Donald Trump’s great virtue is that he supposedly says what he thinks. His great problem is that he doesn’t think. Even more troubling, his garnering of considerable public support in his run for the presidency suggests great big bunches of others aren’t assiduously activating their neurons, either.
It is understandable in a way. Many voters are sick and tired of hokum as usual, and Trump is anything but usual. In his rude, crude, uninformed and ego-ridden style, however, he is not so much squashing hokum as introducing a new kind. While it clearly tickles many voters to the point of telling pollsters that he’s their guy, it hardly qualifies him for one of the world’s toughest, most complicated jobs.
So what else may be at work in this belief in someone like him? Part of the answer may be how much of our learning occurs these days.
Let’s begin with TV. This medium that tells so many so much of what they know about current affairs is not without manifold pluses. Yet, as the late media student Neil Postman once wrote, it is largely an experience of now you see it, now you don’t. It is much less the home of sustained, linear thought than the printed word. On complicated questions, it can lead less to considered conclusions than dubious impressions.
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The Internet is a marvel of information, much of it written, some of it scholarly. Yet so much of what we get in the hurry-up mode of modern living is the essentially incomplete sentences of Twitter, texting, social media sloganeering and the frequently short jabs of emails. The result is incomplete thought, a signal of attitude, maybe, but far from anything contemplative.
Visit with both traditional and new-media news outlets and you encounter too many that have seemingly had it with spending a lot of time on boring old policy discussions. Their urge is to splurge on who will or won’t win the horse race, the strategies being employed and the support being sought. The public thus gets cheated out of knowing as much as is needed of what candidates are all about.
Next, we get the absurd attention paid to the often unlettered political views of celebrities — sometimes actors, sometimes athletes, occasionally maybe a real estate billionaire who also has had TV time. The focus on their words makes it seem as if there is something to applaud when instead there was never a reason to raise the curtain in the first place.
There is more to be said about a culture far from doing its democratic job in a whole host of ways, but we will mention just one more: how too many institutions appear to be falling so short of their duties as to provoke widespread public distrust. Not least of the shortcomings is the reliance of so many politicians on polling as the chief guide to what they pretend to believe. Then there is a political correctness that frequently squeezes honest perceptions out of the national conversation.
Trump has seemed to stand against these tendencies even as he goes too far on one and is utterly confusing on the other. He has been politically incorrect to the point of rhetorical viciousness while seeming to have no view at all on some important questions and different, sometimes conflicting views on others, quite probably aligning himself with the advantage of the moment.
In the end, there is not much of anything that qualifies him for the office of president. It’s true that starting with a lot of money he made much more of a pile in his business endeavors. As regards to the presidency, so what? His reckless style and lack of knowledge portend disaster more than anything, and the assumption is that his present followers will figure that out. But they will have to reach beyond the incomplete sentences that give us incomplete thought.