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I don't get it, I just do not understand.

If I am going to write about the Republican nominees again, and it seems I am, I should begin by clarifying that I have not been watching the debates or the speeches, nor researching policy positions, nor really paying much close attention at all. I know less than you do, Gentle Reader, by all odds, and if I have any insight that is unique it is probably wrong. Or if correct, a blind-squirrel coincidence. I am not writing to inform, Gentle Readers all. I am writing to share my experience of the universe we dwell in, hoping that you will share your experience with me, and we will all live in larger and more accurate universes for that.

I have watched about half-an-hour of one of the Republican debates (my Perfect Non-Reader had a school assignment, quite properly) and I have watched perhaps two or four “highlight” reels of others, none more than a few minutes long. I have viewed a few briefish excerpts from Mr. Trump’s rallies, but never a full speech. I have read recaps of all the debates, some of which quoted the candidates at some length, and I have read Language Log’s occasional notes about the candidate’s rhetorical tropes and syntactic idiosyncrasies. I have been engaged more than most people in the country have been, even more than most people who vote in primaries, but in an absolute sense, not so much. Having said that, I used to pay a lot of attention to the choosing of Presidential nominees, so I am putting my trivial new information into a somewhat extensive background of comparison, even if a lot of what I know is probably factually incorrect, when it comes to that.

Why am I starting this note with so many disclaimers? It’s because the observation I’m getting to is this: Donald Trump gives me the impression that he knows less about what the President does and less about the world of policy than I do.

Now, most candidates will make more or less preposterous claims about what they will do as President of the United States. The campaign trail is not conducive to sober talk about constraints and limitations. There are blithe assumptions that the legislature will pass the policy proposals as proposed without changes (or at all) and that the courts will rule in the executive’s favor. There are rosy economic assumptions and dire speculations, and a lot of hand-waving about details. Everybody does that. There are huge exaggerations and misleading circumlocutions and outright lies. But on the whole, I have the sense that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and John Kasich all know more or less what it is that the President of the United States does. I disagree with their policies. I think they misrepresent those policies. But I think they mostly understand those policies, and their preference for tax cuts that create deficits and for service cuts that exacerbate misery are real preferences that stem from real understanding of how the United States government works. And on foreign policy, while the neocons for instance believed that deposing Saddam Hussein would lead to a peaceful, liberal and pro-American region, which was crazy, they did more or less appear to understand how diplomacy works, what options are available to the President, what options are available to the leaders of other countries, what the main divisions and alliances are, and so on and so forth. Any one candidate in 2000 (f’rex) might have appeared wrong-headed or delusional on a few points, but within a context of generally understanding what was going on.

Donald Trump appears to have no idea, no idea at all, none, zippo nada eighty-six.

There’s a Richard Neustadt anecdote that everybody has been passing along, Harry Truman talking about the prospect of Dwight D. Eisenhower becoming President. Truman says: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” That quote made it into Bartlett’s, actually, and it’s worth keeping in mind. Donald Trump, if he were President, would find it not a bit like being a CEO.

But what interests me, what I find utterly bizarre and not a little compelling, is that the rhetorical strategy Mr. Trump employs is to give me the impression that he is unaware of that, and that he doesn’t care. When I say that candidates make preposterous claims, I mean that generally candidates exaggerate what they will be able to actually do, within a framework of what the President actually does. Mr. Trump goes the other way. He pretends (I have to think) to know less about the job of President than he actually does. He doesn’t bother learning the talking points about trade deficits or what the GDP has been recently or what our military does in South Korea or what the projections are for Social Security. This isn’t a matter of having strengths in one area and weaknesses in others, or of blanking on a thing he should remember. This is about presenting a persona who doesn’t know or care how anything works. Does he know, for instance, that our government does not put tariffs on individual corporations but on classes of goods? Does he know that European leaders were in favor of (and in large part negotiated) the non-proliferation deal with Iran? That the H1B and H2B Immigrant Visa caps are set legislatively and not by the executive? That the number of delegates required for a majority at the convention is neither arbitrary nor random? Does he know that China is currently propping up, rather than devaluing, the yuan? Or that the number of jobs in the private sector has been increasing (slowly) for years? Yes, of course, he must know at least some of those things. And yet for whatever reasons, he speaks and acts as if he does not.

I was already writing this up when I read James Fallows in the Atlantic say that Donald Trump may be the most ignorant person, about public policy, who has ever gotten this far in a presidential race. He later quotes an anonymous source claiming 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. Mr. Fallows does allow that Mr. Trump knows something about eminent domain, so he’s got that going for him. Still, it appears obvious to me and to many people, that Mr. Trump neither knows nor cares about what the President of the United States does or can do, what the current government’s policies are or why, or how the various branches and offices of the government work. It may not be true, but it surely is obvious. And whether it is true or now, Mr. Trump is making sure that people think it’s true, putting effort into appearing (or being) ignorant instead of pretending to (or gaining) knowledge. And I cannot begin to understand why.

