Does Trump Think?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
“Bozo’s Circus,” from the Bozo the Clown oeuvre. Hmmm, why does this image keep coming to mind this year? (Wikipedia)

In response to recent Time Capsule entries, readers suggest that I am missing the obvious point: that neither Trump nor his audience expects his statements actually to mean anything. I think the three comments below point toward an emerging, important insight about the spectacle of Trump-era politics.

One reader writes (emphasis added):

I enjoyed your piece on Trump’s Gilley’s goof-up. But you overlooked the most recent and well-publicized example of a politician being pilloried over such a faux pas: Ted Cruz’s infamous comments about the “basketball ring” he made during his final campaign push in Indiana. These tin-eared attempts to pander to hoops-loving Hoosiers were a widely covered part of Cruz’s failed efforts to unseat Trump as GOP leader in the primaries.

Now why Ted is expected to know all about basketball (which is, after all, the 2nd most popular spectator sport in the U.S.) and Donald is given a pass for not knowing the bull (when we all know that he is more familiar with “bull” than any other person alive) is an interesting question. I am sure Trump was quite aware of Debra Winger at the time of Urban Cowboy. And he was clearly aware of the device, which is why he commented on it in the first place.

I am afraid that Trump’s speech is no longer looked at as carrying actual content. Instead, it has become pure gesture, merely indicating moods and relationships rather than explicit ideas.

A Trump rally in some ways resembles a rock concert, where the crowd cheers at one point in the program for the angry song, later for the big ballad, and goes crazy at the end when the singer does his biggest hit (in Trump’s case, the Mexican Wall bit). His rhetoric is so transparently pure rhetoric, so layered with dog whistles and emotional words that modify no actual nouns or verbs, that his listeners are not looking for meaning. Instead, they are thrilled by the emotion of his speeches, which are only possible because has liberated himself from the usual quotidian purposes of language.

By speaking all the time in the style of a commercial’s tag-line, he has escaped even the expectation that his words will have a meaning when written down or recorded. This is why so many supporters can say they disagree with what he says, but love him for saying it “like it is.” He captures a feeling that goes beyond rational thought. It is the political equivalent of the incoherent swearing a man does when he hits his thumb while trying to hammer a nail: It’s an outburst of urgent emotion with no logical structure.

I appreciate your work on the Daily Trump and its opposite, American Futures.

***

A second reader with another perspective:

I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, about four years sober. It just occurred to me that the entire Trump campaign to date makes more sense if you look at Trump as if he were a drug addict—only instead of being addicted to drugs, he’s addicted to attention.  

Like a drug addict whose tolerance increases and requires a larger and larger dose to get the same effect, Trump’s need for attention keeps growing larger and larger. He's pretty much at the pinnacle now, with just about the entire world fixated on him, and in order to keep getting his fix, he needs to keep saying crazy stuff to stay in the headlines.

Like most addicts he’ll eventually overdo it, come crashing down, and hit bottom. If this is actually the case, it’s not so much the presidency he’s interested in for its own sake; it would merely be a vehicle for him to pursue his addiction to its logical extreme.

***

Finally, a reader disagrees with an item in which I said: “A real president, or real presidential candidate, would be informed enough to know that Muslim immigrants to the U.S. have been notable for their assimilation, not the reverse.”

The reader writes:

I believe you are misconstruing the meaning here. You are taking Trump far too much at his word.

Trump is not thinking, these American Muslims don’t assimilate therefore they are an attractive target. He is not thinking at all. He is very informed about Muslim immigrants. His hair specialist is one, Mohammad Ali Ivari, and surely he knows many others. He simply is not thinking at all.

Journalists, yourself included, need to stop taking him at his word. His points are not thought-out commentary; they are simply the free-form stylings of an ignoramus who is seeking self-aggrandizement. You are giving his words too much weight to consider that reflect a sincere and informed judgement. They are simply the ramblings of a man who only knows what he read in today’s paper and what his gut says his audience wants to hear.

A silver lining of this dark political moment: a lot of people around the world are thinking seriously about the dynamics of American politics and the info-ecology that underlies it.

Unfortunately, the Republican party is about to nominate a man who is not one of these people. And the “respectable” leaders of the Vichy Republican camp — Ryan, McConnell, Priebus, McCain, Rubio, Christie, Huntsman, Gingrich, now Roger Ailes — are still lining up behind him.