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It’s time to accept that Donald Trump is never going to learn basic stuff about the world

Trump pointing to his own head in front of an American flag. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Monday, Donald Trump gave a speech billed as a major address on terrorism policy. It was nonsense, meant literally: not merely wrong but actually incoherent; a mishmash of logical fallacies, lies, and contradictions.

Over the course of a single speech, Trump managed to: completely contradict many of his most important past positions on foreign policy; reject nation building even while endorsing an indefinite occupation of Iraq; and make embarrassing factual errors about a whole host of topics ranging from NATO to the rise of ISIS.

Trump has been running for president for more than a year, and his foreign policy vision still doesn’t cross the basic threshold of "being logically coherent and grounded in actual facts." It’s time to accept that the GOP’s nominee won’t change — that he really will never learn the most fundamental stuff you’d expect a presidential candidate to have mastered before he began his campaign.

Trump reversed his past foreign policy stances without explanation

Trump’s speech was at its most nonsensical when he actively argued with himself — contradicting his past positions on key foreign policy questions without even acknowledging the shift.

For example, Trump decried the war in Libya, calling it "Hillary Clinton’s disaster in Libya." But in March 2011, at the time the war was launched, Trump full-throatedly supported the war.

"Qaddafi in Libya is killing thousands of people, nobody knows how bad it is, and we’re sitting around," Trump had said in a March 2011 vlog post uncovered by BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski and Christopher Massie. "We should go in, we should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically, stop him from doing it, and save these lives."

In a later interview, Trump went further, endorsing outright regime change: "if you don’t get rid of [Qaddafi], it’s a major, major black eye for this country."

Likewise, in his speech, Trump decried the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011: "After we had made those hard-fought sacrifices and gains, we should never have made such a sudden withdrawal."

Except Trump himself had called for an even earlier troop withdrawal from Iraq than Obama ended up doing. "I'd like to get out as soon as possible," he said in a 2008 interview with Wolf Blitzer. "Most people wanted to get out right away."

There’s no acknowledgement of these contradictions in Trump’s speech, no accounting for why he changed his mind. It’s doubly contradictory in a speech that focused heavily on Clinton’s foreign policy record, attacking her for "one episode of bad judgment after another." Trump repeatedly argued against himself, with no justification other than that it’s politically convenient now for him to forget his own past.

Trump’s speech wasn’t even internally coherent

(Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images)

Trump’s speech didn’t just contradict his own past comments. It actually contradicted itself.

My favorite example is Trump’s claim, repeated over and over, that the US should have stolen Iraq’s oil after the Iraq War. "I was saying this constantly and to whoever would listen: Keep the oil, keep the oil, keep the oil, I said — don’t let someone else get it," Trump said. "In the old days, when we won a war, to the victor belonged the spoils."

This nakedly colonialist policy would have been opposed, to put it mildly, by Iraqis — 99 percent of the Iraqi government’s revenue comes from oil. Taking and holding the country’s oil deposits would have required a massive financial investment and a major troop deployment to defend it. The latter point, at least, Trump admits: "This proposal, by its very nature, would have left soldiers in place to guard our assets."

Yet in the same section of the speech, Trump decried nation building as costly and counterproductive: "If I become president, the era of nation building will be ended," he promised, bemoaning the "thousands of lives" lost during the Iraq War. The fact that his oil grab would be a similarly grand project just doesn’t register in the speech.

Similarly, Trump proposed allying with various different dictators to fight Islamist terrorism: "We will partner with King Abdullah of Jordan, and President Sisi of Egypt, and all others who recognize this ideology of death that must be extinguished."

Yet in the same speech, he extolls the need to defend American values as part of a strong counterterrorism policy: "We have to promote the exceptional virtues of our own way of life." No word on how allying with an Egyptian dictator who murdered 817 people in a single day upholds "the exceptional virtues of our way of life."

It is difficult to discern a consistent doctrine in here, because it doesn’t really seem like there is one. It’s just Trump advocating whatever seems to make sense in the moment.

Trump’s history of the modern Middle East was wildly wrong

Arab Spring
Remember this? Trump doesn’t.
(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Nor was the only problem that Trump contradicted himself. His core argument against the "Obama-Clinton" foreign policy, as he terms it, consists of a basic logical error.

