Trump Time Capsule #49: The Dunning-Kruger Effect Is Real

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The running mates, last night on stage. (Mike Segar / Reuters)

Months ago I published a note from a reader whose work, in the TV industry, involved exposure to virtually all of Donald Trump’s recorded interviews of the past few years. The reader said that the experience left a deep impression. Sample:

I have now been through dozens of interviews with Trump with a variety of interviewers, and I have never once—not once—heard him discuss anything, any subject of any kind, with any evidence of knowledge, never mind thought. None. Zero. He’s like a skipping stone over a pond. He doesn’t even come close to the level of dilettante.

You’d think at some point, something, anything would have engaged his interest enough to read up on it and think about it, but as far as I can tell, nothing has. Much more so even than George W., he appears to lack anything resembling intellectual curiosity. Maybe he’s faking it, but while understanding can sometimes be faked, you can’t fake ignorance convincingly.

I suggest bearing that assessment in mind as you read the bombshell interview Trump has (inexplicably, by any normal logic) given to David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the NYT. This is the interview in which he:

  • says he’d make a judgment call on whether it was economically worthwhile for the U.S. to fulfill its treaty obligations to other NATO countries, if Russia were to invade. These treaty guarantees, by the way, have been the bedrock of security in Europe since the end of World War II.
  • describes the majority of U.S. alliances and relationships as if they were real-estate negotiations, in which “you always have to be prepared to walk.”
  • when pressed for details on how he would resolve any complex issue, falls back on variations of “we’d make terrific deals” and then treads water when asked to elaborate.

I’m tempted to quote the whole, long, transcript, but here are two illustrations of significant recurring leitmotifs. The first is Trump’s “Yes, but what about ...” problem. He is prepared with a first-round talking point on a range of topics, like “we never win any more” or “we’ll make terrific deals.” But when asked “But what about,” he’s in trouble. For instance:

TRUMP: Well, I thought the approach of fighting Assad and ISIS simultaneously was madness, and idiocy. They’re fighting each other and yet we’re fighting both of them. You know, we were fighting both of them. I think that our far bigger problem than Assad is ISIS, I’ve always felt that. Assad is, you know I’m not saying Assad is a good man, ’cause he’s not, but our far greater problem is not Assad, it’s ISIS.

SANGER: I think President Obama would agree with that. [Translation: Duh!]

TRUMP: O.K., well, that’s good. But at the same time – yeah, he would agree with that, I think to an extent. But I think, you can’t be fighting two people that are fighting each other, and fighting them together. You have to pick one or the other. And you have to go at –

SANGER: So how would your strategy differ from what he’s doing right now? [“But  what about …?”]

TRUMP: Well I can only tell you – I can’t tell you, because his strategy, it’s open and it would seem to be fighting ISIS but he’s fighting it in such a limited capacity. I’ve been saying, take the oil. I’ve been saying it for years. Take the oil. They still haven’t taken the oil. They still haven’t taken it. And they hardly hit the oil. They hardly make a dent in the oil.


The other recurring motif is demonstration of what the previously quoted reader observed months ago. Namely, the absence of more-than-slogan-deep knowledge of anything. Read this exchange and tell me why “a lot of knowledge” is any better than Sarah Palin’s “I read all the papers!”

HABERMAN: You had meetings in the last couple months with James Baker and Henry Kissinger. Did they in any way change your views?


HABERMAN: And what did you come away with from those meetings?

TRUMP: No. I came away with a lot of knowledge. I respect both men.

In Sanger and Haberman’s previous interview, Trump was even closer to an “all the papers” answer:

SANGER: One question we had for you is, first of all, since you enjoyed reading about it, is there any particular book or set of articles that you found influential in developing your own foreign policy views?

TRUMP: More than anything else would be various newspapers including your own, you really get a vast array and, you know a big menu of different people and different ideas. You know you get a very big array of things from reading the media, from seeing the media, the papers, including yours.

And it’s something that I’ve always found interesting and I think I’ve adapted to it pretty well. I will tell you my whole stance on NATO, David, has been — I just got back and I’m watching television and that’s all they’re talking about. And you know when I first said it, they sort of were scoffing. And now they’re really saying, well wait, do you know it’s really right? And maybe NATO — you know, it doesn’t talk about terror. Terror is a big thing right now. That wasn’t the big thing when it originated and people are starting to talk about the cost.

Again, please read the whole thing. Congratulations to the two journalists.


On why Trump would have given this interview, effectively blowing up a firecracker in his own hands on the very day he will make his big acceptance speech:

David Sanger is a long-time friend of mine, whose reporting on a wide range of topics I’ve admired over the decades. I don’t know Haberman but also respect her work. For reasons that are probably different from mine — but who knows! — Donald Trump has clearly decided that David Sanger is someone he also respects and whose approval he apparently seeks. In the same press conferences in which he’s called other reporters “You sleaze,” Trump has gone out of his way to compliment David’s work.

By extension Trump would seem to crave respect from Sanger and Haberman and the paper they work for. Why else would he give these two long interviews, for what he must have imagined would be displays of his Metternich-like overview of world affairs? In reality they have backfired, especially this latest one.

While the campaign is going on, its slogan has of course been “Make America Great Again.” In retrospect a more apt one might be: The Dunning-Kruger Effect Is Real.