How generalizable is the Toddler-in-Chief hypothesis?
I don't want to revisit this argument, and yet...
Full disclosure: I curated the #ToddlerinChief thread and wrote The Toddler in Chief primarily as a means of preserving my sanity during a moment when American politics seemed less than sane. But there was also a serious argument in both the article and the book: the deeper problem with Trump’s immature decision-making was that the guardrails on executive power had been worn down to a nub. In other words, the problem was not just Trump’s temper, knowledge deficits, short attention span, and oppositional behavior. It was that these behavioral traits were married to a system of government in which checks on presidential power had eroded badly. I stressed this point in in a short Perspectives on Politics exchange last year:
As I argued in my introduction, “formal and informal checks on the presidency have eroded badly in recent decades, and Trump assumed the office at the zenith of its power (p. 4).” The capacity of Congress, the judiciary, and the federal bureaucracy to constrain direct presidential action has been steadily ebbing since the post-Watergate reforms….
These institutional shifts are the underlying antecedent conditions that explain why Trump’s individual psychology matters more than past presidents. Because recent presidents face fewer constraints on political behavior, variance in individual leader attributes explains more. This also explains why Trump’s presidential behavior seems increasingly erratic. As his initial senior staff—the so-called adults in the room—left the administration, their replacements were either unable or unwilling to constrain his myriad norm violations. Trump has shredded many of the “informal institutions” that were thought to bind the presidency.
Since the book has come out, I occasionally get queried about whether the concept generalizes beyond Trump:
No doubt, former employees of Elon Musk have described him as behaving like a "toddler that was having a tantrum about something, or upset about something." But this is not a great example. Sure, Musk seems to possess some immature traits, and he’s doing a bang-up job of destroying Twitter. That said, capital markets seem perfectly willing to respond negatively to his more erratic behavior. Furthermore, no matter what people say, he’s not really a significant political actor. A reminder: technopolarity is not a thing.
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Scanning the globe, what is more disturbing is the recognition that the American president is hardly the only democratic leader who is operating in a more unconstrained space. Other democratic polities have produced leaders intent on eliminating constrains on their rule: Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, or Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro (and Hugo Chavez before him) have exploited democratic elections and populist referenda to place more power into the executive’s hands. This has sometimes led to very erratic policymaking, such Erdoğan’s odd macroeconomic policies or Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s horribly-timed bet to tie his country’s economy to a cryptocurrency.
This is not just happening in democratic regimes. Indeed, part of the democratic recession of the last 15 years ago has been the ways in which countries that used to be classified as “competitive authoritarian” states have mostly gone full authoritarian. This is particularly true if one looks at the autocratic members of the G-20. Over the past five years Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated his power in Saudi Arabia (to the consternation of U.S. officials). Vladimir Putin has rewritten the Russian constitution to ensure his grip on power can continue into the 2030s. And last month Xi Jinping cemented his control over the Chinese Communist Party in a 20th Party Congress that included the world’s most awkward brush-off of his predecessor Hu Jintao.
You get the point: an awful lot of leaders across the globe are exercising power with fewer domestic constraints. This means, in turn, that the psychology of those individual leaders matters more. They can enact policies that might not be wise or strategic, and yet no one else is their country has the ability to countermand them. With fewer internal constraints on their range of behavior, they can engage in riskier or more counterproductive strategies on the global stage. Activities like, you know, getting bogged down after invading a neighboring country or persisting in pandemic policies that exact an enormous economic cost.
Does this mean they are all as immature as Donald Trump? Not exactly. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are a lot of things, but they don’t suffer from, say, a short attention span or an inclination for temper tantrums (that we know of). Xi didn’t scream at Hu Jintao when he resisted leaving the 20th Party Congress, he just stared straight ahead like a cold-blooded martinet.
We are not seeing a rise in immature leadership; rather, we are seeing a rise of less constrained leadership. There is now a wider variance in foreign policy behavior. This, in turn, means that one of the few remaining checks on a state’s risk-taking behavior is the rest of the international system. In a weird way the world is morphing into a system in which the simplifying assumption of treating the state as a unitary actor seems more plausible. But this shift does not mean that analysts can rely on simple rational choice models. Rather, we need to burrow ever deeper into the political psychology of individual leaders.
As per usual, it’s an exciting time for political scientists. Which means it’s a fraught time for everyone else.