Space the Nation: And a little child shall lead them

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Jan 23, 2018

The headlines:
Former Aides Say Trump Consoled Himself With Ice Cream After Throwing a Tantrum During Campaign
WH Officials Call Trump's Refusal to Heed Advice 'Defiance Disorder'
Trump: I Have a 'Much Bigger' Button Than Kim Jong-un

The trope: My friends, we are ruled by child.

Where you can find it: The notion that those who control our fate might actually be capricious and temperamental youngsters goes back as far as the notion that there are those who rule our fate. There are only so many ways to explain the unpredictable nature of existence, and “the person in charge is unpredictable” is one of them.

Both Western and Eastern cultures have stories about gods who, as children, use their powers selfishly or playfully. As a child, Hermes steals a flock of goats from Apollo; Krishna’s misappropriation of butter (and breaking jars to get at it) is a cornerstone of his mythology. More generally, ancient cultures seem to have taken it for granted that the main difference between the divine and the human was the scope of power, not their approach to it. Young gods had to mature into responsibility in the same way young people could. Even Jesus had a cranky period, according to the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of Thomas:

In another episode, a child disperses water that Jesus has collected. Jesus kills his first child, when at age one he curses a boy, which causes the child's body to wither into a corpse. Later, Jesus kills another child when Jesus curses him when he apparently accidentally bumps into Jesus, throws a stone at Jesus, or punches Jesus (depending on the translation). 

He grows out of it!

As we speed forward into modern history, stories about children with outsized powers get darker and more claustrophobic; they rule self-contained little universes rather than bump around in the world we all share. These are not stories about adjusting to power, but sheer abuse. The Twilight Zone’s “It’s a Good Life”— based on a short story of the same name — features a toddler governing the town of Peaksville, formerly of Ohio, now a bubble universe in which everyone sings his praises lest he disappear them or turn them into a toy. The episode is familiar enough to most people that it probably feels more canonical than the Gospel of Thomas, and it has two remakes and its own Simpsons parody.

Elsewhere: Game of Thrones gives us the cruel Joffrey Baratheon and Robin “make the bad man fly!” Arryn, as well as Joffrey's brother Tommen, who captures the relatively rare innocent sort of godchild that’s also at the center of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The original Star Trek series loved this trope so much they used it twice: once in “Charlie X,” where an antisocial teenager with telekinetic powers wreaks havoc on the Enterprise, and again in “The Squire of Gothos,” where the lord of a small planet intent on hunting humans for sport is revealed to be the offspring of some more mature demi-gods. Fittingly, Black Mirror’s recent homage to Star Trek wound up being a riff on the same theme: The U.S.S. Callister serves as the stage for an adult man to act out his adolescent fantasies with a spoiled child’s understanding of right and wrong. (Just coincidentally, it can also be read as a critique of white male privilege.) 

Put away your childish things: At first glance, the “ruled by a child” trope is about power in the wrong hands and the existence of consequences beyond the understanding of the person imposing them. That’s the implicit message in every story that gestures toward reading Trump as the toddler-in-chief (and here are 224 of them). Those stories are often played for laughs but also understood to be terrifying ("He doesn’t know what he’s doing and so he’s going to get us all killed. LOL/FML"). But I worry that too much emphasis on Trump’s childlike understanding of government or, indeed, his own existence allows us to forget that Trump does not, in fact, wield magical or even kingly powers.

One of the most alarming things about the list of ways that Trump behaves like a child is the fact that it is largely culled from interviews with Trump staff, Trump supporters, and fellow Republicans. He may be spoiled, but that’s because people are actively spoiling him. Those who flatter and cajole him may feel like they're in “It’s a Good Life,” and that their lives depend on his fickle moods, but every single staffer or congressperson who gives a blind quote about Trump’s emotional instability is, in fact, enabling it. When Tennessee Senator Bob Corker called the White House an “adult daycare center,” it may have felt like a sick burn, but it’s the public who feels the heat every second that Corker doesn’t act on what he knows to be true: The president isn’t capable of performing his job, and therefore shouldn’t be doing it.

Stories like “It’s a Good Life” are chilling because there is literally no escape. In our still-functioning democracy, we have checks and balances that could work to create a release from this narrative. If people in government (specifically, those Republicans around Trump) are truly frightened of what Trump might do, they can stop him: Staffers can offer to testify an impeachment hearing, senators can vote to take away his access to that Big Button, cabinet members can invoke the 25th amendment.

Those of us in the cheap seats in back have some power, too. We can vote, of course (and you definitely should). And we can take a page from “The Squire of Gothos,” whose rambunctious title character, known as Trelane, manipulates reality in conjunction with a technologically miraculous mirror. Kirk notices that Trelane seems both entranced by the mirror and to draw power from it — he can’t stop looking at himself, and he can’t be too far away from it. Is this starting to seem familiar at all?

You can always be one less mirror for the child in the White House, one less retweet, one less cable news viewer, one less emotionally draining argument with your in-laws. Pay attention to politics, for sure! But you don’t have to add your attention to his ego. Objects in that mirror may be smaller than they appear.