Let the betting pools begin: What will be the next policy issue that Donald Trump suddenly discovers is way more complicated than “anyone” ever imagined?
Already, the aggressively policy-ignorant president has marveled that dealing with touchy issues such as North Korea, China, the Ex-Im bank, Syria, and health care, requires more than trash talk and an itchy Twitter finger. And, while he has yet to break the bad news to the dying coal towns that backed him, Trump has been meeting with energy execs, some of whom have had to gently explain that, when it comes to saving the industry, there’s not all that much he can do. Because—all together now!—it’s complicated.
As it turns out, no matter how much reality TV experience one brings to the table, one cannot simply snap one’s fingers and instantly solve the nation’s most vexing problems.
It’s hard not to be unnerved by the level of on-the-job training Trump requires. (N.B.: For the exceedingly anxious, Amazon offers a cornucopia of in-case-of-apocalypse survival packs.) It’s even harder to resist sneering at his ongoing voyage of presidential discovery. Just think of the unholy abuse Trump himself would be heaping on any other politician so glaringly out of his depth. Brutal.
That said, what if some good could come from Trump’s cluelessness? What if, as he slammed head first into the real-world complexity of the problems he so blithely vowed to fix, he tried to bring his voters along with him in his education—at least part of the way?
The idea sounds crazy, I know. Having based his entire candidacy on promising the scared, alienated, fed-up (white) masses that he could easily make them winners again, Trump may seem an unlikely choice to now explain that things are not as simple as he (or they) initially believed. (For instance, China cannot simply jerk North Korea into line like a naughty puppy.)
But it’s precisely because of his anti-establishment, know-nothing persona that Trump may well be uniquely suited to the delivering such lessons of politics and government.
While the political class likes to mock Trump’s policy and governing ignorance, it’s not as though he’s more ill-informed than the average American. Indeed, his bashing of pointy-headed elites, wonks, and the entire notion of expertise was key to his appeal.
Voters don’t like to be talked down to (especially those already feeling disrespected). Many, many Americans were put off by President Obama’s cerebral, too-cool-for-school manner. It made him seem remote, unrelatable, patronizing. Similarly, precious few hearts raced when Hillary Clinton babbled on about detailed policy plans in that wonky, pedantic way of hers. (Uppity woman!)
This goes beyond partisan sorting. Recall how well the wonkier GOP candidates fared on the presidential trail last year. (Poor Jeb!) Or look at Paul Ryan. The more the House speaker labors to explain the nuances of health care reform or tax reform or budget negotiations, the less that even his own conference wants to hear from him. As Senator Tom Cotton snarked after Ryan tried to sell Republicans in the upper-chamber on a complex border-adjustment tax: “Some ideas are so stupid only an intellectual could believe them.”
In politics, it does not pay to come across as a smarty pants.
This, obviously, is not a problem for Trump. He prides himself on valuing gut instinct above book learning or relevant experience. He frets way more about public opinion regarding the size of his … um, hands … than of his brain. And no one will ever accuse him of overly intellectual or eloquent oratory. (The man makes Sarah Palin sounds like a Toastmasters’ champ.)
With Trump’s Policy-for-Dummies speaking style, the difficulties of even eye-glazing issues could be laid out without voters’ feeling patronized. Better still, Trump would be delivering the tutorials as information that he himself had only recently learned. (“As my good friend President Xi shared with me just last week …”) Everyone would be in more or less the same boat, so no one would need to feel belittled.
Yes, Trump can come across as a comically arrogant narcissist. He has, however, displayed a willingness to acknowledge when he runs across information that changes his mind. He may never apologize or admit to being flat-out wrong; but he’s almost childlike in his delight at learning something new—even when it’s something most adults would be too embarrassed to admit they hadn’t long known. (The man was tickled pink to recently discover that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.)
For Trump, sharing with voters a bit of the intricacies of governing would have the added benefit of making him look like less of a loser when some debate or issue doesn’t go his way. When Trump boasts that all it takes to solve Problem XYZ is instinct and toughness, he looks all the worse when negotiations break down or Congress gives him the finger or he has to do a policy 180. (Of course China is isn’t a currency manipulator!) But if he could unpack his discovery that the situation is, in fact, much more complicated, then maybe everyone’s understanding of government could improve.
Would such a move carry political risks? Of course. Having risen to power as a scapegoating, bomb-throwing, over-promising demagogue, Trump may find that many of his fans do not want to hear about why he can’t magically solve all their problems right this second. But if even a small portion did listen, it would be a genuine public service—not simply for his voters but for the entire country.
As Trump is fast discovering, being president isn’t just about making proclamations and bullying everyone else into doing what you want. He would do well to help the electorate understand that the job is, in fact, much more complicated than that.