Trumpian epistemology

The New Yorker reporter Evan Osnos was on Fresh Air yesterday to talk about what President Pussygrabber will likely do.

Toward the end Dave Davies raised the issue of temperament. He did it much too timidly and normalizingly, but he did it.

DAVIES: When you wrote about Donald Trump and his policies towards the military and towards foreign affairs, the issue of temperament comes up. This is a loaded word. He hated being criticized for his temperament. But you have – you found a quote from his book “Think Like A Billionaire.” It can be smart to be shallow, that he has a penchant for making big decisions quickly, that he trusts his gut. Share what – some of what you learned about what that might mean from your conversations with military and intelligence officials.

OSNOS: Yeah. When you talk to a broad range of people who have been involved in the most sensitive national security questions, you know – these are the people who’ve been in the Situation Room at crucial moments particularly from Republican administrations what they’ll tell you is that the crucial ingredient is whether or not a president is impetuous, whether or not the president makes decisions before they have as much information and as many competing points of view as possible. And often as one – James Woolsey who is a former director of the CIA is now an adviser to the Trump administration – before he became an adviser to Trump, he said to me in an interview that very often the first information that a president receives is wrong. And we’ve seen that beginning all the way from Vietnam up to the present day. And part of the sort of crucial patience that’s required is the ability to both wait until you have a fuller picture and then also be prepared to act. But if you act on the basis of limited information, history suggests to us that we would have made a lot of catastrophic choices.

If there’s anything we know about Donald Trump, it’s that he is not the kind of guy who will pause to question the first information he receives. He’s not that kind of guy temperamentally, and he’s not it intellectually, or educationally, or experientially, or by training, or in any other way I can think of. Everything about him pushes him the other way – his history, his “temperament,” his career, his ego, his vanity, his laziness, his temper, his conceit, his complete and utter lack of any conception that truth isn’t always and automatically easy to grasp. He thinks that because he is Donald Trump, his first idea will always be the right idea. That’s who he is. It’s a major part of what makes him so loathsome – he’s incapable of admitting error.

Osnos goes on:

If you look at Donald Trump’s experience, he obviously does not have experience in government. He’s never held public office or served in the military. What you find is that he prides himself – he’s written about at several places – on his ability to make big decisions very fast. As he put it in his book he says, you know, I remember the day that I discovered that being shallow is a profound insight. And what he meant by that was that you don’t want to get bogged down in overthinking things. You want to be able to be decisive.

And, you know, in the course of the campaign, we saw moments when he would do things impulsively. He would say something in an interview on a subject that he didn’t know very much about and would then find himself having to backpedal. So, for instance, when he talked about the idea of punishing women who get abortions and then was informed later that that was contrary to precedent and legal norms that he had to sort of walk that back. If you put that into a national security context, there’s going to be enormous pressure on his staff to ensure that he does not do things which his authority allows him to do before he has all the information that’s possible.

Good luck with that. He thinks he’s a king and can do whatever he decides to do.

And now the terrifying bit:

DAVIES: And I guess that raises the question based on past experience and, you know, people who’ve been there, what constraints are there on a president who might make a rash and unwise decision?

OSNOS: The presidency is a unique office, to state the obvious. There is nobody who has the power to overrule the president, for instance, on nuclear authority. There are others in the chain of command who, if the president was incapacitated or disabled in some way would be able to use the nuclear arsenal. But they would have to do it in cooperation with others.

So what we find when you look back over the course of national security history is that the people who have interfered with a president’s ability to use nuclear weapons, it’s been individuals. It’s been people who essentially acted out of their own judgment or conscience to do so. There’s a couple examples. You know, to give you one, under President Nixon, Nixon actually asked his secretary of defense at the time, Melvin Laird, to put the United States on nuclear high alert.

Nixon hoped that this would frighten the Soviet Union. It would make the Soviet Union think that he was irrational. This was known as the madman theory. And Mel Laird thought that this was a very, very dangerous thing to do. And so what he did is he dissembled. He told Nixon that actually this was a bad idea because they had a previously scheduled training exercise, and he hoped that Nixon would forget about it. Nixon still said no.

