Sigmund Freud developed a theory that human psychology is shaped disproportionately by the longings and shame experienced by young children during toilet training. And while that theory has fallen out of favor, it explains a great deal about the outgoing Trump administration.
Indeed, when we look back at this era, we may conclude that the Trump administration was the story of a group of people fixated with control over their toilets.
From the very beginning, the First Couple experienced the White House primarily as a place with dissatisfactory facilities for depositing their bodily waste. Melania delayed her move into the residence, former senior adviser Stephanie Winston Wolkoff revealed, because she “didn’t want to move to the White House right away in part because she didn’t want to have to use the same shower and toilet as former first lady Michelle Obama.”
The president soon began to take pride in the elegant appearance of the White House lavatories. Trump “has an odd affinity for showing off bathrooms, including one he renovated near the Oval Office,” reported the Times in 2017.
And yet this pride was mixed with dissatisfaction. He repeatedly complained that some people were being forced to flush their toilets extraordinarily often in a single sitting. “We have a situation where we’re looking very strongly at sinks and showers, and other elements of bathrooms,” Trump told reporters. “People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once.”
This was not the sort of issue Americans were used to hearing their president focus on. But Trump seemed to be fixated.
Toilets provide a kind of motif of Trump’s idiosyncratic approach to handling personnel. He informed Rex Tillerson he was being fired when the secretary of State was on the toilet. And he briefly hired as attorney general Matthew Whitaker, whose career had included a stint marketing a special toilet for men whose genitals were too large to fit comfortably into standard-size ones. This was an unconventional qualification for the nation’s highest law-enforcement officer, but perhaps the perfect training for Trump’s.
Now the Washington Post reports that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump forbade the Secret Service agents protecting them from using any of the six bathrooms in their Washington home. The members of the protective detail had to resort to a number of methods, ranging from using the nearby Obama home or local restaurants to temporarily bringing in a porta-potty. Ultimately the Secret Service rented a nearby apartment where the agents could relieve themselves.
The Kushner-Trump couple’s fear of allowing Secret Service members to share their commode may seem fussy, or snobbish. But their behavior can be seen more sympathetically as the residue of a childhood disorder Ivanka acquired through her toilet-obsessed father.
“The whole significance of the anal zone is mirrored in the fact that there are but few neurotics who have not their special scatological customs, ceremonies, etc., which they retain with cautious secrecy,” wrote Freud. To open that space to outsiders would be mortifying.
When this strange and troubled family finally departs the scene, the nation will puzzle over what brought them here and what motivated their curious practices. Maybe they just wanted perfect toilets.