The Adults in the Room

Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, James Mattis
Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, James Mattis; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

The timeworn metaphor has been used and reused ever since the earliest days of the Trump era, when Donald Trump was first putting together his cabinet. On December 4, after he named James Mattis to be his defense secretary, the website Politico asserted that “there’s finally an adult in the room.” In January, as Rex Tillerson was being confirmed as secretary of state, Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told his colleagues, “To me, Mr. Tillerson is an adult who’s been around.” In February, during Trump’s first visit to Mexico, the Financial Times quoted one source as saying that Tillerson and John Kelly (then secretary of homeland security) “represent the adult wing of the new regime.”1

Before long, the metaphor became a collective one: a small group of officials within the Trump foreign-policy team represented “the adults” or “the grownups in the room.” The membership in the club changed slightly from time to time. At first, the “adults” honorific was most commonly applied to the threesome of Tillerson, Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. This summer, after Trump brought in Kelly to be his White House chief of staff, Kelly became not only a member but the leading figure in the Adults club, while, gradually, Tillerson’s problems and increasing marginalization as secretary of state have made him less central to the group.

Phrases like “the adults” or “the grownups in the room” seem on the surface to carry intuitive meanings but raise all sorts of questions that deserve scrutiny. What does it mean to be an “adult” in Washington in general, or, in particular, under Donald Trump? What policies do the “adults” favor? Where do they come from, and what do they believe? Most importantly, what is the significance of the fact that most of Trump’s so-called grownups come from the military? To answer such questions, it helps to look at the history, both of the way the idea of “adults” has been used in Washington in the past and of the way military officers in the US have served in top civilian jobs.

The notion that some officials are “adults” or “the grownups in the room” is an old Washington trope dating back decades before the arrival of Donald Trump. It is linked to an opposing metaphor: in Washington parlance, others are said to be “in need of adult supervision.” These phrases go to the heart of the way those who work in Washington operate, see themselves, and, above all, talk about themselves. Washington insider newsletters like The Nelson Report and Washington columnists like The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman purvey the notion that some people are “adults” or “grownups” and others are in need of “adult supervision.” The phrases were meant to imply a judgment about an individual’s…

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