Donald Trump has been considered unfit for the office he holds by many, but among his supposed assets has been the belief that he is essentially non-ideological. Yes, he has sounded very much like a committed populist at times, and like a neo-nationalist at others. And he has even aligned himself with conservative economic thinking on specific issues.
But his lack of any strong commitment to any particular policy (other than illegal immigration) now that he is in office indicates that he doesn’t have a clearly identifiable ideological perspective. And that fact could well be an asset if his principal goal was to solve problems and make things work better. In many respects, that kind of attitude probably marks the most successful presidencies (not just of the United States, but of any organization). Being free of ideology allows one to make decisions on a case-by-case basis and to appreciate (potentially, at least) the value of compromise and the limitations of absolute dogma.
But there is another trait that Mr. Trump possesses that is less positive and is far less desirable. The man is largely ignorant in most areas where U.S. presidents are required to be knowledgeable. And when I say ignorant, I am not referring to the low level of policy expertise that past presidents like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush possessed. Reagan was an ideologue, a committed old-school conservative, but he had been a governor for eight years and had at least a working knowledge of the basic issues that he had to deal with. His level of ignorance was of the trees, not of the forests.
George W. Bush was perhaps less ideological and less knowledgeable, but he, too, had been a big-state governor for eight years as well as having been the son of a president, and he certainly knew the basics of governance. His level of ignorance sometimes covered forests as well as trees, but he knew enough to turn over policy details to his subordinates (many of whom, while knowledgeable, were just plain wrong in their assessments and decisions, the invasion of Iraq being the prime example).
Donald Trump makes Reagan and Bush 43 look like geniuses. Mr. Trump is exceedingly, almost unbelievably, ignorant. Most high school students with even a modicum of interest in national and international affairs have more basic knowledge than does Trump. His tweets alone reveal his ignorance (loaded as they are with misspellings and factual inaccuracies). But if you listen carefully to the things he says, his ignorance is manifest.
He said that no one knew health care was so complicated. Of course, everyone with any understanding of the issue (not to mention the history of attempts to deal with it) knows just how complicated it is. He seemingly bragged that China’s president had explained to him in just ten minutes how complicated the China-North Korea alliance is. Again, just a little awareness of history, let alone occasionally reading a PDB (President’s Daily Briefing) would have made the ten minutes unnecessary.
Most of what Trump says reflects the knowledge-level of a man who has never cared about the stuff of governing. Trump has always been solely interested in one thing: how popular/famous he is. Having put his name on every building and consumer product he could, becoming president was the obvious next step to satisfy his insatiable ego.
But studying world affairs or even becoming an expert in economics never appealed to Trump, which is why he could claim, in total ignorance, that the Import-Export Bank was a disaster for the United States when he was a candidate, only to reverse himself now that he is president and has learned just a little about that entity. (Ditto his views on NATO, NAFTA, Russia’s attempt to influence the election, and China as a currency manipulator: wholly uninformed and ignorant when he was a candidate; only now starting to become minimally enlightened after almost 100 days as president.)
What makes Trump’s ignorance so disturbing (otherwise it would be downright hilarious) is that he is even ignorant of his ignorance. Carefully parsed, his statement that “nobody knew health care was so complicated,” reveals that fact. Not only does it reflect that he didn’t know health care was so complicated, but he also didn’t know that he was ignorant in not so knowing. By saying “nobody knew,” he is excusing his ignorance by asserting that everyone was equally ignorant. Hence, he has convinced himself that he wasn’t really ignorant at all. Instead, he is like a normal person who doesn’t understand how the Krebs cycle works or the chemical formula for penicillin. Trump doesn’t think he is ignorant; he thinks he is more knowledgeable than everyone else because no one knows the things he doesn’t know, and he knows the (few) things he does know much better than anyone else.
It’s called narcissism, or maybe megalomania, and it’s a very dangerous trait to have in a president because it can lead to erroneous judgments (seeking the travel bans, for example). And it becomes downright scary when another of Trump’s traits is added to the mix. In addition to being a narcissistically ignorant non-ideologue, Trump is impetuous. His hurried decision to bomb an airfield in Syria (which he confused with Iraq in an interview – more ignorance) is an example of his impetuous tendencies. So was his demand that a quick vote be taken on Speaker Ryan’s ill-fated Obamacare replacement bill, which he followed with an impetuous statement that it was the fault of Democrats (or was it the Freedom Caucus or Paul Ryan or Steve Bannon?).
And then there is the last of Trump’s deficiencies: he’s lazy. Ignorance can be cured, but it can’t be cured by laziness. If you don’t want to study, you won’t learn (or what you do learn will be easily forgotten or ignored). Trump is intellectually lazy. He lacks the discipline to become an expert in the things he tweets about, and he lacks the sense of responsibility to understand the issues on which he must make judgment calls.
The country’s future is in the hands of a non-ideologue who is narcissistic, ignorant, impetuous and lazy. He provides little reason to be optimistic.