Let's not lower the bar for Donald Trump: President of the United States is a difficult job that requires wide-ranging knowledge of the American government and the myriad issues that land on the president's desk. Nothing in Trump's career suggests he is in any way prepared to do the job, and nothing he did in even the better moments of the second presidential debate suggested the existence of hidden depths of relevant knowledge and competence.
The most telling exchange of the second 2016 presidential debate came in the midst of an extended exchange over tax policy, about an hour of the way into the debate:
CLINTON: Well, here we go again. I've been in favor of getting rid of carried interest for years, starting when I was a senator from New York. But that's not the point here.
TRUMP: Why didn't you do it? Why didn't you do it?
CLINTON: Because I was a senator with a Republican president. I will be the president.
TRUMP: You could have done it if you were an effective; if you were an effective senator, could you have done it. But you were not an effective senator.
RADDATZ: Please allow her to respond. She didn't interrupt you.
CLINTON: Under our Constitution, presidents have something called veto power.
This was a bizarre exchange. And not bizarre in the sense of the 2016 freak show focused on beauty queens and pussy grabbing and decades-old rape allegations. Bizarre in the sense that Trump, an actual major party nominee for president, appears to genuinely not understand why it is that Clinton, as a junior senator from New York, was not able to single-handedly overhaul the tax code.
Because Trump, it turns out, doesn’t really understand anything about how the American government or American public policy works. That the former host of The Apprentice isn’t really up to speed when it comes to the details of managing public affairs is a bit dull and unsurprising. But it deserves to be front and center in a campaign in 2016.
Above and beyond the wilder and more outrageous sides of Donald Trump’s history and persona is the simple fact that he has no idea what he’s talking about. You wouldn’t ask Barack Obama to pilot a submarine — he has no idea how — and Donald Trump has no more business piloting the ship of state.
Trump’s tax plan is a mess
A bit earlier, while describing his own tax program, Trump said that under his proposal “we're bringing the tax rate down from 35 percent to 15 percent” because lowering taxes is “so important for corporations because we have corporations leaving massive corporations and little ones, little ones can't form.”* In addition, he said, “we're getting rid of regulations which goes hand in hand with the lowering of the taxes.”
Which regulations? Trump doesn’t know.
The tax cut Trump is talking about here is described by his campaign as applying to “business” tax income. That could mean a cut in the corporate income tax cut. It could also mean a cut in the tax rate paid by owners of pass-through business entities like LLCs. Trump’s campaign describes the plan two different ways depending on who is asking, an ambiguity worth about $1 trillion in revenue.
The question he was answering, meanwhile, was supposed to be about what it is Trump would do to ensure that wealthy people pay their fair share in taxes. He brought up the idea that he would accomplish this by closing the carried interest loophole. But his 15 percent rate for business income would close the loophole only to replace it with a new loophole that allows hedge fund managers to pay taxes at an even lower rate.
This campaign isn’t about policy, but maybe should be
One common form of debate commentary is for a journalist to sit in his chair and try to guess how the candidate’s answers would sound to a hypothetical viewer at home. In that sense, Trump completely misdescribing his own tax plan almost certainly wasn’t a “bad answer” that would hurt him in the eyes of the public, who overwhelmingly will have not noticed.
He did make one bona fide gaffe when he said, “I know nothing about Russia.”
He proved it, later, when he said, “Russia is new, in terms of nuclear,” when in fact Russia detonated its first nuclear weapon in 1949.
“Russia is new, in terms of nuclear.”— Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) October 10, 2016
— Donald Trump, talking about I don’t even know what
Policy issues were not really central to the second debate any more than they were to the first debate or, really, the entire 2016 campaign. Once again, we sat through an entire 90-minute debate in which nobody was asked about climate change. Once again, Clinton’s main argument was about Trump’s character and temperament and Trump’s main argument was about Clinton’s honesty and insider status.
But the presidency is important largely because the president is an important policymaker. And Trump has no grasp of any policy issues — he can’t describe his own tax plan, and in an answer about judicial nominations he didn’t seem to know the names of any of the people on his own short list.
Trump doesn’t learn
Back in February, Marco Rubio was making fun of Trump for having no plan for health care beyond some vague language about lines around the states.
Rubio was right and Trump was wrong, but Republican Party primary voters didn’t care.
The lesson Trump took from this, apparently, was that it’s not important to have any ideas on health care policy or any knowledge of the subject. Trump promised to replace the Affordable Care Act — not with any particular alternate policy, but with “something that works.”
Where your plan can actually be tailored. We have to get rid of the lines around the states. Artificial lines, where we stop insurance companies from coming in and competing because they want, and President Obama and whoever was working on it, they want to leave those lines because that gives the insurance companies essentially monopolies. We want competition. You'll have the finest health care plan there is.
