America has spent the past decade ping-ponging between presidents with radically different relationships to their gut. George W. Bush called himself a “gut player.” Barack Obama, when asked about his gut instinct, answered at typical Obama length about the dangers of relying on intuition. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is the president who says “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.”
This pronouncement—one that perhaps captures the essence of Trump’s decision making—came in the middle of a freewheeling November interview with The Washington Post. He was venting about the Fed’s monetary policy then, but he could just as well have been talking about whom to endorse in the midterm elections or how to end the trade war with China or the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate—all topics he has professed to entrusting to his gastrointestinal system.
Gut instinct is of course real and even rooted in biology. That sinking feeling in your stomach is conveyed by the 100 million neurons plugged into the digestive system. (Second only to the number of neurons in the brain.) But to Trump, gut instinct has become a substitute for all expertise and all nuance. He doesn’t need a multipage daily briefing to learn the intricacies of the world. He’ll take some bullet points or diagrams. Or better yet, he’ll watch Fox News.
This was all predictable. Trump wasn’t one to prize expertise as a businessman, either. “It’s instincts, not marketing studies,” he boasted in The Art of the Deal. “Listen to your gut, no matter how good something sounds on paper,” he added. This is advice that a certain type of business cum self-help book has always dispensed. It is advice that is satisfying on, well, a gut level.
When The Colbert Report debuted in the fall of 2005, Stephen Colbert promised on his very first episode to speak “straight from the gut.” He—or rather, his blowhard pundit character—would return to this joke again and again, most famously at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where he stood just a few feet away from the president he was skewering. “Guys like us, we’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the fact-inista,” Colbert said, before turning to President Bush. “We go straight from the gut, right, sir? That’s where the truth lies.” This was, at the time, parody.
For Trump, going straight from the gut is about not just valorizing intuition but actively dismissing knowledge. He is rejecting the idea that he, or anyone, can build a better understanding of the world through a slow, steady, and sometimes boring accumulation of facts.