Reporter's Notebook

Trump Nation
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An ongoing reader discussion led by James Fallows regarding Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. (For a related series, see “Trump Time Capsule,” as well as “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?”) To sound off in a substantive way, especially if you disagree with us, please send a note:

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Trump Supporters Make Their Case

Trump at a rally on March 13. By the way, America is already great again. (Joe Skipper / Reuters)

In these past few days I’ve argued that Donald Trump is an increasingly impressive political performer, whose lack of substantive knowledge on public issues is increasingly obvious. He keeps saying “we’re going to win again” and “it’s going to be great” because that’s all he knows to say about anything involving what a president does. Three installments to this effect are here, here, and here.

For the other side, a sample of reader mail defending Trump. First, from a reader in Europe, a “shake things up” / “intensify the contradictions” argument:

I think I would vote for Trump.
- what American politics needs is radical change. Hillary won't bring that. Bernie is too weak to deliver.
- he would probably really split the Republican Party. Maybe leading to a multi-party system?
- said that Bush lied the country and the world to war.
- does not unquestioningly take the Israeli side.
- he is not a fascist, racist, white supremacist. Wall or no wall.

I wrote back saying: thanks for laying this out, but I disagree for many reasons, among them that Trump does not know anything about either domestic or international policy, choices, problems, goals. The European replied:

I understand. But I believe it is irrelevant. The position of president was never meant to be as powerful as it is today. The country should be rueld by a functioning Senate and Congress.

What America needs is direct democracy where people can vote on issues directly, like in Switzerland. There is no place for riots and violence in such a system, because it gets settled with a vote. If the majority agrees, then the rest has to shut it. Even if the decision is very controversial and might limit some people's rights. It happens all the time in Switzerland. But decisions also get reversed in subsequent votes. And with some issues, like repealing mandatory military service, they vote on it every 10-15 years. Always with the same outcome.

The point is that people actually have a direct voice and what the majority decides actually happens. I think in today's America most of the "elite" and the politically left-leaning there is a lack of trust in the people and their ability to make sane decisions.

The result is Trump.

Again, Hilary will not change this. Trump is just so disruptive that it might lead to some actual change.

For the record, I find this unpersuasive, the kind of thought-experiment that might seem “interesting” from Europe but not if you’re in the middle of it here. Still, offered for the record.

Good thing he didn’t challenge her to a game of Jeopardy! ™ (Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters)

After the latest GOP debate, I noted that Donald Trump was remarkable for his very high-level performance skills, and for his near-absolute lack of knowledge about policy or public affairs. Then readers weighed in to the same effect. Now, more from readers on Know-Nothingism and the Rise of Trump.

I’ve heard from a reader who for professional reasons has carefully studied a very large number of “newsmaker” interviews in recent years. The reader writes that Trump’s cumulative record is remarkable, especially when compared with Sarah Palin’s:

Most liberal folks in my experience have never really listened closely to either Trump or Palin very much but instead rely on superficial appearance and caricature, so I thought I’d contribute the view of a liberal who has actually listened to them very carefully.

In the year or so after the election, I listened to a lot of Palin interviews, and although her range of knowledge is certainly quite limited, she spoke very confidently and enthusiastically about some Alaska-specific issues, one being the oil industry in the state. Another was less important but still fascinating—the myriad complexities of voting and getting votes counted in Alaska. She took obvious pleasure in her mastery of these subjects and pleasure in explaining them to people who didn’t know much about them.

I have now been through dozens of interviews with Trump with a variety of interviewers, and I have never once—not once—heard him discuss anything, any subject of any kind, with any evidence of knowledge, never mind thought. None. Zero. He’s like a skipping stone over a pond. He doesn’t even come close to the level of dilettante.

You’d think at some point, something, anything would have engaged his interest enough to read up on it and think about it, but as far as I can tell, nothing has. Much more so even than George W., he appears to lack anything resembling intellectual curiosity. Maybe he’s faking it, but while understanding can sometimes be faked, you can’t fake ignorance convincingly.

Making America Great, 1850s version: the Know-Nothing Party at work. (Wikimedia commons)

Yesterday I noted that Donald Trump was by far the supplest and most gifted TV performer of all the presidential candidates left in the field, yet also by far the most ignorant on foreign or domestic affairs, military or government programs, or the other realities of being President. Hardly anything the man says about public affairs is true; what he doesn’t know, or hasn’t heard of, is astonishing.

Readers weigh in on on why a person as able as Trump should have bestirred himself so little to learn anything about the job he now seeks. First, a reader re-stating the question itself:

The oddest part of Trump (to me) is that we're this far into the game and he hasn't made any attempt to educate himself on any policies. It's as though he's uninterested in them or else thinks he need only bullshit his way through the presidency. I don't think he's stupid. Does he honestly believe he can succeed as president without understanding the job? I cannot make any sense of the man.

Beginning of an answer, from a reader in New York:

I worked with Trump in his real estate empire, and the pattern was very similar. Brilliant front man, barely bothered to learn about spreadsheets or financials. Just wanted us to tell him that a deal would be “great.”

On the “greatness” of the decisions he makes:

When I was reading your latest piece, the one thing that immediately came to mind was Trump as a perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: that unskilled individuals rate their competence much higher than it actually is. [JF note: my name for the same phenomenon is the “barroom Einstein effect.”] I doubt this is a particularly novel observation, but [this last debate] really drove it home.