Inner Child

Fodder for the extreme right. Berlin 2016.

Right now, the American media is dominated by discussion of Michael Wolff’s forthcoming book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Towards the end of the incendiary excerpt published in New York Magazine, Katie Walsh, Deputy Chief Staff until March, 2017, is quoted saying that working with the president was “‘like trying to figure out what a child wants.’”

She would certainly not be the first person to characterize him in this way. Even Trump’s closest confidantes have repeatedly remarked how impetuous he can be, seemingly unmoved by the concern for decorum exhibited by most people with power and influence. In a passage that seemingly paraphrases Walsh’s reflections, Wolff writes that, “He was often confident, but he was just as often paralyzed, less a savant than a figure of sputtering and dangerous insecurities, whose instinctive response was to lash out and behave as if his gut, however confused, was in fact in some clear and forceful way telling him what to do.”

It’s not surprising that Trump has responded to news of the book’s imminent release with rage. Nothing in this description of him is meant to be taken positively. For members of the political establishment, any behaviour that seems childish is problematic. Although the Republican Party leadership continues to go along with the White House, because Trump’s priorities largely align with theirs, they wish he would display more maturity. Every time he throws a tantrum, they nervously ponder the electoral calendar, wondering whether a bloodbath in the midterm elections can still be avoided.

Curiously, though, the president’s seeming refusal to grow up inspires a different response in many of his supporters. His boyishness is taken for proof of his honesty. Whereas career politicians spend most of their time trying to conceal their true feelings, Trump seemingly communicates them with little hesitation. To them, he is like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, refusing to be deceived by appearances.

Although I may be personally disgusted by everything Donald Trump presently stands for, I think these radically different responses to his immaturity deserve a closer look. They originate deep within the American psyche. Indeed, it can be plausibly argued that they constitute its foundational conflict. Although grown-ups generally condescend to children, they also express admiration for them. And these mixed feelings extend to the ways in which they perceive their own youth. No matter how glad we may be for the wisdom of experience, part of us remains nostalgic for a time when we hadn’t yet learned to steer clear of trouble.

We don’t let our children vote until they are mature. That’s how we rationalize their disenfranchisement, anyway. But I wonder whether the real truth might be very different: we don’t let them vote until they have learned to lie effectively, first to others and then, more importantly, to themselves. Do eighteen-year-olds really act that much more maturely than twelve-year-olds? For that matter, do their parents?

Maturity seems to consist largely of learning how to hide one’s immaturity. Grown-ups still have tantrums when they’re tired. They still turn on their friends for reasons they can’t fully articulate. They still resent sharing their own prized possessions – money, power, loves – even as they seek to partake of other people’s. The difference is that there’s no underpaid, overly patient teacher to call them on their transgressions. Sure, they have to apologise from time to time. But how often does someone actually say to an adult, “Look, I know you’re hungry and didn’t sleep enough last night, but you should not have said that mean thing to your colleague. Look at me. Use your words. Tell me why you did it.”

People think it’s adorable when small children come up with simple answer to complex problems. A good portion of the humour that wends its way through social networks consists of the darling things kids say. This patronising attitude works the same way it did when European explorers described the “natural” ways of the natives they encountered on their imperialist adventures. To be sure, it’s a lot more socially acceptable to condescend to children than it is to condescend to grown men and women. But does that make it right?

Many years ago, when my daughter was attending pre-school at our city’s Jewish Community Center, she participated in a series of special events honouring everyone who had died while serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Although the curriculum made minimal mention of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, she eventually intuited enough to ask me questions about it. I tried to explain the history of the dispute as bloodlessly as possible. She thought for a bit, then said, “The only way they can solve the problem is by talking together until they compromise. They have to learn to share.”

It’s perfectly obvious to a five-year-old that the guidelines for social interaction in a pre-school should also be the guidelines for political interaction in the real world. We grown-ups, on the other hand, find all sorts of reasons why it’s appropriate to act in ways that would get our children sent to the office. And we call this sort of rationalization “maturity” and “wisdom.” It makes us feel better. Whether it makes us live better, however, is doubtful.

