second those demands are not met is a child’s strategy for getting what he wants.

Others have already pointed out that the empirical case for the wall is thin. Despite what the administration has argued, most drugs come to the United States through ports of entry; terrorists fly to the U.S. rather than engaging in dangerous, grueling overland treks over thousands of miles to enter from the southern border; and the wall won’t halt the smuggling or illegal entries it is designed to stop. It would, however, be a massive, official symbol of American hostility toward immigrants of Latin American descent, which is why it matters so much to both Trump and his fiercest supporters.

Trump doesn’t bear all the blame for this state of affairs, despite having preemptively taken credit for the shutdown. It was the Republican Party that embraced a president who, as the professor and commentator Dan Drezner has pointed out, behaves like a moody toddler. Over the past two years, one news story after another has documented how White House staff fear his pouty moods, his nasty outbursts, and his vicious tantrums.

For the past two years, the Republican-controlled Congress, rather than engaging in its constitutional duty to provide oversight of the executive branch, has acted more like bad parents pampering a spoiled child, not only enabling Trump’s corruption and abuses of power but also his fragile ego and tempestuous outbursts. Although some of them might vote to reopen the government, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is dead set on giving the toddler in chief what he wants by preventing such a vote from taking place.

The president is beginning to get wind of how his petulance is being perceived. “I don’t have temper tantrums,” Trump told reporters on the White House lawn before departing for a photo op in Texas.

This is another hallmark of the Trump era. Whenever the president makes a sweeping declaration about his own conduct, it is a safe bet that the opposite is true.