After a couple days, he wanted him to go ahead with it, so they did. They put U.S. aircraft on course to fly towards the Soviet Union armed with nuclear weapons just as – essentially as a gesture. And there was an after action report later that described that exercise as a dangerous undertaking because there was an almost mid-air collision.

Not to mention because the Soviet Union could have responded in kind.

A bit later they moved on to the fact that Trump is stupid and lazy and hates reading.

DAVIES: You know, there was reporting in the course of the campaign that suggests that Donald Trump doesn’t have the patience to read long documents and burrow into policy detail. What’s your sense of how he’ll handle the demands of this, you know, huge waterfront of policy and decisions that you can’t put on autopilot that the president needs to weigh in on?

OSNOS: Well, Donald Trump has said himself that he doesn’t like to read as a way of getting information. He trusts his – what he describes as his own common sense. That’s the term he uses often. He relies on people that he trusts, people that are around him. He does not have a computer. He uses his mobile phone, obviously, for Twitter as we know. But this would be a profound departure from previous presidents in terms of how they get information. I think, you know, Donald Trump tends to want to govern from his gut.

It’s not a complete departure. It’s surprising that they didn’t mention Bush Junior. Bush Junior also hated reading, and he made his staff boil the briefings down to a paragraph per item because he was too lazy and dim to read more than that.

That Ron Suskind article from 2004 that I keep quoting from talked about that wanting to govern from the gut thing. I remembered that it was a Democratic Senator who told Bush, “Your instincts aren’t good enough,” but I wasn’t sure which one. I thought it was Biden though. I didn’t look it up until now. It was Biden.

Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush’s governance, went on to say: “This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can’t be persuaded, that they’re extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he’s just like them. . . .

“This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,” Bartlett went on to say. “He truly believes he’s on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.” Bartlett paused, then said, “But you can’t run the world on faith.”

Forty democratic senators were gathered for a lunch in March just off the Senate floor. I was there as a guest speaker. Joe Biden was telling a story, a story about the president. “I was in the Oval Office a few months after we swept into Baghdad,” he began, “and I was telling the president of my many concerns” — concerns about growing problems winning the peace, the explosive mix of Shiite and Sunni, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and problems securing the oil fields. Bush, Biden recalled, just looked at him, unflappably sure that the United States was on the right course and that all was well. “‘Mr. President,’ I finally said, ‘How can you be so sure when you know you don’t know the facts?”‘

Biden said that Bush stood up and put his hand on the senator’s shoulder. “My instincts,” he said. “My instincts.”

Biden paused and shook his head, recalling it all as the room grew quiet. “I said, ‘Mr. President, your instincts aren’t good enough!”‘

The same applies to Trump (but probably more so). His “common sense” isn’t good enough. Common sense has nothing to do with the facts. You can’t just figure out what the facts are by applying common sense.

But in the early days here since Election Day, we’ve received some indications that he has been surprised. The Wall Street Journal reported from inside the meeting with President Obama they received reports that Donald Trump seemed to be taken aback by the scope of responsibility that he would have as president, the sheer range of responsibilities that he would have on a daily basis. So, you know, I think what historians will tell you is that the office of the presidency has a dramatic effect on people, and the simple act of getting into the office suddenly conveys to them the solemnity of that responsibility and having 310 million souls on their watch.

But it’s not clear. You know, Donald Trump really is so different than anybody that we’ve had before that for him to change now at the age of 70 and take on a whole new set of decision-making instincts and to begin to challenge his own assumptions and his own instincts to say, look, the things that got me here are not the things that will help me succeed. I find that hard to imagine.

Yeah. I don’t think for one second that the office will change Trump. I think there’s a slight chance that it will give him a clue that he’s in over his head…but not that he will admit that or do anything about it or let it govern him in any way.

So, we’re fucked.

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