Donald Trump went on CNBC this morning, and, over the course of a wide-ranging interview, once again reminded the world of the most fundamental fact about his candidacy: He doesn’t really seem to understand any aspect of American public policy.
Benefiting as he often does from a cable news format, he was allowed to ramble and dissemble across a variety of topics — including who sets interest rates, how monetary policy impacts the economy, and how his own money is invested, finding time for a racist personal attack against a rival politician.
"I believe it’s a false market," Trump said of the current state of American stocks. "I don’t even invest in the stock market."
Trump’s personal financial disclosures to the Federal Election Commission have been fairly skimpy given the complicated nature of his finances, but they clearly show that he does in fact own millions of dollars in stock.
What he thinks is false about the market is that he believes stock prices would fall if the Federal Reserve raised interest rates. He also thinks Fed Chair Janet Yellen should be "ashamed" of what she’s doing to the country with her low interest rate policy. Trump then offered the theory that this is all being done to somehow help out President Obama.
forget Yellen/Fed: Trump on @CNBC says Obama is keeping interest rates down, leaving it to "the new guy" in WH to raise them next January— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) September 12, 2016
Versions of this kind of theory are pretty common in business circles, since business circles feature a lot of affluent white men who are generally ill-disposed toward the Democratic Party, but it doesn’t make any sense. After all, the way low interest rates are allegedly helping Obama is by improving economic conditions. But improving economic conditions is what the Fed is supposed to do. Why would it be ashamed?
Then for good measure, Trump called Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas."
On CNBC, Donald Trump casually calls Sen. Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas" while discussing interest rates.— Jenna Johnson (@wpjenna) September 12, 2016
A few observations about all this:
- In a normal election cycle, a candidate making an offhand racist remark about a sitting US senator would be a big news story.
- In a normal election cycle, a candidate saying an offhanded lie about the state of his personal finances would be a big news story.
- To be totally honest, even in a normal election cycle a candidate exhibiting total confusion about the mechanics and merits of monetary policy probably wouldn’t be that big of a news story, but it would at least get some attention.
Seriously. Stop. Take a breath. Now imagine if Mitt Romney had run exactly Mitt Romney’s campaign but then suddenly in mid-September went on television and called Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas for no reason. It would have been huge.
This year, basically nothing. Trump being kinda racist is a dog-bites-man story. After all, just yesterday Donald Trump Jr. shared a white nationalist meme on Instagram. Trump lies all the time, so that’s not a big deal. In fact, he lies frequently about the essential core of his foreign policy, and his business dealings pose such obvious and flagrant conflicts of interest and ethics problems that lying about his stock holdings doesn’t seem like a big deal. And of course Trump doesn’t understand what he’s saying when it comes to monetary policy — monetary policy is complicated and obscure, and Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about on any other issue either.
Separately, one of Trump’s top policy advisers went on CNN this morning to denounce "this whole, you know, Trans-Pacific trade agreement with China."
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is not a trade agreement with China. It includes 12 countries, and none of them is China.
The whole thing makes me nostalgic for the days when I would complain that political coverage was too focused on candidate gaffes rather than policy ideas. Trump has no policy ideas, so there’s really nothing to focus on. You could spend all day trying to explain why various utterances don’t really make sense, but if he’s putting advisers out on television to denounce an entirely fake trade agreement with China, pointing out that he’s also getting the finer points wrong hardly seems worth our time. The best we can hope for is that Trump’s actual gaffes do get covered.
But the truly scary thing is that Trump is redefining the concept of a gaffe out of existence. It turns out that if you just boldly repeat something often enough, it goes away as a story. We’ve become numb, as a society, to what Trump is doing. In the process we’ve normalized casual racism and intense personal insults as an approach to politics, and completely decentered the idea that elected officials should grapple with difficult policy questions. Half the crazy things Trump says or does barely merit a mention on Twitter, much less the front-page coverage they would have merited in previous campaigns.
More than anything else, the numbness that Trump creates frightens me.
We have a learned a lot this year about what you can get away with in politics if you are brazen enough. The answer is that you can get away with a lot. Whatever happens in November, that revelation won’t go away.