This week the New York Times published an op-ed by David Brooks titled, “When the World Is Led by a Child.”
In it the NYTs columnist begins by saying that President Donald Trump is not a budding authoritarian and rabble-rousing populist, neither a corrupt Nixon-type politician, nor a big business corporatist. Instead, Brooks claims, one can tell by the way Trump answers questions in long interviews that he’s basically just a big baby. (Brooks used the term “infantalist,” by which he meant “a big baby.”) But his analysis of Donald Trump as an exemplar of immaturity and impulsivity appears to be little more than name calling to rile up readership disguised in the form of some staggeringly unsophisticated analysis.
As you’ll see — if you bear with me through this rebuttal of the article’s three main points — the problem with Brooks’ criticism of Trump is that he frames these character flaws as unique to Trump, when they are not unique to Trump at all. In fact, the criticisms that Brooks makes apply equally to every major establishment politician in recent times, including at least the last two presidents before Trump.
If we succumb to the temptation to polarize and personalize the dysfunctions that are systemic to our political process, because it feels good (in the short run) to point and blame, we will never root out and solve these problems with our government at this time of urgent political crisis.
Brooks’ analysis begins:
“First, most adults have learned to sit still. But mentally, Trump is still a 7-year-old boy who is bouncing around the classroom. Trump’s answers in these interviews are not very long — 200 words at the high end — but he will typically flit through four or five topics before ending up with how unfair the press is to him.
His inability to focus his attention makes it hard for him to learn and master facts. He is ill informed about his own policies and tramples his own talking points. It makes it hard to control his mouth. On an impulse, he will promise a tax reform when his staff has done little of the actual work.”
Is Brooks unhinged? It’s an easy way to dismiss a politician that the columnist doesn’t like, but regardless of how much one may dislike the president because of other more substantial (and much worse) criticisms one can make about him, it severely strains credibility to assess a man like Donald Trump as unable to focus, lacking in impulse control, and bad at learning.
The problem with Brooks' criticism of Trump is that he frames these character flaws as unique to Trump, when they are not unique to Trump at all.
It is vanishingly improbable if not impossible that someone with those characteristics would succeed at such a high level in several, very different complex endeavors like building a multi-billion dollar real estate empire, starring in a highly rated network television show, managing casinos, and running beauty pageants.
The way Trump speaks in interviews is not evidence that the billionaire real estate mogul is mentally slow and has a short attention span. In fact, the way he speaks is precisely the meandering, evasive, vague, soundbite-oriented way of talking to the media that will benefit a politician the most in today’s media environment! And that’s the media’s fault — political dysfunction begat by journalistic dysfunction. Politicians do it because we reward them for talking that way. Trump isn’t uniquely bad, just worse.
His interview style doesn’t exemplify immaturity. He’s the exemplar of the shifty, never-straight-talking politician of our dysfunctional era in media and politics. He isn’t a dimwit- he’s cracked the code. He isn’t impulsive. What Brooks describes is actually almost inhuman discipline in his message control. Trump will sidestep questions, steamroll right over the interviewer, and yes, say exactly what enough people want to hear whether he has the policy to back it up or not. Fueled by the unscrupulousness of a partisan audience, and the fear of losing press access to the president for more of these lame interviews, the New York Times and the rest of our country’s mostly passive, sycophantic, decadent news media created this.
“Second, most people of drinking age have achieved some accurate sense of themselves, some internal criteria to measure their own merits and demerits. But Trump seems to need perpetual outside approval to stabilize his sense of self, so he is perpetually desperate for approval, telling heroic fabulist tales about himself…
By Trump’s own account, he knows more about aircraft carrier technology than the Navy. According to his interview with The Economist, he invented the phrase ‘priming the pump’ (even though it was famous by 1933). Trump is not only trying to deceive others. His falsehoods are attempts to build a world in which he can feel good for an instant and comfortably deceive himself.”
But Trump is not nearly the only politician of his stature to exhibit an exceptional sense of grandiosity. It is nearly obvious on the face of it that politicians who ascend to the level of the White House are inherently affected by an out-sized sense of themselves. What kind of person thinks they are capable or worthy of running the world? According to a study by a team of psychologists published in the journal, Psychological Science, all US presidents have been more narcissistic than the average American. Again, what irritates people so much about Donald Trump is that he’s showing us in high resolution what kind of behavior, what kind of person our current political system rewards.
