President Donald Trump is incurious, ignorant, and ill-informed. He hides this with rudeness, bluster, and lies. As an anonymous German Foreign Ministry official said during Chancellor Merkel’s visit, Trump “uses rudeness to compensate for his weakness.”
Trump couldn’t hold his own with a brilliant woman of substance like Angela Merkel, so he changed the narrative. He accused Germany of not paying up with NATO; he said Obama wiretapped Merkel, just like he tapped Trump tower; he whined about unfair trade with Germany. In public, Trump showed little substance and no sophistication.
It’s not that Trump can’t learn; he doesn’t want to. He’s happy watching Fox News or movies like “Finding Dory,” golfing at his expensive resorts, signing executive orders and holding them aloft like a proud second-grader (Look Ma! I can sign my name!), and holding rabble-rousing rallies (“Lock her up!”) and basking in applause.
Trump operates in the shallows. His experience is in high-priced real-estate and media. He’s best at hyping a certain image of himself. He’s a bull-shitter, and he’s had lots of practice.
A big part of the presidency is ceremonial: the U.S. president is king and prime minister all in one. Trump is failing at both jobs. As a symbol of America, he’s boorish, boastful, and bullying. As a prime minister, he’s incurious, ignorant, and vain.
Five examples: Candidate Trump knew nothing about America’s nuclear triad. He didn’t know it consists of SLBMs (on Trident submarines), ICBMs (land-based), and “air-breathing” bombers. All he “knew” is that allegedly the U.S. nuclear arsenal is obsolete and inferior to the Russian arsenal. But actually the U.S. arsenal is more accurate, more survivable, and far superior to that of any other country, including Russia.
Second example. According to Trump, before he came along, nobody knew how complicated health care could be. We owe that stunning insight to Trump. Third example. According to Trump, Germany owes vast sums of money to the U.S. for defense costs, a false claim rejected by the Germans.
Fourth example: Based on a false Fox News report, Trump accused the previous president of committing a felony by tapping his phones during the campaign season, a charge for which there is no evidence whatsoever. Yet Trump refuses to rescind the charge, despite its repudiation by the FBI, NSA, British intelligence, and his own party.
Fifth example: Trump refuses to admit his Muslim ban is, well, a Muslim ban. Yet the ban refuses to target the one country that supplied 15 out of the 19 hijackers on 9/11: Saudi Arabia. Most experts agree that Trump’s ban is unconstitutional and counterproductive in the war on terror.
Being Trump means never having to say you’re sorry. In his unapologetic blustering, Trump echoes the foreign leader he seems to admire most: Vladimir Putin. In Putin’s Russia, with its history of Tsars and other strong leaders, uncompromising firmness and unyielding certitude are expected if not always applauded. In democratic America, an ability to compromise and a willingness to yield on matters of fact are generally seen as signs of adult leadership by statesmen who serve the people rather than themselves.
Trump’s behavior is better suited to that of Tsars and other anti-democratic strongmen. Trump the incurious has surrounded himself with loyalists, family members like his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, and commissars who watch over his cabinet appointees to ensure their loyalty. Pettiness, paranoia, and score-settling characterize the Executive branch.
Trump often harkens back to World War II and the likes of Generals Patton and MacArthur. How does he compare to the president back then? Franklin D. Roosevelt had a global view of the world while exhibiting a mastery of detail. (So too did Winston Churchill.) Self-confident, FDR looked for no-men, not yes-men. He and his administration took pains to be inclusive and bipartisan. And FDR, with help from Allies like Churchill and Stalin, won World War II.
By comparison, Trump has a parochial and provincial view of the world and can’t even master himself (witness those temper-driven tweets). He hires yes-men and demonizes Democrats and indeed anyone he sees as against him. Alienating allies like Britain, Australia, and Germany, Trump seems least critical of Russia.
Some leaders surprise: they grow in office. But Trump’s smugness, his unwillingness to admit when he’s wrong, his showboating to hide uncomfortable truths, are stunting him. Effective at selling himself and entertaining as a blowhard on (un)reality TV, Trump is failing as a statesman.
Rather than grow, it’s likely Trump will wither in office. The problem is he won’t be alone in his decline and fall.
Addendum: To state the obvious, Trumpcare is not a health care plan: it's a massive tax cut for the rich combined with a cut in services for the working classes and poor. Under this "plan," the CBO estimates that 14 million will initially lose coverage, rising by another 10 million in the next decade. How is this a health care plan? Add cynicism and broken promises to Trump's qualities.
Matt Taibbi puts it well in his book Insane Clown President. Trump is a symptom of a larger disease. “His belligerent pussy-grabbing vulgarity and defiant lack of self-awareness make him, unfortunately, the perfect foil for reflecting the rot and neglect of the corrupted political system he conquers,” Taibbi writes. “A system unable to stop this must be very sick indeed.”
Why do so many Americans continue to place their faith in this incurious, ignorant, vain, and vindictive man? The answers are complicated, but surely his rise represents a stunning indictment of an American political system that is profoundly disconnected from the people.
A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, Astore blogs at Bracing Views.