Trump Time Capsule #10: The Gorilla and the Brexit

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

I think there’s actually a reason to keep laying this out, but we’ll get to that. For now, let’s look at a genuinely impressive moment of Donald Trump in the public eye.

Daily Trump #10: June 1, 2016. The tragedy of the gorilla.

In the same press conference yesterday at which he angrily lambasted the press, and resented even being questioned about money he had raised for veterans groups, Donald Trump seemed thoughtful and reflective when asked about the gorilla episode at the Cincinnati zoo. He didn’t have to be told what the episode was about or the tradeoffs involved. (For anyone reading this after summer-2016: a child fell into the enclosure of a beloved gorilla from an endangered species, and zoo officials finally decided to shoot the gorilla to rescue the child.)

That is Trump at his best, explaining his reasoning and judgment in a way anyone could follow and respect, even those who might disagree.


Less than 24 hours later, this passage from Michael Wolff’s story about Trump in the Hollywood Reporter was making the rounds:

“And Brexit? Your position?” I ask.




“The Brits leaving the EU,” I prompt, realizing that his lack of familiarity with one of the most pressing issues in Europe is for him no concern nor liability at all.

“Oh yeah, I think they should leave.”

It is hard not to feel that Trump understands himself, and that we’re all in on this kind of spectacular joke.

Many average U.S. citizens can be perfectly functional and happy despite not having heard of the “Brexit” — the proposed British exit from the European Union — just as many average citizens can do just fine never having heard of the “nuclear triad” on which U.S. deterrent strategy is based. But (and it’s embarrassing to spell this out) please remember that (1) anyone who has actually read an international-business story in the WSJ, the FT, the Economist, the NYT, and so on in the past year would have seen the term, just as anyone who had read about the modern military would have come across the “triad”; and (2) anyone responsible for U.S. international business and strategic dealings, and for understanding the macro forces on the U.S. economy in the year ahead, should be aware of this serious potential change in a regional economy even bigger than that of the U.S.


As this goes on, it’s not really about Trump any more. We know exactly who and what he is. He’s a genuinely-charming-at-times salesman and schmoozer with sub-Palin-level knowledge of public affairs, more on a par with “Chauncey Gardiner” of Being There. He instantly knows all about the gorilla, and next-to-nothing about the international economy. This isn’t his fault. It’s who he is and what he does.

Nor do I think that a litany of Trump’s knowledge-holes or judgment-lapses will make any difference to his already-committed supporters. It’s part of what they like about him.

But the people who I hope are thinking about how they’ll look in history’s eyes, are the leaders of a major political party now lining up to declare this man acceptable. Not one of them can pretend later on that they didn’t know what they were signing on for.