The United States of America is a federal republic composed of 50 separate states. The states have certain powers, and among those powers is the power to regulate the insurance industry. The “lines around the states” are the state borders. In New Jersey, New Jersey law applies. In Pennsylvania, it’s Pennsylvania law instead. You could eliminate the lines by creating a new federal regulatory framework that would apply in all 50 states, or you could eliminate the lines by in effect deregulating the insurance industry everywhere, leaving people with no consumer protection.
Since the exchange with Rubio, Trump has never really been pressed on what on earth it is he’s trying to say about this issue. But it’s clear that he doesn’t have a clue.
In a later answer he said:
When we get rid of those lines, you have competition and we'll be able to keep preexisting and help people that can't get, don't have money because we are going to have people protected. And Republicans feel this way. Believe it or not and strongly this way. We're going to block grant. Into the states. Block grant into Medicaid. So we will be able to take care of people without the necessary funds to take care of themselves.
Here is a case where a followup question would have helped: Does Trump have any idea what it means to “block grant” a program? I’m quite sure he doesn’t.
Trump’s ignorance is surprisingly wide-ranging
At times, while listening to Trump’s answers one is inclined to say that he’s lying. When he says that when refugees come here from Syria “we have no idea who they are,” he is certainly misdescribing the vetting process, which is actually quite extensive. But he also said we have no idea “where they are from,” when I think it’s pretty clear that Syrian refugees are from Syria.
But this little ditty ended up culminating in an epic run-on sentence that raises the question of whether Trump has any idea at all what’s going on:
I believe in building safe zones, in having other people pay for them, as an example, the Gulf states who are not carrying their weight, but have nothing but money, and take care of people, but I don't want to have with all the problems this country has and all of the problems that you see going on, hundreds of thousands of people coming in from Syria when we know nothing about them.
The problem of building safe zones for refugees, as I’m sure will occur to you if you think about it for five minutes, isn’t the financial cost. It’s how do you actually make them safe? There’s a brutal civil war under way, after all.
Even on his signature issue of trade, Trump is remarkably clueless. In his response to a question about racial inclusion, he ended up on a bizarre anti-NAFTA diatribe:
I'll be a president that will turn our inner cities around and will give strength to people and will give economics to people and will bring jobs back because NAFTA, signed by her husband, is perhaps the greatest disaster trade deal in the history of the world. Not in this country. It stripped us of manufacturing jobs. We lost our jobs. We lost our money. We lost our plants. It is a disaster.
NAFTA was ratified early in the Clinton administration, and manufacturing employment was higher when Clinton left office than when he entered. Then came a recession during which manufacturing employment fell. Then came the surprising part — the mid-aughts economic recovery did not feature a return of manufacturing jobs. The reason was not NAFTA, but China. Specifically, legislation that granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations status to China. This was also done by the Clinton administration, so it would constitute a perfectly viable slam on Clinton’s record if Trump wanted to bother to make a factually defensible claim. But he didn’t, so he went for NAFTA instead.
But the idea that we “lost our money” and “lost our plants” makes no sense. Total manufacturing output in the United States is higher than it’s ever been.
Let’s not lower the bar for Trump
Over the past few months, we’ve had the occasion to debate whether Trump routinely grabs women by the pussy and/or kisses them against their will. We’ve asked whether he’s so hot-tempered that his election would risk nuclear war. We’ve asked whether he’s a paid agent of the Kremlin. We’ve pondered a history of racism, a history of misogyny and harassment, and a history of corruption. We’ve asked whether a vengeful Trump administration would descend into tyranny.
These are important questions. But the mere fact that they’re being asked shouldn’t distract us from the standard we normally ask our high-level politicians to reach.
Nobody — even the best presidents — is conversant in every policy issue under the sun. But Trump appears not to be conversant in any of them. And he doesn’t care. When his ignorance is revealed, he doesn’t study up and do better next time. He figures it doesn’t matter and he moves on.
But try to picture a man serving as president who has no idea what he’s doing. A man who doesn’t understand why a junior senator can’t unilaterally change the tax code, or that Russia has had nuclear weapons for a long time, or who regulates health care, or what a safe zone is, or where Syrians come from. It’s alarming. And even while people strive to stay shocked by the most outlandish of Trump’s behaviors, it’s also worth stayed focused on his most banal failings — he’s a rich kid and reality television star who seems somewhat talented at bilking people out of money, who for some reason wants to be president.
He uses Scott Baio as a key surrogate. The guy from Charles in Charge. Scott Baio doesn’t know anything about American public policy. You wouldn’t put him in the Cabinet or elect him senator. Why would you let Trump run the government?
*Correction: An earlier version of this story assumed Trump was talking about his proposed changes to individual income taxes and said he was misdescribing them; in reality, he was clearly talking about his business tax reform plan and I, rather than he, was confused.