Does Donald Trump want to be the world's father figure?
That might help explain his lurch toward globalist interventionism
Probably everybody can think of a moment in the past 100 days when President Trump has done something that surprised them, for better or worse.
But the America First noninterventionist Middle East Twitter Cassandra suddenly lobbing 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian government air base because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killed scores of civilians with nerve gas? That was truly shocking. And it seemed to kick off a cascade of other curious decisions: Soon Trump, who had already vowed to protect Japan, was rattling sabers at North Korea. He decided that China is a partner, Russia a frenemy, Canada a trading rival, NATO a relevant priority for the U.S., the Paris climate agreement something to consider, and NAFTA something to keep alive.
Trump's new globalist interventionism has been greeted with a bunch of explanatory theories: The establishment is assimilating him like some sort of Washington Borg; or maybe he discovered the heady power of commanding America's unrivaled military-industrial toys and being feted for it; perhaps he's trying to distract us all from the ongoing investigation into his ties with Russia. But Trump's stated reason for unilaterally committing an act of war against Assad is very telling.
He said he was moved by the suffering of foreign babies — a group he said just a year earlier he would look in the face and tell they could not come to the safety of America, period. "Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children," Trump said in a televised statement from Mar-a-Lago. "It was a slow and brutal death for so many — even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror."
If that sounds a little paternalistic, maybe it's because President Trump has decided he should be the world's dad.
Eric Trump offered a similar explanation. "You can tell he was deeply affected by those images of the children," he told Britain's Telegraph. "My father will act in times like that. And by the way, he was anti doing anything with Syria two years ago. Then a leader gasses their own people, women, and children. At some point America is the global leader and the world's superpower has to come forward and act."
For decades there's been a popular maxim that Democrats want a president with maternal instincts and Republicans a national paterfamilias — the Democrats are the "mommy party" and the GOP is the "daddy party." "This mother and father schema came to define our politics in the '60s," argued David Paul Kuhn at Real Clear Politics in 2010. "Debates over culture, crime, race, and war began to resort the electorate. The political right stressed law and order. The political left stressed societal welfare. And not much has changed since." He continued:
Today, the daddy party views government as a force for order. Government exists to prevent harm, whether to life or way of life. Washington is to structure politics, not improve society. But this more minimal state, like the stereotypical detached father, can also feel callously indifferent. The mommy party views government as a means to feel safe. Washington provides a freedom from jeopardy to nurture citizens. Government is both safety net and springboard. But this active government, like the stereotypical overbearing mother, can also feel oppressive and invasive. [Kuhn, Real Clear Politics]
The presidency changes people, often in unpredictable ways. But if Trump is throwing his fatherly arms around the world, that may not be as much of an incongruous stretch at is seems. This is a man who clearly sees business as a family enterprise and trusts his children above all other people. It would also be an expansion of how he's long viewed his job as president, a kind of Father Knows Best figure. "I alone can fix it," he said at the Republican National Convention. He promised to protect his people and punish those who would harm them. What Trump "needs to know is that he's the father of America, and that carries a heavy responsibility," Ohio Gov. John Kasich said earlier this week.
But one of the keys to Trump's success as a politician, I think, is that he promised to be both mother and father: He was a sort of hybrid, vowing to cover every American under a "beautiful" health-care plan, defend Medicare, protect American workers from nefarious foreigners, save Americans from the evils of opioid addiction, make sure nobody was dying on the streets, and literally protect America with a massive, impenetrable wall. Still, the list of top GOP priorities that Kuhn identifies — border security, military buildup, swamp-draining, defeating terrorism, making America great again — is essentially Trump's core platform.
If he does adopt a paternalistic embrace of the people of Earth, it would have important and unpredictable ramifications. Crime, immigration, and unemployment are at recent lows in America, despite what Trump might tell you, but there is a lot of terrorism, hurt, and suffering in the world. So far, Trump's short tenure as the world's dad has not produced much nurturing or fatherly safeguarding. But as any parent (or post-tween child) could probably tell you, the desire to be a good parent does not always translate into actual good parenting.