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Donald Trump, the Teenage Monarch

The Democrats are trying to cut deals with the president, but doing so risks legitimizing a man-child who is unfit for the office.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Just as many Never Trumpers warned would happen, Donald Trump is starting to sound like a Democrat. After spending the better part of a year governing as a far-right Republican, the president apparently decided that he wasn’t getting anywhere and might have more success working with the opposition. The newly minted dealmaker is now buddies with “Chuck and Nancy,” as he refers to the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In chummy chats, Trump seems open to ideas like granting legal status to Dreamers and shoring up Obamacare insurance markets, policies that are not only anathema to conservatives but which Trump himself vehemently opposed until his latest about-face.

Republicans are aghast; Democrats are warily optimistic. Given Trump’s erratic management style and fickle policy positions, Democrats have little reason to trust him. But Schumer and Pelosi seem to think they also have nothing to lose. With Republicans in full control of the government, Democrats have very little leverage. So Schumer and Pelosi can hardly be blamed for their dalliance with Trump, especially if it pays off in humane policies like legal protection for young undocumented immigrants.

Yet the idea that Democrats have little to lose elides several clear dangers. On a purely political level, Trump has already humiliated and betrayed the leaders of his own party, and may well do the same to Schumer and Pelosi. On an electoral level, cooperating with Trump could extend his political life, making him a more palatable figure to the general population. But most important, by working with Trump, Democrats are implicitly legitimizing a president who has repeatedly proven unworthy of the office. That we would even have to weigh this concern against the fate of 800,000 young undocumented immigrants lays bare the malignancy of Trump’s presidency.

Trump’s bipartisan gambit reveals his fundamental lack of seriousness about policy and his naked pursuit of a “win.” He’s even willing to slap a conservative label on Democratic policies, Politico reports:

After months of hammering Republicans over their failure to repeal Obamacare, President Donald Trump huddled this week with moderate House Democrats and Republicans who were trying to sell him on a fix to the health care law.

Upon hearing it had bipartisan support, the president had one question: “Can I call it ‘repeal and replace’?”

“You can call it whatever you want, Mr. President,” a Democratic lawmaker told Trump, eliciting laughter throughout the room.

The president loved that response.

Yet whatever policy harvest the Democrats can reap from cajoling Trump will come at a price. He might change his ideological orientation to suit Democrats, but he can’t change his feckless character. Trump is the same unfit president he was when trying to deliver “wins” to the far right. He’s still unprincipled, ill-informed, lazy, and mercurial. Trump continues to act like a 13-year-old trapped in the body of a 71-year-old world leader, as if his prefrontal cortex never developed beyond adolescence. Trump is all libido, lacks impulse control, and is prone to poor decision-making.

Consider Jonathan Swan’s account in Axios about why Trump is now so receptive to working with Democrats:

Trump gets mostly positive feedback for his turn towards bipartisanship. He watches cable news in the morning, and even “Fox and Friends” finds a way to praise his deal with the Democrats. He reads his morning news clips and briefing materials, which are managed by Staff Secretary Rob Porter, under the guidance of [John] Kelly. And during the day it’s not possible for a staff member to sneak a story onto Trump’s desk that might rile him up and turn him in a wildly different direction in an instant.

Bottom line: Staff who oppose the moderate immigration turn no longer have unfettered access to Trump, and nor do allies on the outside who, in the first six months of the administration, used to send text messages to Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller, and often receive a snappy callback from the president. Kelly now has real control over the most important input: the flow of human and paper advice into the Oval Office. For a man as obsessed about his self image as Trump, a new flow of inputs can make the world of difference

By this account, Trump is so immature that he needs his media diet and social life heavily controlled; he can’t be trusted not to make a rash decision based on the incomplete or conflicting information he’s given.  In other words, he’s a man-child more than a world leader.

Giving this much power to Kelly is disturbing for a number of reasons. If Kelly did control Trump, that would make the presidency closer to a monarchy with a child ruler, with the real power residing in close advisers. Moreover, despite claims that Kelly is a non-ideological pragmatist who runs a tight ship, there’s little reason to trust him; he can be as extreme as Trump’s other advisers. According to The New York Times, in a discussion about the fate of the Dreamers, Kelly “likened Mexico, one of the United States’ most important trading and law enforcement partners, to Venezuela under the regime of Hugo Chávez, the former leader, suggesting it was on the verge of a collapse that would have repercussions in the United States.” This is a false and hysterical view of Mexico, one of the most stable democracies in Latin America.

Finally, there’s little reason to believe that Kelly’s control of Trump’s media diet is even having the desired effect of restraining the president. Trump continues to post unhinged tweets. On Sunday, he retweeted a GIF edited to make it look like he had hit Hillary Clinton in the back with a golf ball (the creator of the original tweet turned out to be an anti-Semite and racist). Writing about Trump’s weekend “Twitter bender,” Washington Post columnist Daniel W. Drezner theorized, “The more that the prime minister White House chief of staff weeds out the sycophants and malcontents, the more that the toddler in chief will rebel.... Trump possesses such an oppositional personality that he needs to find ways to rebel against the constraints that John F. Kelly has placed on his White House staff. As his sycophants depart, Twitter is the one place where he can quickly get a similar hit of flattery.” In short, Kelly is trying to exert a level of power no White House official should have, and he’s not even succeeding.

Both parties have made a devil’s bargain with the president. Republicans might be appalled by Trump’s betrayal of core principles, but remain wedded to him in the hopes he’ll enact a modicum of the GOP agenda. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders fawn over a president they know is a cruel bigot and ignoramus in the hopes they can save vulnerable Americans from his wrath.

The Democrats’ bargain is at least defensible. Thanks to Trump’s decision to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), in a few months nearly a million Dreamers could be deported from the country they consider home. If Schumer and Pelosi can pull off a deal that gets Dreamers citizenship, it’ll be worth the cost of working with Trump. But there is ample reason for doubt, as Trump seems to be playing both sides against each other. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican, said Sunday on Meet the Press“In fact, [Trump] called me a couple nights ago to say there’s no deal. He wants to make sure that we protect the interest of American workers. In particular, by ending unlimited chain migration, which is why we have so many unskilled workers coming into the country.” Whom is Trump telling the truth to, Cotton or Schumer? Most likely neither. Trump has no real immigration policy in mind, so either he’s telling each faction what they want to hear or he’s constantly changing his mind based on the latest advice given to him.

The risks and costs of working with Trump has to be acknowledged by anyone who negotiates with him, especially those in the Democratic opposition. If you accede to the rule of a teen monarch, then you have to tolerate his capriciousness, ignorance, bigotry, and fecklessness. You’ll be complicit in his illegitimate presidency, and your reputation may be tarnished. And in the end, you may not even have a deal to show for it. This is not to say that Democrats should never cross enemy lines, but only that there are no good options for the opposition under Trump—just bad, and worse.