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Bill Grigsby
Professor of Sociology
Eastern Oregon University


There is much chatter about the New York Times Trump ‘unhinged and unscripted’ interview. It does reinforce some of what we already knew:
Trump has contempt for those parts of the US Constitution that limit executive power.
Trump has contempt for any notion of checks and balances that limit executive power.
Trump believes himself to be the Big Bang of American politics—the cause of everything, whether it be ratings, the US economy, geopolitics, etc.
Trump shows a flagrant indifference to the truth. He is a pathological liar, yes, but more often he simply makes shit up.

But we didn’t learn very much new from the interview. Hence the question:

What has Trump learned after a year in office?
How to easily manipulate the press and shake off pesky barnacles by simply tweeting offensive nonsense.
How to incapacitate government’s public service functions by hiring incompetent, underqualified and overtly political hacks.
How to politicize official White House responses to tragedies.
Has he improved his golf game? He’s certainly had lots of opportunities. And no doubt he has refined the high art of using the presidency to promote his own properties and investments.
How to keep his approval ratings from dipping below 37%, by keeping his messages simple, crude, and appealing to the basest human instincts of fear and hatred. This works well among his less-educated base (no wonder he appointed Betsy DeVos to replicate the Trump Miracle—that is, the failure of K-12 education to help people develop critical thinking skills—across the nation)
How to use the bully pulpit to attack his critics, their companies, their governments … basically anyone who has ever slighted him. If he ever figures out how to use the levers of government to implement a Nixonian Enemies List, watch out.
How to bring every topic back to . . . Trump. It’s all about Trump, all the time. He never gets enough credit. It’s the greatest first year a president’s ever had. Critics are simply jealous of his successes. Any parts of government that aren’t working for him will be bent or broken. All back to Trump except . . . his shadowy relations with Russians, his tax returns, his lifelong predation of women, etc.
So yes, Trump has learned how to insert Trump into the daily, hourly news cycles. Twitter serves as accelerant. He uses disambiguation to drive people apart, to bring out the worst and in those for and against. And while he’s shown his racist, misogynist and LGBT-phobic tendencies, beneath lies a need to simply feed a thin-skinned ego. It just so happens he’s tapped into a demographic that tends towards racism, misogyny, and homophobia, doesn’t generally have the intellectual chops to navigate the complexities of governance in a country of 325 million, watches Fox ‘News’ religiously, and therefore is willing to let a deeply flawed human being who speaks with great authority play president.

Here’s something to consider: What other president wasn’t overwhelmed by the job and the steep learning curve? Maybe George W. Bush, but even he seems to have wrestled with his conscience as the front man for a neocon. The Times interview showed us nothing of what Trump has learned in office. Letting the guy go off on incoherent rants keeps the twitterverse atwit.

But what if Trump were actually asked questions about his knowledge, or lack thereof? Does he even know half the countries in the world? Does he know that Africa is a continent, not a country? That ‘indigenous’ doesn’t refer to the deadbeats he used to evict from Daddy’s properties? That his energy policies are hastening climate change and creating billions of invisible line items in the budget (Houston’s recovery alone could reach easily half a trillion)?

Remember when he said ‘who knew health care could be so complicated?’ Duh! But complexity is complicated. Easier to offer meaningless slogans like ‘Make American Great Again’. To dismiss unflattering news as ‘fake.’ But here’s a suggestion to anyone lucky enough to get an interview with Trump: stop throwing him softballs! Make him respond to something that doesn’t allow him to riff on his crude MAGA talking points. Ask him if he has any idea how many American households exist below the poverty line. What the actual responsibilities of a US embassy abroad are. How many sects of Islam exist, and which are the most likely to promote extremism. Why the country of Yemen is currently on the brink of famine, and what specifically should be done about it. What does he know about political transitions in Zimbabwe and South Africa. How many refugees exist in Palestine (trick question). What is the role of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, how much has the concentration increased in 200 years (40%, by the way), and why that’s not important. Why does he seek to build a sea wall to protect one of his golf courses in the British Isles. How more jobs will solve any economic problems for his base, which on average lacks human capital needed for high-paying employment. What is the difference between minimum and living wages. What percent of discretionary spending goes to welfare vs the military. How are federal poverty guidelines calculated, when were these calculations made, and do they reflect the realities of families and the economy 55 years later.

Trump should be given his due. He won the presidency. Sort of. He is nothing if not a successful con man. And then came the hangover, the actual work. What president has time for so many rounds of golf, so many hours a day watching his own coverage on Fox? The latter alone will make him dumber. Fox News viewers consistently score low on news quizzes, not because they’re stupid, but because Fox’s whole business model is geared to producing newsy swill that makes the audience feel more American, more moral, more patriotic, habitually affirms their uncritical biases, and—the main payoff—pleases Fox’s well-paying advertisers.

Okay, Trump has replaced the traditional presidential ritual of reading news from a variety of sources from all over the world every morning with . . . incendiary and personal tweets. While he’s intellectually lazy and rides in a golf cart, he does expend energy promoting his brand. That takes neurons. Yet from all outward appearances, he’s devoted scant few neurons to learning on the job. If there is one superlative that defines his tenure, it’s that he is the Greatest Slacker President in US history. And interviews like the recent one in the Times, despite mining a few new nuggets of incoherence, narcissism, and authoritarian fantasies, do little to out a peacock of a fraud for showing such contempt for: the majority that voted against him; the majority that disapproves of his reign, and; that curiously loyal base of 37-38% that voted for him expecting a president for the working class, and tragically continue to believe him trustworthy, contrary accounts simply ‘fake news.’

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