When the President Is Ignorant of His Own Ignorance
Thomas B. Edsall MARCH 30, 2017
How prepared is our president for the next great foreign, economic or terrorist crisis?
“President Trump seems to have no awareness whatsoever of what he does and does not know,” Steven Nadler, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote me. “He is ignorant of his own ignorance.”
During his first 63 days in office, Trump made 317 “false or misleading claims,” according to The Washington Post.
The FBI, the Treasury Department and two congressional committees are probing whether Trump’s campaign aides and advisers — including Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone and Michael Flynn — were complicit in alleged Russian interference.
His 2018 budget, the potential impact of which he does not seem to grasp, calls for cutting $54 billion from programs that pay for education, housing and child care assistance for low- and moderate-income families, protection against infectious diseases, enforcement of environmental, worker and consumer protection regulation, national parks and a host of other social programs. See the accompanying chart, which illustrates the depth of these changes. It shows, to give a few examples, Trump’s proposal to cut the Environmental Protection Agency budget by 31 percent; the Labor Department by 21 percent; and the Health and Human Services budget by 16 percent.
In addition, Trump has antagonized the leaders of allied countries like Mexico, Australia and Germany, and he has repeatedly demonstrated an extraordinary lack of knowledge about foreign affairs.
How dangerous is the situation that the United States faces?
I asked a range of foreign policy analysts and other scholars to assess the ability of President Trump and his administration to effectively manage the developments listed above.
Steve Nadler of the University of Wisconsin had more to say:
Donald Trump and the people with whom he has filled his cabinet are perfectly unqualified and unprepared to handle any and all of those developments and trends. The lack of experience and understanding of the world, especially of our historical and contemporary relationship with our European allies and rivals is frightening, especially in today’s world, where the stakes and the dangers are so much greater than ever.
Andrew Bacevich, professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University and a retired Army colonel, wrote that Trump is “utterly unqualified, both intellectually and by temperament, for the office he holds,” adding that “The possibility that Trump will disastrously mishandle” foreign policy “is real.”
Bacevich cites the growing list of things he seemed certain to do where that certainty has now largely disappeared: “tearing up” the Iran nuclear deal; jettisoning NATO; abandoning the “One China” policy; moving the US embassy to Jerusalem; reinstituting torture.
Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown, wrote me, arguing that Trump’s “America First” agenda is a retreat “into an illusory and dangerous isolationism.”
“If Washington walks away from the rules-based order it has defended for the last seventy years,” Kupchan explained, its democratic allies will be ill-placed to defend it on their own. Whether by design or by default, Trump may well preside over the closing of the era that began when the bombing of Pearl Harbor awakened the United States to the responsibilities and privileges of international leadership.
Of the multiple international tensions that could turn into crises at any time, North Korea could lead the way.
Toby Dalton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment, focuses on this growing threat. In an email, he writes:
Between an impulsive president who seems uninterested in details, an advisory system that does not (yet, at least) produce good advice, a general lack of respect for expertise, and a distrust of intelligence, a crisis with North Korea could go very poorly.
The current situation is not stable, Dalton said, and probably not sustainable. I wish I had greater confidence that Trump could distinguish between the imperatives and distractions, discern the worst outcomes and least worst outcomes, weigh up the options, and come up with a reasoned approach.
David Bell, a historian at Princeton, emailed his thoughts on Trump’s capacity to handle the difficulties that will face his administration:
Trump himself is abysmally ignorant about both international and domestic affairs, and he is nearly always guided by a single principle: his own self-interest.
Normally, there is quite a lot of expertise available in institutions such as the State Department to guide administrations during crises, but Trump seems to be doing his best to decimate the institution.
Mark Leonard, a British political scientist who directs the European Council on Foreign Relations, suggests that Trump is part of a much larger phenomenon encompassing Brexit and the rise of right wing populism. In a Project Syndicate essay at the end of February, Leonard argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in what he calls “Liberal Order 2.0,” which no longer sought to uphold “national sovereignty at all costs” but instead “sought to pool sovereignty and to establish shared rules to which national governments must adhere:”
Before too long, sovereignty-obsessed powers like Russia and China halted its implementation. Calamitous mistakes for which Western policy makers were responsible – namely, the protracted war in Iraq and the global economic crisis – cemented the reversal of Liberal Order 2.0.
In this context, Trump arrives ill equipped to manage a larger, more dangerous process that Leonard argues has the potential to become “a new kind of globalization that combines the technologies of the future with the enmities of the past.”
In this emerging system, according to Leonard, modern and pre-modern forms will prevail: support for government repression, like Russia has provided in Syria, or ethno-religious proxy wars, like those that Saudi Arabia and Iran have waged across the Middle East. The internet, migration, trade, and the enforcement of international law will be turned into weapons in new conflicts, rather than governed effectively by global rules. International conflict will be driven primarily by a domestic politics increasingly defined by status anxiety, distrust of institutions, and narrow-minded nationalism.
So how prepared is our president for what’s next? Given the magnitude of the problems that lie ahead and the embedded contradictions that make them difficult to solve, we face precisely the kind of world President Trump is least equipped for, mentally and morally.