Our president-elect was raised by a father who repeatedly told him, “You’re a killer. You’re a king.” So entitled that rainy days saw him delivering papers in a chauffeured limousine, young Donald Trump experienced little that contradicted this message of ruthless entitlement.
When I met Trump, in 2014, for a series of interviews in his skyscraper aerie overlooking Central Park, he spoke with the candor of a man who never worked outside the family business and has been isolated in the role of boss ever since he left college. Among the many disturbing things he told me was: “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same. The temperament is not that different.” This is not the mindset of a man chosen to lead a great democracy. It is the mindset of a Boy King.
Child monarchs were one of the problems of an Old World order that invested power in royal bloodlines and thus permitted the occasional ascension of a little boy or girl. Typically aided by one or more regents who were, essentially, the grown-ups in charge, these juveniles were handled with a combination of indulgence and containment. Typical was Edward VI of England, who was crowned at age 9 and overseen by a council of regents who struggled to keep the country together in a time of great unrest.
Look at the photos of Trump on the night of his election and you see a man in shock. In fact, sources close to him told The New York Times that he was indeed surprised by the pattern of support that allowed him to win the Electoral College, and the White House, while losing the final election tally by roughly 1 million votes. He is only the fifth president to take office without a popular vote mandate, and this fact makes him even more like an unprepared heir to the throne, elevated too young, at a time of crisis and division
Further evidence that Trump is struggling to live up to his election could be seen in his wan appearance at the White House last week. Gone was the overweening self-confidence and bombast. Instead we saw neediness. Three times he called President Obama “a very good man.” When he said he would seek Obama’s counsel, he seemed to express something more than the usual pleasantry. For his part, Obama seems to be appealing to the better angels of Trump’s nature, expressing optimism about the new man’s potential while making the case to preserve at least some of his own policies.
Obama seems to recognize that there are just a few ways to deal with a Boy King. The first is to encourage him to be good, and not destructive, and thereby earn the affection of the people, which Trump has always craved. The second is to erect barriers, which is something that could be done by competing powers abroad or, at home, by the courts or Congress. The third avenue of influence will be found among the circle of advisers who will have the new president’s ear.
The frenzy that has attended Trump’s transition suggests that a ferocious battle has been joined by those who see that Trump may be more dependent on advisers than any president in history. Although he is not exactly a blank slate, Trump possesses only a superficial knowledge of how government works. Hence his surprised reaction to the scope of the president’s responsibilities.
Given their outsize importance, those who are appointed to Trump’s cabinet and those who serve as key informal advisers will be scrutinized for signs of where a President Trump is headed. The pair of key aides he has appointed thus far — GOP stalwart Reince Priebus and alt-right flamethrower Steve Bannon — appear to be more symbols offered to key constituencies than appointments that signal a true direction. However, the fact that they are so different tells us that Trump has not yet decided what kind of president he wants to be.
The men and women who alleviate Trump’s distress, by helping him adapt to the weight of the crown and inhabit the image of the presidency forming in his mind, will be the truly powerful regents. In Edward VI’s case, the first truly steady hand was that of a blood relative, an uncle, who headed the council. This example suggests that members of the incoming first family, and perhaps New Yorkers who have known Trump for decades, including former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, will be key. Vice President-elect Mike Pence earned a position of influence when he accepted a job others were wary of accepting and then campaigned tirelessly.
The Boy King Edward VI was defeated in war in both Scotland and France. At home, England was convulsed by riots and besieged by economic problems. It would be reassuring if his brief reign had been followed by stability, but it was not. Of course, the United States is not 16th-century England. But we have never elected such a neophyte to the highest office in the world. Trump has been a Democrat, an independent, and a Republican, and he has held opposing positions on many of the major issues of the day. Given this record, and his vulnerability, history behooves us to keep an eye on the regents
Michael D’Antonio is author of “The Truth About Trump.’’