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Trump's ignorance might be a reason, but it's no excuse

It seems that I'm not the only person who has noticed that the defense of President Trump in the Comey affair boils down to "Given his ignorance, what do expect?"

Look. When I agree with Fred Kaplan- or with anyone else at Slate- it scares me to death. But in this case, Kaplan's column is the soberest common sense. All presidents are "new to this" at first. All presidents make mistakes. Generally, the longer they've been in positions of power, and the closer they've been to the summit of power, the fewer mistakes they make. But the primary characteristic of a well-qualified president isn't necessarily what a person knows. Generally, the better-suited someone is to the office, the more that person is aware of what he or she doesn't know. In fact, that's almost a requirement for the job.

Even Mr. Trump's supporters saw this moment coming. I well remember being told during the campaign that the man's ignorance of just about every facet of the job he was seeking and just about every subject with which he would have to deal shouldn't worry us too much because he would surround himself with people who knew what he didn't and would keep him up to speed. Some of his appointments, such as Defense Secretary Mattis and National Security Advisor McMaster, have been ideal under such a scenario. Others, like Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway, have.... not been. When Mr. Trump has listened to the grownups, he has generally done well. But the problem is that he doesn't listen to the grownups much. He is far too apt to surround himself with "yes men" and "yes women" who will tell him what he wants to hear, give him the uncritical adulation he craves, and insulate him from reality instead of exposing him to it.

Reasonable people of all political persuasions were profoundly concerned by Mr. Trump's repeated insistence throughout the campaign that only he could solve this or that problem. Healthy confidence is one thing. Even when such confidence isn't warranted, it's possible to be humbled by and to learn from one's mistakes. But when humility is as alien to someone's character as it is to that of Donald Trump, lessons are sometimes not learned and a need for counsel isn't necessarily recognized. There is a difference between healthy confidence and dangerous arrogance, and from that point onward the distinction between dangerous arrogance and delusions of grandeur can be a difficult one to make.

Close to the core of Donald Trump's personality is a real issue with egotism. Donald Trump seems to have a compulsion to think that he knows everything and is uniquely qualified to deal with problems about which he doesn't have a clue. And that is what makes the argument of the president's defenders in the Comey affair so troubling.

We have had badly-prepared and shockingly ignorant presidents before, though it's hard to think of another one in Donald Trump's class in modern history. But perhaps the problem can be illustrated by comparing two.

Jimmy Carter had the exact opposite of Trump's problem. We may never have had a chief executive more knowledgeable about the subtle details of agriculture in Burundi or the history of monetary policy in Lichtenstein than Mr. Carter; his problem is that despite his amazing grasp of detail he was unable to apply his awesome knowledge in such a way as to put together a coherent and internally-consistent policy. He was lost in the details; he could never see the proverbial forest for the trees. His successor, Ronald Reagan, succeeded where Mr. Carter had failed despite a relative lack of knowledge because "the big picture" was his strength, and because he had the humility to know what he didn't know and to seek the advice of those who did, as well as the prudence to rely upon their judgment when he felt a salutary uncertainty about his own. The result was what I'm inclined to regard as the one truly great presidency of my lifetime.

What we have in Donald Trump's case is an ignorance more profound than Ronald Reagan's coupled with a mistaken belief that when all is said and done his judgment is simply better than anyone else's. He has Reagan's primary weakness, but without Reagan's compensating strengths.  Consider the following claims by the man whose defenders are pleading ignorance:

"I've been dealing with politicians all my life, all my life. And I've always gotten them to do what I need them to do." November 2015

"I've been in politics all my life." January 2016

"Nobody knows politicians better than Donald Trump." February 2016

"Nobody knows the system better than I do." April 2016

"I understand the system better than anybody else." July 2016

"Nobody knows the system like me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen first hand how the system is rigged against our citizens."  July 2016

"Nobody knows the system better than I do." August 2016

So three things: First, can you imagine Ronald Reagan saying any of those things?

Secondly, which is it? Is Donald Trump the all-wise sage who knows the system so well that he alone can fix it, or is he the naif who doesn't know any better than to try to pressure the Director of the FBI into dropping an investigation into members of his administration?

And finally, isn't there at least a bit of a problem caused by the most powerful man in the world having so little idea of what he's doing, while thinking that he knows it all? 


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