That “priming the pump” story is nothing compared to the now almost proverbial example of Al Gore claiming in an interview with Wolf Blitzer during the 2000 Democratic primaries that while serving in Congress he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.” And Republicans were always put off by Obama’s characteristically excessive self-flattery, who as a presidential candidate with just two years under his belt as the junior US Senator from Illinois portrayed himself as a transformational figure in history, and accepted his party’s nomination on an elaborate stage designed to look like an ancient Greek temple.
Before Obama was president, Democrats bristled at the hubris of George W. Bush who repeatedly claimed that God wanted him to be president and even spoke through him. He reportedly told a Southern Baptist Convention leader in 1999, “I believe God wants me to be president,” and shortly after the World Trade Center attack, Michael Duffy reported in Time magazine that he said he was “chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment.”
In 2004, the Lancaster New Era reported that Bush told a group of Amish people in a private meeting, “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.” Six of the candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination claimed that God told them to run. (The eventual nomination winner wasn’t one of them.)
Our political system rewards grandiosity in politicians because bitter, uncritical partisanship has polarized every voter’s world into a clash of eschatological proportions between the absolutely villainous politicians of “the other” side and the absolutely heroic saviors of American society on “our side.” Fabulist tales are nothing unique about Trump. He’s just slightly more unabashed about indulging in them. In fact, our style of politics has made them an absolute requirement from our politicians.
The NYT op-ed’s final point:
“Third, by adulthood most people can perceive how others are thinking. For example, they learn subtle arts such as false modesty so they won’t be perceived as obnoxious.
But Trump seems to have not yet developed a theory of mind. Other people are black boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval. As a result, he is weirdly transparent. He wants people to love him, so he is constantly telling interviewers that he is widely loved. In Trump’s telling, every meeting was scheduled for 15 minutes but his guests stayed two hours because they liked him so much.”
The columnist again stretches all credibility to suggest that Donald Trump is incapable of perceiving how others think. That would be a staggeringly flippant dismissal of Donald Trump’s political success. The president is hyper-perceptive of what people are thinking. He is clearly far more perceptive than the whole mainstream media whose entire view of the American electorate was plunged into chaos when he did what they said was impossible and won the presidential election- because of his brilliant level of sensitivity to what many Americans who are nothing like him are thinking.
Our political system rewards grandiosity in politicians because bitter, uncritical partisanship has polarized every voter's world into a clash of eschatological proportions...
Especially interesting is Brooks’ criticism of Donald Trump’s simple view of other people as merely “black boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval.” Isn’t that the source of much of the electorate’s frustration with politicians? That they see the American people as little more than “ballot boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval?” It’s amazing. Brooks was only one word off! Isn’t the fact of politicians recklessly and disingenuously saying whatever necessary to gain popular acceptance and approval the bane of our modern politics, not merely the unique character flaw of one Donald Trump?
“We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.”
What’s perverse in our politics is the blind rage and unreasonableness of partisanship, and its necessary, accompanying bouts of willful amnesia at the right times to avoid seeing how the problem is not “the other side,” but systemic dysfunctions baked right into the system itself. What’s bizarre is that the vast analytic powers of the entire journalistic world are unable to grasp the simple reality that Donald Trump’s campaign and administration are not an aberration from politics as usual. They are its exemplar. What’s perverse is the political perfection of Donald Trump.
In fact, Trump has mastered the art of modern dysfunctional politics with deft skill and won the presidency by embodying all these criticisms that the New York Times writer attributes uniquely to Trump, but are in fact the characteristic flaws that are rewarded by our decadent political system.
If Trump’s critics keep misunderstanding him and continue to criticize him in the same narrow-minded ways, writing him off as dimwitted or emotionally stunted, they’re unwittingly setting this country up for something even worse than what they’re criticizing.
The problem isn’t that Trump acts like a young child. (Why impugn the character of young children like this anyway? Why does Brooks use “baby” as a slur. Children didn’t make this mess. They’ll just be stuck with it if we don’t fix it.)
The problem is that Trump acts like all the worst conceptions we have of a crafty politician- and that it worked.
If there’s any way out of this, the first step will have to be curing our society of partisanship. If people won’t drop their partisanship, we won’t get anywhere fast.
Independent thinking and voting is the solution!