So far, I’ve dealt with Donald Trump’s bid for the White House as performance art: a clever, full-body, self-marketing scheme in the fashion of actor Joaquin Phoenix restyling himself as a hip-hop artist to promote his mockumentary I’m Still Here. You remember that odd media moment from a few years back, right? When the handsome star of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line grew a huge beard and rapped incoherently on David Letterman? I can’t be the only one, can I?
So I keep waiting for the Trump-presidential-run punch line. I mean, what is his endless campaign that’s conquered America’s and even the world’s attention 24/7 really selling: the new Trumptopian private community on the moon (or in Burma)?
Still, after all these months—can it truly be nearly a year and not an eon or two?—I guess I finally have to accept that he’s really running for president and I have to figure out how to explain Donald Trump to my kids. At 9, 3, and 2, they may be the only Americans left who aren’t in the know when it comes to The Donald—and, believe me, I have no illusions. This is going to be tough! After all, he makes me scream at the screen, which leads my kids to wonder not about him but about their mom. It goes without saying (which is undoubtedly why I’m saying it) that he’s the antithesis of everything I believe in. Why are you not surprised by this? I’m way left of Bernie Sanders. I don’t usually admit it in public, but I’m probably going to vote for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. She talks about deep system change and a human-centered economy, and that’s the kind of talk I like.
Please note that, in good mom fashion, so far I’ve used only “I statements” and I’m always polite (when not screaming at that screen). Come to think of it, I pretty much only argue about politics with other people who read The New York Times with a highlighter in one hand, their indignation in reserve, and a pad of paper ready to make notes for their next rational (yet withering) letter to the editor that won’t be published.
So, it’s no surprise that Donald Trump pushes all my buttons, even a few I hadn’t noticed that I had, which is why I’ve tried to relegate him to the National Enquirer end of the media-political spectrum. But now that the Enquirer is breaking stories of “political import” in the era of The Donald and he’s even more of a household name than ever, it’s time to reconcile with reality. It’s time to accept that, even though (or do I mean because?) he’s racist and sexist, blustering and entitled, full of lies and blames and hates, he’s a Republican presidential candidate of consequence. I know, I know—I’m the last person in the United States to do this, but bear with me.
And even if he doesn’t win (please, God, yes!), who can deny that this election says something sad, troubling, and important, if not—in the Trumpian tradition—unbearably self-important, about our country? I imagine a President Trump and I immediately want to move my whole family to the other side of his big, fat, future “beautiful” wall on the border with Mexico.
All of this means that maybe trying to explain the Donald Phenomenon to my kids is a lost cause from the start. I’ll just get screechy and irrational and 9-year-old Rosena will go into preteen mode and roll her eyes, while 3-year-old Seamus will say: “Mom, why are you pullin’ on your hair and cryin’?” As I’m reading about Trump, however—and like all Americans these days, to read is to Trump and to view is to Trump, so I’m totally Trumped—I’ve been thinking lately that maybe I have the whole thing upside down. It’s not that I should teach my kids about him, but that my kids could teach him a thing or two about how to be a good person. They could make him great again! Maybe what we need to do is take Donald Trump back to Toddler Town.
“Mine” Is a Chilling Word
“Mine, Madeline! It’s mine.” The kids are both pulling on Olaf’s arms. The tiny, hug-loving snowman from Frozen is stretched between them, and Seamus is technically correct: Olaf was a Christmas present from his big sister Rosena. I am, however, trying to teach them the concept of “ours” and sharing and taking turns as well. If it isn’t something they can share—like books—they can at least trade off, so that both Seamus and his younger sister have a chance to enjoy the object of affection exclusively for a few minutes.
The objects in our house—except for the high-tech, expensive, and dangerous ones (which are mine)—belong to all of us and should be used and enjoyed responsibly by all of us. That’s how we officially operate. My mother, an activist in her own right, always told my brother, sister, and me that “mine is a chilling word.” Isn’t that a great line? I don’t use it a lot, because the kids get sidetracked by whatchilling means.
It’s no surprise that they are only partway there in moments that really matter like that dispute over Olaf, but Seamus is savvy enough to recognize that deploying the word “ours” when Madeline (the house baby at 2) says “mine” is a good way of getting my attention and some kind of interventionary help against his little sister. Madeline just learned the word “everybody’s,” as in, “This ball is everybody’s.” It’s mighty cute, even if it does sometimes still stand in for “mine.” And we keep trying.
Trump obviously stopped trying a long time ago, or was never taught to begin with. He has a “mine” problem. Maybe it’s because he was brought up with a silver knife in his mouth. Maybe his father told him, “You are a king,” and taught him to be a “killer” in childhood, business, and life. Who knows? His father is the “Old Man Trump,” the grim landlord that folk troubadour Woody Guthrie wrote and sang about (after signing a lease for one of his apartments): “I suppose/ Old Man Trump knows/ Just how much/ Racial hate/ He stirred up/ In the bloodpot of human hearts.” (In the 1970s, young Donald Trump and his family were compelled to provide the New York Urban League with a listing of every open apartment in their vast New York City holdings of 14,000 apartments after being sued for racial discrimination by the Justice Department.)
