The Phrase “Adults in the Room” Is Misguided

Yet it’s become a well-worn Trump-era trope.

`Man scolding a child.
Camerique/ClassicStock/Getty Images

The anonymous author of this week’s New York Times op-ed about behind-the-scenes “resistance” within the Trump administration reassured readers, “It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room.” There it was again: that well-worn Trump-era trope, in which we hope against hope that somebody more experienced and temperate—James Mattis, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson during his tenure—is going to step in to help stop the president from going off the rails.

Upon closer inspection, “adults in the room” loses its comfort. On Twitter, writer Patrick Blanchfield wondered, “When did adulthood as such become any kind of reassurance about anything? … If you were a space alien, observing our species, you would be correct in observing that fully mature human beings are almost always the ones capable of the most heinous damage.”

Far be it from me to romanticize childhood in the spirit of Rousseau or Wordsworth. I don’t want to presume that children are uncorrupted beings with flowers in their hair—that doesn’t give them their due, either. But Blanchfield has a point. Not only are adults guilty of perpetrating the worst of human sins—wars, holocausts, famines—we over-25s aren’t always all that great at other supposedly “adult” activities, like thinking ahead and extending empathy to others. You only have to look at the way we’ve totally failed to plan for climate change to see that this is true. The self-identified adult in the room who’s been reeling in Trump failed to mention any action taken to protect immigrant children from being separated from their parents—a case where the sober alarm of a supposedly mature person operating at a high ethical level surely should have prevailed over petty cruelty.

Hoping for “adults in the room” presumes that some of Trump’s worst characteristics—impulsivity, emotionality, a fixation on self, and a tendency to act without the full complement of information—are traits that most normal adults don’t, if generally to a lesser degree, display. The phrase imagines that “adults” are people who have attained the ability to be rational. Yet “rationality” (as psychologists and philosophers have argued) is never pure, and grown-ups mix rationality and emotion all the time. We go back-and-forth as the situation demands; sometimes, emotion can even be a better guide than logic.

There’s also political freight to the term. The designation of some people as “rational” grown-ups and others as “emotional” children is usually done to establish hierarchy. White men have been doing this to women and people of color for years. In an analysis of the way we tend to use “adults in the room” in political contexts, James Mann writes that before Trump came in to show everyone what “acting like a child” might really mean, the phrase was “usually a cover for policy differences.” The “adults” were usually centrists, who believed their own views to be the only pragmatic ones. “Bernie Sanders has never qualified as an ‘adult’ in the Washington usage of the word, although he is old enough to collect Social Security,” Mann writes.

Anyone who lauds the “adults in the room” is surely implying that they, and those who think like them, are the adults. For a more recent example, see the words Times editorialist Bret Stephens chose this week to rue the New Yorker’s reversal of its decision on Steve Bannon’s appearance at its ideas festival after rampant criticism on Twitter: “What used to be thought of as adult supervision yields to the itch of the crowd.” What are people like Kathryn Schulz, the Pulitzer-winning New Yorker writer who spoke out publicly against Bannon’s appearance, if not “adults”?

There is also a fundamental misguidedness to the Trump-child comparison. Yes, Trump “acts like” a two-year-old, a three-year-old, a fifth-grader—there have been several excellent humorous arguments to this effect, and a day doesn’t go by without a “Trump is just like my toddler” tweet appearing on my timeline—but it’s not the same. Children who have a tantrum, or cannot stop themselves from screaming in a restaurant, are doing something developmentally appropriate. Even children who lie, a behavior that many adults find very disturbing, are often just playing around with storytelling and fantasy, rather than purposefully manipulating caregivers. Trump is an adult who acts like a child. And that’s a meaningful difference.