I suppose it has something to do with the Donald Trump character he played on television for ten years. I didn’t watch it; I have no idea. But maybe actual knowledge wouldn’t fit well with that character, and changing the character would alienate his fans. It doesn’t seem as if the sweet spot of religious-Republican-poor-white that supports the man somehow prefers ignorance in candidates, unlike every other combination of constituents, or unlike every other man or woman they have supported in the past. Maybe! But I’d kinda require evidence. Unlike some people, I guess.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


The long-growing strain of anti-intellectualism and opposition to education views knowledge and intelligence as bad, or at least suspicious. Therefore a candidate who appears to know too much or think too much is less popular. However, there's still a sense that knowing too much or thinking too much might confer some sort of advantage, even if it's not an advantage we want for ourselves or in those we elect. What Donald Trump offers is new in that it goes beyond treating knowledge and intelligence as unnecessary into a claim that sheer force of will can triumph over knowledge and intelligence. We really are living in the matrix, and Donald Trump is The One, and reality will respond to his demands. That's reassuring, particularly if you feel like reality has not been working in your favor.

There's also a long tradition of stories in which there's a character (often, in modern versions, female) who has worked all their life to accomplish some objective, but takes a back seat to a character who either simply Is The Chosen One (i.e. is just some random schmoe who destiny has its eyes on), or possibly Has The Will To Succeed (but without having any of the skills or knowledge normally required to succeed -- their path to victory isn't that they're a better player, but rather that they Want It More), who ends up saving the day / being the hero / whatever. It's a stupid fuckin' story, but people love it, and it's only bossy shouty feminist types who go on about hey how come it's never the character who actually *worked* to accomplish something, and wanting a thing doesn't get you squat even if you want it *really really hard*.

The Donald doesn't have the brains or the skills, he's just got the unstoppable WILL TO WIN. Which is, you know, unstoppable.

Are you asking why Trump is doing this, or why it's working so well?
Because I think the first question may simply be, Because DT knows he can make it work, at least for a large segment of the republican/independent electorate. Meaning you really need to answer the second question... for which I have no helpful notions other than the Triumph Of The Will ones that have already been made.

Of your questions, I assume the reason Trump is doing it is because it's working. So my question is (a) why is it working so well now, and (2) why hasn't it ever worked for any other candidate in any other cycle?

That's a bit of an exaggeration, so I'll say: I'm pretty sure no candidate playing the ignorance role has got even as large a percentage of delegates as Mr. Trump now has pledged (and presumably he will have many more by the end of the night) or has won more than one primary or caucus. This is why neither Michael's nor irilyth's explanations satisfy me, quite. Perhaps he's just better at it than any other candidates (and logically somebody has to be) but I would think if it had been a widespread cultural issue we'd have candidates for Governor and whatnot taking advantage of it first.

That's why I tend to the idea that it's the TV show, as that's the one thing that nobody else has ever had: a following of twenty millions (or five millions, maybe—look, it's a great show, very popular, a great show, people love it, the ratings people are all whatever, it was huge, the most popular show of all time, just hugely, hugely popular, big time, I guarantee there's no problem there) with an already established character. Maybe Reagan (who played himself as host on the GE Theater show and did a lot of 60s guest appearances on various things playing a "Ron Reagan" character, including, if I may Digress a bit more, a really wonderful guest spot on Burns and Allen where the guy who does the sponsor's bit thinks that RWR is trying to steal his job) but I don't think the show was that popular, and by the 1980 cycle the show was ancient history. I'd have to research that, which I'm not actually going to, but at any rate that's the biggest difference I can see between this cycle and the last few.


I'd suggest that what Trump is doing has been working well for Republicans at the Congressional level for a long time in many parts of the country, and it's been a prominent element in Republican presidential candidates' appeal since Reagan. Trump is the first Presidential candidate to go all in with this strategy, however, for three reasons--first, we've never had a Republican presidential candidate who can play this role so well; second, we've never had a Republican candidate who was so well positioned to break the Establishment's rules; third, we've never seen a Republican candidate who was willing to bet on this strategy for the general election.

I'd say that Trump is being particularly successful in his role not only because he is skilled at playing that role but because his strategic ignorance is only a secondary, supporting feature of his political persona. His supporters want to break the system. They don't want the palliative reassurances of Grandpa Ronnie that things will go back to the way they used to be: they've never known anything but being on the losing end of class warfare and the culture wars, (working class whites have, by and large, been losing both for going on fifty years). For breaking the system, will power and aptitude for violence appear more important qualities in a candidate than knowledge and intellect. Ignorance is a reassuring indicator that Trump, despite his wealth, is not part of the Establishment, which wants the competence to run the System that Trump's supporters hate. If Trump has succeeded by will and not by intellect, then he appears neither to need the system nor to be beholden to it. That's my sense of it.

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