As a kid, Trump was sent off to military school, which he memorably claimed was harder than real military service. In assessing himself in the best possible light (something he’s never stopped doing quite publicly in these last months, giving the world a unique lesson in self-love), he told biographer Michael D’Antonio with pride (I think), “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same.”
In a way, don’t you think that sums up the problem on hand? America First! Make America Great Again! Me! Mine! Build the Wall! Keep Out the Muslims! Aren’t these the grown-up equivalent of first-grade slogans and sentiments? Maybe Trump never got to be a real toddler and so did not grow into a real man (no matter what he thinks of his “hands”).
After all, real toddlers play. If their parents aren’t helicoptering in too much, they run headlong into the world with joyous abandon. And every scrape and bump teaches them a lesson not just about their capabilities, but about their limitations, all our limitations. They’re always reaching, always trying, always pushing themselves forward. From this play and the interactions and striving that comes with it they learn about natural consequences, including such simple lessons as be nice to others and they’re likely to be nice to you, share with others and they’re likely to do the same. Here, for instance, is a simple lesson of everyday life that doesn’t need to be taught: holding on tight to a ball is not as much fun as playing catch. (But if you never learn to let go to begin with…?)
I love watching my kids on the playground and work hard not to helicopter in or—the opposite effect that adds up to more or less the same thing—disappear into my phone or the crossword puzzle. And what amazes me is that they’re so outgoing and ready to connect with anyone who comes along.
“What’s your name?” Seamus greets each new kid. “Wanna play pirates?”—or lions, or wolves, or princesses, depending on his mood. And then he races off, confident that the other kid is running alongside him, ready to play. Madeline laughs and climbs to the top of the highest thing she can scale. “No help, mama. No help. Me do it!!” she calls, proudly, 10 feet off the ground. “Me big.”
And it’s true, she is Huge, so much bigger than Trump because she and Seamus don’t have that overwhelming urge to build walls, or call others names, or demean or demonize.
Listening is an Act of Love (Pay Attention, Donald!)
I almost feel sorry for Trump, given what I know of his upbringing. He pulls on my heartstrings a little, because a man so programmed to grab for every headline and steal every show and say whatever he can to keep the hot lights of the media on him undoubtedly wasn’t listened to as a kid.
Listening is an act of love; that’s what I tell my own kids (even though the steely-saucy New Yorker still buried in this 42-year-old mother of toddlers rolls her eyes big time every time I say it). If listening is an act of love, then it’s a good bet that long ago Donald Trump lost out big time.
Our children’s librarian told me that it takes a toddler five seconds to hear, absorb, and respond to a question or direction you give them. Five seconds is a long time in Toddler Town. In those seconds, I try to imagine my words working their way through a labyrinth of puzzles and curiosities as they hone in on the mental heartlands of my children. But here’s the question I ask myself: Why do I think of Trump while waiting for my “wash your hands” directive to radio down to my child’s brain? Why do I feel terrible for him? Maybe because the volume and pitch of his bombast exists in direct correlation to some ancient childhood feeling of wanting to be heard by those giants looming over him and not knowing how to make that happen.
We Have Nothing to Fear but…
Kids are scared of all sorts of things. Seamus and Madeline are afraid of the dark, of monsters, of superheroes gone bad, and—most of all—kale salad. (Their big sister Rosena harbors this particular dread, too.) Their fears are, of course, largely imaginary (kale salad aside). So try explaining the very real terror pressing at the heart of the Republican Party establishment now that their punishing no-government-is-good-government credo (except when it comes to our giant military and the most oppressive powers of the national security state, those giant tax breaks for the rich, and those giant prisons for the poor, black, and brown) has taken root in the ultimate anti-candidate, the bad boy with the world’s most talked about hairdo (the blonde bouffant with its own Twitter handle— “I’m on top of the man who is on top of the world. Follow me, people”).
Trump’s loss in Wisconsin may be good news for Republicans terrified of him and his family moving into the White House. In a recent poll, a third of Wisconsin Republicans said that they were scared of what Trump would do as president. (Many of them assumedly voted for Ted Cruz, a man so preternaturally scary that even the King of Scary—Stephen King—is scared of him, and that is scary!)
Fear is an evolutionary tool embedded in our minds to keep our bodies from doing dangerous and reckless things. How do toddlers conquer their fears, real and imaginary? Fear slows down their minds a little, taps into their inner executive, and helps them do a cost-benefit analysis of the risky behavior they’re considering. Then they screw up their courage, rush into the dark room, flip on the light, and grab the cookies, their little hearts beating like conga drums. The Fear of Trump should serve a similar function for Republicans. The problem is: Ted Cruz is not a cookie!
Toddlers have so much to teach Donald Trump as a person and as a presidential candidate, but deep down I don’t want him to learn such Toddler Town lessons because that just might make him implosion proof and canny enough to sweep into the Republican convention, get that nomination, and take the general election.
And then I would have a motherly problem of the first order: how to explain President Trump to Rosena, Seamus, and Madeline!