Trumpus Ignoramus: A Candidate and the Genius of Know-Nothingism

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
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.

“Citizen Know-Nothing,” the party’s ideal. (WIkimedia)

From someone who disagrees — about Trump, and about my saying that a presidential candidate who has never heard of the “nuclear triad” needs to study up on defense policy:

Just read your recent Trump analysis, post debate. Listen to Trump addressing the same subjects outside the debate. Trump keeps it deliberately simple during the debates. It took awhile to figure that out.

Big deal on the nuclear triad. I've yet to meet someone who knew what that was, it's so obscure. I doubt if most people writing or talking about him not knowing what it was knew about it themselves. This is not knowing about the details, it is the willingness to make things right. We all know Common Core is all wrong. He was right on with what I hear from teachers and occupational therapists working with school children. It's conceptually wrong, it's not working. What else do we need to know?


Finally for now, from a reader on the larger question of what Trump knows and doesn’t:

I [think your post is right] to recognize Trump’s performance chops and also his remarkable ignorance. Of course he is the carnival barker that Obama undressed “fittingly,” but what is strange to me is that anyone as successful as he claims to be could be so appallingly uninformed about the world outside his comb-over.

This is, however, the vice that has become the virtue of “Conservatism” since 1976, or, as a Californian, I might say since 1968 when Reagan became governor. [JF note: Reagan actually won in 1966, beating Pat Brown, but the shift in political alignment and tone became much clearer in the election by 1968.] Ignorance of history, ignorance of government, ignorance of everything has always been an identifier for the conservative movement. The sole weakness in your argument, it seems to me, is that it does not account for how this man made his money. And I am supposing that more than half his wealth is fictitious. But, still, somewhere, sometime, he must have had a clue.

Given your analysis, I am thinking it is possible that Trump is playing a role that he has divined will gain the best results. And there are plenty of actors who get so submerged in their roles that they never come back again (I'm thinking Heath Ledger), so he may or may not believe his BS.

But, there are two things that can take him down. One of them is what Bill Clinton did to George Bush when Gore finally allowed him to speak in the late fall of 2000. I'm sure you remember this. Bush had said something about how the government could never create a program as successful as Medicare. Clinton just laughed at the man. He kicked his ass. It was hysterically funny. “Can you believe this guy?” and Bill is laughing.

The other thing that will catch Trump will be something along the lines of Romney’s Benghazi moment in his second debate with Obama. An instant factcheck with his opponent onstage, smiling at the cheater missing an obvious question on the midterm. Fox Noise tried to pull that off, but the three other stooges weren’t any better clued in than Trump so the gambit just looked weird.

And there is also the likelihood of a stack of binders.

I expect Hillary will be able to laugh at Trump. Maybe not as spontaneously as Bill, but she will have endless opportunities. And then she should call for the moderator’s reality check.

More as I weed through the inbox.