Does Trump Think? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The ongoing symbol of circa-2016 GOP (Wikipedia)

In response to last night’s item on whether Trump’s rally speeches, interview remarks, and Tweets should be understood as conveying ideas of any sort, as opposed to being pure acts of tribal/resentment signaling and emotion, readers offer further analyses.

It is about addiction. From a reader in the tech industry:

Your reader who compared Trump’s need for attention to drug addiction made a very important point, but I think it applies at a much more basic, fundamental level.

Since the Tea Party and movement conservatives began to push the Republican Party past rational boundaries and into the realm of bark-at-the-moon crazy, politicians and pundits have been throwing chunks of bloody red meat to the base voters.

But a problem arose. Once a level of outrageous rhetoric was achieved, it no longer provided the “hit” that the people or the media wanted. Someone had to come along and up the ante to kick-start the next round of howling anger. You got “death panels,” you got “Obama’s a Muslim,” you got “Mexicans are rapists”—it just has to keep escalating.

And Trump saw this clearly, so he came out and one-upped everybody. And now he’s on round two, and he knows instinctively he needs to one-up himself. Stand by: Round three will start about September …


‘Thinking’ as cultural dividing line. From a reader who grew up in the South:

I have a reaction to the first reader you quote in “Does Trump Think?” The reader states, “His listeners are not looking for meaning. Instead, they are thrilled by the emotion of his speeches."

I grew up in the Deep South, surrounded by the white blue-collar culture that we describe now as the Trump base vote. I recognized my inner Yankee and got out after high school. I suspect that people who didn’t grow up as I did don’t realize the extent to which “thinking” is a cultural dividing line—specifically the kind of analytical thinking that us college-educated, blue-state elite prize as the professional approach to problem solving.

To be sure, these guys would laud analytical thinking in their surgeon in the hours before going under the knife, but the culture only rewards that kind of thinking in certain times and situations (generally scientific) and scorns it when applied to the moral questions of daily life that our current politics turns on. Questions of morals or fairness or justice should be resolved, in their minds, by “common sense,” informed by family, local culture, and religion. (And untangling that from race is nearly impossible.)

I'm painting with a broad brush, but in these enclaves, it’s just good common sense that (pick your Other) blacks / Mexicans / Muslims are different and often dangerous. Trump tells them they don’t have to deny that core knowledge and cover it up anymore with “politically correct” language. They don’t want to change their thinking. They don’t want to swap what they know emotionally about right and wrong for some broader but colder perspective.

I believe Hillary will win because enough people, including other factions of Republicans, think that the job of President requires a set of credentials more akin to a surgeon than a crowd-pleaser at Gilley’s. But that Gilley’s crowd—they don’t want Trump to “think,” at least not in the way you and I think of thinking.

P.S. If I could footnote my broad brush statements above, I’d direct you to a fascinating book by Kieran Egan called The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding. He describes how rigorous high school and college education changes a person’s worldview. It’s the “why” behind the values divide we often see in political polling between more educated and less-educated voters.


From a reader who grew up in the U.S. and now lives in Europe:

I agree with some who assert that what Trump says does not matter that much to his supporters. Or maybe by “not saying much” while he’s talking, Trump, deliberately or otherwise, leaves plenty of room for his audience to interpret his words any way they want to. (Isn’t this what clever Gypsy fortune tellers are supposedly good at?)

What Trump says does not make sense, ever, in terms of putting forth ideas. But Trump is not attempting to put forth ideas. Trump is attempting to put forth Trump. At that, Trump has so far been very successful.

We need to keep in mind what Trump might be thinking about, what questions Trump is asking himself. I believe Trump only asks himself one question, or variations on one question: What is good for Trump? This is not a revelation. But some of us seem to forget this when Trump starts talking. It is we who are addicted to making sense of communication, we who insist that people “make sense.” But we err when we assume that people are trying to make sense with their words.

Trump may possibly not be thinking. Or he may be thinking a lot. But if Trump is not thinking, then we have a lot to answer for explaining how he has succeeded thus far. For what does it say about the ability of people around him to think, if he so consistently has thwarted some supposedly capable people?

Trump is not a complicated creature. He is distinctive, but not unique, in his selfishness. But I think it’s best we keep in mind what his motivations are. On that basis, Trump, for me, is indeed doing something we can call thinking.