Like most parents, her mother and I tried to instill a sense of idealism in our daughter when she was little, even though our own perspective on world affairs frequently arises from a place of disillusionment. We wanted her to have hope, even when we felt hopeless ourselves. At the same time, though, we weren’t willing to reduce the complexity of modern life to the breadth of a Hallmark card. Nor did we wish to fall into the habit of always saying, “Wait until you’re older.” Children deserve to know when the problems they confront at home or school are shared by people around the world. Otherwise, they might blame themselves. The last thing we desired was for her to believe that her happiness or sadness is her responsibility alone.

Americans, unfortunately, tend to believe in the importance of self-reliance even when they understand intellectually that the self they must rely on is rarely as independent as they would like. Although they probably won’t resist if someone tries to do something nice for them, they are far more likely to feel comfortable with achievements that can be attributed to the do-it-yourself ideology that underpins everything in this country from religion to popular music.

Children, of course, realize that they aren’t permitted to do certain things by themselves and look forward to a time when the restrictions on their liberty will fall away like the stake that helps a sapling grow strong and true. But that time never really comes. Unless, that is, they achieve the peculiar sort of double-consciousness that makes it possible for them to act with the confidence of children temporarily freed from external restraints, while still convincing themselves that they possess the wisdom of grown-ups.

There’s a paradox, though. Like the lakes that shimmer on the horizon of a parched desert landscape, this divided self is the product of a delusion. Instead of acting with confidence, most adults are plagued by doubt. The future they once aspired to, in which they would finally be emancipated, starts to look like a purgatory of perpetual bondage. No matter how many responsibilities they take on, they still don’t feel that they have the purview to act independently. Yet they compensate for this lack of autonomy by restricting the freedom of young people.

This isn’t going to change anytime soon, surely. But we would do well to acknowledge that the binary opposition between child and grown-up is an interminable construction project, like earthquake retrofitting along a major fault line. The barrier shored up one minute can crumble to dust in the next. Thinking about democracy from our children’s perspective might remind us of its value. Because, whatever the imperfections of its implementation, democracy is the best word we have for sharing, the means of redefining self-reliance as a mutual reliance on each other. If that sounds like the statement of purpose for a really good pre-school, so be it.

It’s tempting to blame Ralph Waldo Emerson for the persistence of the do-it-yourself mentality. After all, he did write the famous essay titled Self-Reliance, in which he distilled the dimly intuited convictions of ordinary Americans into a philosophical program. As anyone who reads Emerson carefully can tell you, though, his prose takes away with one hand what it gives with the other. He promotes independence, while repeatedly underscoring the ways in which we are interdependent. His work consistently calls the boundaries of the modern self into question.

Sadly, however, even well-read Americans are more likely to remember Emerson’s sallies against conformity than his recognition that the singularity of the non-conformist derives from something we all have in common. But even in “Self-Reliance” Emerson makes the self seem less than solid. Advising his readers not to worry about the consistency of their actions, he notes that, “the voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks”, but adds that, “this is only microscopic criticism. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency”.

Given Emerson’s emphasis on the role that time plays in our perception of the self, it is telling that his most compelling example of true self-reliance is not the grown adventurer, inventor, or fearless leader, but a child. “The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. How is a boy the master of society; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits.”

Did Barack Obama seem too much like a grown-up? While liberals make fun of our current President for behaving like an overindulged boy, their counterparts on the Right long focused their energy on portraying Obama — like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Al Gore before him — as indecisive. At first glance, these strategies seems to be operating on different planes. But Emerson’s description of the boy who is “master of society”, not in spite of the fact that he is “irresponsible” but precisely because he is, suggests that Democrats and Republicans might be contesting the same ideological terrain after all.

This might explain, for example, why Democratic Party propagandists of the past two decades have expended so much money setting up photo ops in which its otherwise rather stiff-seeming standard bearers have been shown indulging their inner child: visiting rural fairs, shooting guns, professing their love for the simple pleasures that working-class Americans aspire to achieve. Even as liberals mock Donald Trump for being a boy who keeps convincing himself that the plans of his grown-up advisors are actually his own invention, they seem to recognize that Americans distrust politicians who ha