Adolescent-in-Chief

We live in a youth-obsessed culture, and one glaring proof of it is our oldest-ever inaugurated President. Or should I say, gleaming proof? The gleaming golden hair, the gleaming white teeth, the constant boasting about his gleaming sexual prowess.

And then there’s the obsessive tweeting. The man is seventy! Whatever happened to the wisdom of age?

It’s not entirely his fault, of course, that our culture decided to worship youth and sexual bravado while demoting the wisdom and perspective of age; in this sense, as in others, Trump is merely a symptom, albeit a florid one. And, to be sure, plenty of people pile up a lot of years with precious little wisdom to show for it. In my late twenties, I played in a daily chess circle in a park with a group of retired men. I recall being stunned by how petty their recurring squabbles were, their arguments over rules, could a move be taken back, and on and on – their wounded egos, their petulant little revenges. I remember thinking, Shouldn’t they have worked this out by now?

The other day I was interviewing someone for a local story here in Connecticut – a 64-year-old longtime TV anchorman who’s nearing retirement – and I asked him how comfortable he is with social media. “That depends,” he quipped, “how closely you’re holding the barrel of the gun to my head.” Yes, he kept up a Facebook page, he blogged and tweeted, but only because his managers at the station forced him to.

Trump, I think we can safely say, needs no gun to the head. As many commentators have observed, we have embarked upon the first true social-media presidency; and in Trump’s impulsive middle-of-the-night tweets we find the perfect meeting of medium, message and man. (I cherish George F. Will’s remark last year, after some bold statement by Trump on a foreign-policy issue, that “this candidate has the advantage of being able to say everything he knows about the Middle East in 140 characters.”) Social media sponsor inherently brief and gossipy forms of communication, and this Times article sums up how being an exemplary communicator of that kind makes Trump so novel, and so unsettling, as President.

Impetuous and instinctive, convinced of broad but hidden plots to undermine him, eager to fight and prone to what an aide called “alternative facts,” President Trump has shown in just days in office that he is like few if any occupants of the White House before him. He sits in the White House at night, watching television or reading social media, and through Twitter issues instant judgments on what he sees. He channels fringe ideas and gives them as much weight as carefully researched reports. He denigrates the conclusions of intelligence professionals and then later denies having done so. He thrives on conflict and chaos.

For a capital that typically struggles to adjust to the ways of a new president every four or eight years, Mr. Trump has posed a singular challenge. Rarely if ever has a president been as reactive to random inputs as Mr. Trump. Career government officials and members of Congress alike are left to discern policy from random Twitter posts spurred by whatever happened to be on television when the president grabbed the remote control.

The critique is all the more unsettling for being non-political. It's not at all about Trump’s policies; it's about how he's going about being President; about the kind of person he is and the way his mind works. Having a “randomly reactive” presence in the White House would be fascinating, if it ween’t so frightening. Part of it is the notably adolescent cast of his utterances and priorities so far. An article in today's Hartford Courant reports that Trump has been extensively preoccupied with various estimates of the crowd size at his inaugural event -- and has energetically engaged media and government agencies regarding these numbers. 

On the morning after Donald Trump’s inauguration, acting National Park Service director Michael Reynolds received an extraordinary summons: The new president wanted to talk to him. In a Saturday phone call, Trump personally ordered Reynolds to produce additional photographs of the previous day's crowds on the National Mall, according to three individuals who have knowledge of the conversation. The president believed that they might prove that the media had lied in reporting that attendance had been no better than average.

Trump also expressed anger over a retweet sent from the agency's account, in which side-by-side photographs showed far fewer people at his swearing-in than had shown up to see Barack Obama’s inaugural in 2009.

According to one account, Reynolds had been contacted by the White House and given a phone number to call. When he dialed it, he was told to hold for the president.

For Trump, who sees himself and his achievements in superlative terms, the inauguration's crowd size has been a source of grievance that he appears unable to put behind him. It is a measure of his fixation on the issue that he would devote part of his first morning in office to it - and that he would take out his frustrations on an acting Park Service director.

Reading this, one doesn’t know whether to laugh, weep or tremble. Instead of a President focused on important priorities, we have a wounded narcissist who sits around the White House all night stewing (and tweeting) about slights to his sense of self importance. How in the world can the President of the United States justify wasting his time on stuff like that? It’s the “little hands” problem all over again. Trump’s susceptibility to these provocations raises all sorts of weird and disturbing scenarios. Will world peace hinge on Putin or some other thuggish leader taunting Trump about his puny pathetic little army?

I’m not requesting, or expecting, undue modesty in a President. The annals of productive American genius are full of huge egos, from Thomas Jefferson on down to Steve Jobs. My own experience is that many people who get a lot done are anything but light in the ego department.

But there are big egos that are healthily big. A healthy ego – and especially by the time one reaches, ahem, a certain age -- means knowing what one is really good at, while also knowing one’s limits, faults, and shortcomings. A healthy ego understands that success in life requires talent, yes, but also advantages, timing, and plain old luck. And plenty of help from other people.

Above all, perhaps, the healthy ego knows that it is not alone, that the world is full of other egos belonging to humans just as valuable, significant, and as vividly real as oneself. Life is not a rose garden where one walks serenely alone, as reverential onlookers watch from a distance. It’s more like, oh, Grand Central Station at rush hour. The problem with being president, ego-wise – the problem with the office and its position and perks – is that once you are there, life truly is a Rose Garden stroll, with the whole world watching and deferring to you. The healthy ego in this situation understands that it in no way deserves this greatness, but rather, as Shakespeare said, has had it thrust upon him. The owner of an unhealthy ego, in contrast, has been president all along, in his own mind; the office itself is merely a belated confirmation of how he saw himself, in his own inner glory.

In closing, I promise that I will get off the topic of Donald Trump. I admit, I’m a bit fixated. In fact, I’m obsessed with Trump in a way that is more than a little Trump-like. He bothers me, and I can’t let it go. So I keep digging back in, making remarks, having pithy thoughts in the middle of the night... and firing off yet another blog post.

Thing is, I’m a writer for a magazine. He’s the president of the United States.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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