Trump and Knowledge: Maybe He Does Know How Little He Actually Knows?

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

For any normal candidate in any normal year, an interview like the one Donald Trump has just given to David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times would cause the kind of earthquake that could change the entire course of a campaign.

Mitt Romney and his “47%” comments? Pshaw. Barack Obama and “they get bitter and cling to guns and religion” or the fiery Rev. Jeremiah Wright? They’re nothing. Sarah Palin “I read all the papers!”? Forget it. Almost every paragraph of Trump’s interview has material that should at a minimum be more controversial, and on the merits should be far more disqualifying, than any of those flaps, all of which stayed in the news for months and are still remembered years later.

I’ll have more about this interview in the Trump Time Capsule thread; I strongly encourage you to read the full transcript for yourself. (And on the “these people can’t even manage a four-day convention” theme, think of the message discipline that leads to this interview coming out on this day.)

For now, here’s a reader’s hypothesis on why Trump can allow himself to say such stupefyingly ignorant things:

Re Time Capsule #48, may I suggest a context in which to place Trump’s statements about NATO?

I think the key to this starts with Jane Mayer’s article about Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal. Schwartz says that Trump had no attention span and probably has never read a book in his adult life.

I see this as a partial explanation for why Trump knows nothing about public policy matters, either domestic or foreign.  He is incapable of studying substantive material, wouldn’t read briefing books if given to him and, therefore, purports to disdain specific academic or book knowledge and expertise.  Even Sarah Palin made an effort (albeit not particularly successfully) to study up on major issues in the 2008 campaign. [JF yes indeed, as I tried to demonstrate in “Why Sarah Palin Knows More than Donald Trump.”]

As a result, Trump doesn’t know anything about NATO or our various treaty relationships and responsibilities and speaks out of complete ignorance.  A knowledgeable candidate wouldn’t have made those comments.  So, these, and so many other comments Trump has made, are due to sheer ignorance.

He has made a big deal over what he claims are our “terrible” deals—trade deals, the Iran nuclear deal, etc.  I’m convinced he has no clue what is in those deals.  Case in point:  You may recall that in one of the early primary debates, he was going on about how terrible the pending TPP deal was and he was asked what in particular was bad about it.  His response was that it didn’t curb China’s currency manipulation.  Rand Paul had to point out that China isn’t even a party to the deal. [JF note: and in fact, an central ambitions of the deal was to create a Pacific Basin trade bloc in which the United States, rather than China, is the central power.]

There is what appears to be a certain arrogance in Trump’s assertion that he doesn’t need to know policy, that he’ll hire the “best” people for that, that he has common sense and that’s what matters.

But I suspect that the arrogance masks what is really fear on his part—that he can’t read and absorb anything substantive.  The evidence suggests that Trump has some real cognitive problems that should, in a rational world, totally disqualify him from elective office, let alone the Presidency.


There is something wrong with Donald Trump. And people like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Chris Christie, and Tom Cotton are still saying that he should become commander-in-chief.