The ignorance of Donald Trump

“Dumb” is a useless adjective for describing politicians. I prefer “ignorant,” which carries the same negative punch, but offers a more targeted critique. A dumb person is an all-around dope. An ignorant person is someone who is lazily and brazenly misinformed about matters of objective fact.

Donald Trump is a deeply ignorant man, but modern political vocabulary has decayed to such a degree most of his critics prefer spicier adjectives that either exaggerate the sophistication of his repulsive politics (fascist), or simply dismiss them entirely (clownish).

Like most humans, Donald Trump knows a few things, and enjoys talking about the things he knows. Unlike most humans, however, he does not possess an instinctive sense of humility that moderates his compulsion to talk about things of which he knows nothing. The result is a sort of person we have all met at one time or another, the sort of person who, when an unfamiliar topic arises, responds with an unjustly confident argument cobbled together from obviously impossible nonsense supplemented with misremembered snippets from sources he’s long forgotten.

His claims of seeing “thousands” of Arab-Americans in Jersey City celebrating on 9-11 seems like precisely this sort of thing. Despite what now appear to be inexcusably rushed and lazy efforts on the part of a hostile press to dismiss this claim out of hand, more thorough investigation has made it clear that there was some suspicious celebratory-type stuff taking place in the city at the time, which the police are documented as having investigated. But it also seems obvious that Trump is merging this relatively obscure local story from his corner of the country with the high-profile street celebrations that took place in the Palestinian territories following 9-11, which received a great deal of media coverage. This is the kind of lazy slurring of fact ignorant people engage in all the time. Appreciating the nuances that separate similar stories from being the same story is not their strong suit.

Nor is assessing the credibility of sources. Ignorant people are suckers for internet memes that profess authority on matters they have no interest researching themselves because what they seek is validation, not wisdom. It thus was hardly surprising to see Trump retweet a chart of African-American crime statistics that was so spectacularly wrong even legitimate racists felt the need to raise gentle protest.

And now we hear calls for a ban on Muslim tourism and immigration, to which one can only further shake a head. Trump does not know enough about politics to appreciate the perfectly defensible legal, historical, and philosophical reasons our political debate is restrained by boundaries, and instead presumes anyone who raises protest against what we generously call “his ideas” is a politically-correct loser, etc. Since Trump has only paid politics the most superficial, passing interest up to this point, his naive instinct is to tolerate every preposterous idea that comes his way. Lacking the knowledge to say no, he cannot sort the absurd from the sensible, and the plausibly legal from the grossly unconstitutional. He panders to the similarly ignorant, who dream of easy answers to complex problems, and what results are Mad Magazine caricatures of right-wing policies. His promises are deeply offensive to liberal sensibilities, but by any standard of practicality they’re also utter fantasies. He may as well run on a platform to have himself crowned King of America.

Trump’s ignorance deserves to be called out, but his liberal critics have proven themselves ill-suited for the task, merely trotting out the same hyperbolic talking points they’ve used to describe every Republican politician ever — racist, fascist, “scary,” etc. Conservatives are by now numb to having their candidates called these sorts of names, which makes them utterly ineffective, regardless of how accurate they may be in this particular context. (I have to laugh at liberal columnists who have started to use lines like “this isn’t funny anymore.” That’s the lesson of crying wolf, isn’t it?)

Trump is a populist demagogue and a charlatan, traditions with long histories and precedents in American politics and civic life. The future his campaign portends is not horrifying or genocidal, but impotent and embarrassing, with his supporters destined for the helplessness and frustration that comes with falling for cons. The Trump candidacy is something bad, but it is distinctly bad on its own terms, and should be judged as such.