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The new infantocracy in politics

Like an aged babysitter who has forgotten herself for a moment and decided to join the kids, Theresa May now identifies Donald Trump as her closest ally.

Donald Trump rally in Newtown, Pennsylvania, October 21, 2016. Credit: Flickr/Michael Candelori. Some rights reserved.

There is, it appears, a worldwide epidemic of infants in positions of political power, and everyone is telling everyone else to grow up.

In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May and Nigel Farage, the ex-UKIP leader, have both told officials from the European Union (EU)  to “grow up”—in Farage’s case, before embarking on a childish rant of his own. Conservative MP Ian Duncan Smith similarly blasted EU leaders for “behaving like children.” On this evidence, there is nowhere so seemingly childish than Brussels, with its babyish EU bureaucracy, its technocrats, and its parental disregard for Britain’s national independence. Grow up people!

But it’s not only the EU’s arrested development that is frustrating British politicians. Theresa May has also said that she wants a “grown-up relationship” with Scotland and Wales, and that Labour needs to be “more grown-up” about the National Health Service. Labour MP Stella Creasy has said that “we need a grown-up form of socialism,” while her leader Jeremy Corbyn wants the UK government to develop a “more grown-up” strategy for Europe.

As if seeking to reinforce the childish reputations of politicians, during the referendum campaign on Brexit Boris Johnson complained that all the doom-sayers in the Remain camp had their pants on fire, while in Norway the Prime Minister was caught playing Pokémon Go in parliament.

And then there is Donald Trump, the biggest child politician of them all. Like Sesame Street’s Elmo and many of the toddlers that love him, Trump is an “illeist”—someone who prefers to refer to himself in the third person rather than “I” or “me.” ‘Be nice and cool, stay on point Donald, stay on point.’ But his infantile traits go beyond illeism: he also bears grudges like a hungry child. He cries ‘they started it’ to excuse his behaviour, and labels others as ‘just being jealous’ when they criticise him. Hopefully Trump will go down in history as the only American President to have boasted about the size of his penis on the campaign trail.   

Surprisingly, however, the leader who’s most determined to be seen as mature and reliable is also the leader who seems most determined to hold hands with Trump, that most immature and unreliable of politicians. While other political figures from Corbyn to ex-US Vice-President Joe Biden have been queuing up to tell Trump to grow-up, Theresa May—usually so fond of this instruction herself—has remained silent. Like an aged babysitter who has forgotten herself for a moment and decided to join the kids, May now identifies Trump as her closest ally.

As a politician whose image rests on being a sensible grown-up, this alliance is a dangerous step. In an interview with TV presenter Jon Snow, the actress and former Labour MP Glenda Jackson lamented how Labour needed a “grown-up” as leader rather than Jeremy Corbyn: “the one thing you can’t take away from our Prime Minister,” she reflected, “is that she is very clearly a grown-up.” The Daily Express likewise graced May’s leadership as ushering in a new “era of grown-up politics,” while The Times heralded her as “the only grown-up in the room.” In the light of her new friendship with the Donald, however, her prized grown-up credentials will inevitably be called into question.

May’s shift captures one of the main dangers of Trump: that he risks bringing everyone else down to his own level of immaturity, whether enemies or allies. Joe Biden, for example, spoke of wanting to “take Trump behind the gym” and made gestures accordingly with his fist – “if I were in high school,” he swiftly added, “I want to make that clear.” He told Trump to “grow-up” a few months later.

Similarly, when Trump announced his shameful immigration ban on all citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, a kind of global birthday-party politics ensued. Several of the countries punished by the ban (Iran and Iraq in particular) responded by proposing bans of their own on all Americans: If I’m not invited to your party, you’re not invited to mine either. This is understandable, and even potentially effective, but it only serves to deepen the divides that Trump is so dedicated to deepening. The entire world is subsequently brought down to his own low level.

Unfortunately, as is already clear, Trump’s childishness will not negate his threat or his agency. If anything, it appears only likely to increase them. He is erratic, prone to tantrums and refuses to accept decisions he does not like, irrespective of all and any expertise on the subject in question. He is the Jack Merridew of this new “Lord of the Flies” world: an aggressive castaway leader with contempt for democratic institutions on an island destined to go up in flames. We are left like Merridew’s bespectacled, bullied victim in the book—Piggy—loyally clinging to the conch and not knowing what to do. The conch is a shell that comes to symbolise democracy, order and civilisation on the island, and is eventually smashed in the carnage that ensues. 

How should we respond to the rise of the infantocracy? “The best antidote to anti-politics is grown-up politics” says Labour MP Chuka Umunna, clinging to the conch. The same complacency underpinned the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton: if we show ourselves to be the more adult, her team reasoned, we’ll win. “Hillary Clinton Destroyed Trump in the Debates Just by Being a Grown-Up”, reads one emblematic headline. Such attitudes were everywhere, and then she lost.

The problem is that the increasing childishness of politics runs deeper than any one person or a single flaw, but we can at least begin to address it by binning fake solutions.  ‘Grown-up politics’ is a meaningless phrase that serves as yet another slide in the political playground.  Its allure is a symptom of the childishness of politics, not a cure. Most of the time it simply stands for ‘politics that agree with me,’ a patronising complacency that compounds our problems.

The rising popularity of this platitude stands in for the new ideas that are needed if politics is to take a mature step forward. To that end, perhaps it’s precisely the child-like imagination to look beyond the possible and see something different that’s required, rather than the childish impatience and intolerance of the infantocrats.

Ultimately however, faced with the sight of a UK parliament where the average age is 51 yet in which MPs continue to insult each-other with versions of ‘your mum is’ type jokes, we can only conclude that grown-up politicians don’t exist. ‘Grown-up’ is a hyped-up human destiny forever doomed to disappointment, an impossible plane on which the world suddenly becomes more sensible. In that case, the question isn’t whether we want grown-ups or children in power, but what kind of children we want and how they should be supervised.

In his Anti-Mémoires, the French writer André Malraux asks a parish priest what he has learned about human nature after fifteen years of listening to confessions. “Confession teaches you nothing,” the priest replies, “And yet...people are much unhappier than one thinks...and then also the fundamental fact is that there are no grown-ups.” It’s a lesson we could all do with learning. Today, there are no grown-ups—and there won’t be any to save us from this mess. 

About the author

Samuel Earle is a recent Masters graduate from the London School of Economics, where he studied political theory. Follow him on twitter @swajcmanearle.

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