Consider this, which is supposed to be Trump’s damning indictment of the past eight years of foreign policy:

What have the decisions of Obama-Clinton produced? Libya is in ruins, our ambassador and three other brave Americans are dead, and ISIS has gained a new base of operations.

Syria is in the midst of a disastrous civil war. ISIS controls large portions of territory. A refugee crisis now threatens Europe and the United States. In Egypt, terrorists have gained a foothold in the Sinai desert, near the Suez Canal, one of the most essential waterways in the world. Iraq is in chaos, and ISIS is on the loose.

This is what logicians would call a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. Trump assumes that because something happened after Obama took office, it therefore happened because Obama took office.

Except a lot of stuff happened in the Middle East between 2009 and 2016 that had very little to do with anything Obama or Clinton did.

In 2011, the Middle East experienced a massive wave of protests that transformed regional politics. Those protests toppled the Tunisian government and led to a temporary collapse in dictatorship in Egypt. Both the Libyan and Syrian governments decided to respond to the protests with violent repression, leading to civil wars in both countries and contributing to the rise of ISIS. You may have heard of this; it’s called the Arab Spring.

Trump’s speech never mentions a single protest. Instead, he insists it was "the Obama-Clinton foreign policy" that "unleashed ISIS [and] destabilized the Middle East." ISIS, in Trump’s telling, is the endpoint of US foreign policy: "The rise of ISIS is the direct result of policy decisions made by President Obama and Secretary Clinton."

Never mind the vacuum created by the civil war in Syria, or the Iraqi government’s decision to repress the Sunni minority, or the decision by regional players like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to shuffle arms to radical groups in Syria. It was all Clinton and Obama’s fault.

Trump is going beyond blaming Obama and Clinton for mishandling the post-2011 crisis in the Middle East, which many Republicans have done. Instead, he suggests the entire crisis was their fault, as if the Arab Spring protesters were doing their nefarious bidding.

Most troublingly, he doesn’t have some kind of sophisticated argument for this position, beyond hand-waving at the Iraq withdrawal and Libya interventions being bad. Nor does he have an explanation for what a better foreign policy during this period might have looked like. He just asserts that the entire Middle East is on fire because of Obama and Clinton’s decisions.

Again, this argument is nonsense in the strictest sense of the word: It isn’t so much wrong as it is meaningless. Trump simply has no cogent theory as to what Obama and Clinton did wrong or what an alternative might look like, so he just chooses not to present one. Things in the Middle East were better before Obama took office; therefore, everything is Obama’s fault.

Trump’s speech made a bunch of other random errors

No Trump speech would be complete without a series of factual whoppers. This one was no exception. A partial list:

  • Trump lied about opposing the Iraq War, despite overwhelming evidence (documented by Kaczynski’s team at BuzzFeed) that he did not.
  • Trump said that neighbors of the San Bernardino shooters saw bombs on their floor but didn’t report it because "they didn’t want to be accused of racial profiling." There is no evidence for this whatsoever.
  • Trump implied that NATO created a new counterterrorism position because of his past criticism of the alliance ("since my comments, they have changed their policy and now have a new division focused on terror threats.") This is false, according to ... NATO.
  • Trump claimed, "If we had controlled the oil, we could have prevented the rise of ISIS in Iraq." Except ISIS didn’t rely on Iraqi oil funds to grow strong — ISIS’s major oil revenue came from Syria, not Iraq.

These errors aren’t anything all that new. With the exception of that last claim about taking the oil, I have seen each of those Trump assertions debunked prior to this speech. Yet he repeated them anyway, even defending his claim to have opposed the Iraq War at length despite it being demonstrably false.

Trump is never going to change

Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump Campaigns In Youngstown, Ohio (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

The point of listing all these errors is that Trump’s nonsense approach to these issues isn’t just a one-off. Trump’s post-fact, post-logic approach to foreign policy isn’t just this speech. It’s the way he has approached this issue for his entire candidacy, and one that’s not likely to change.

Trump is not going to all of a sudden come up with a sophisticated and factually grounded take on foreign policy. He will instead continue to tout the brilliance of a colonial plan to "take the oil" and insisting that he opposed the Iraq War when the proof he didn’t is just a single Google search away.

This is the real Trump, and this is the real thinking that could be shaping foreign policy in the world’s most powerful country come January.

Donald Trump's NATO comments are terrifying