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Donald Trump’s ignorance keeps getting in the way

There’s much to discuss in Donald Trump’s stunning interview with the Associated Press, but it’s worth pausing to pay special attention to the president’s explanation for his criticism of NATO.
“They had a quote from me that NATO’s ‘obsolete.’ But they didn’t say why it was obsolete. I was on Wolf Blitzer, very fair interview, the first time I was ever asked about NATO, because I wasn’t in government. People don’t go around asking about NATO if I’m building a building in Manhattan, right? So they asked me, Wolf … asked me about NATO, and I said two things. NATO’s obsolete – not knowing much about NATO, now I know a lot about NATO – NATO is obsolete, and I said, ‘And the reason it’s obsolete is because of the fact they don’t focus on terrorism.’”
For now, let’s put aside NATO’s counter-terrorism work and instead focus on Trump’s welcome concession: when he first started publicly discussing his perspective on the alliance, he didn’t “know much” about NATO. After all, his focus was on New York real estate, not international affairs.

He did, however, pontificate anyway, criticizing NATO while seeking the nation’s highest office.

We could, of course, focus on why a presidential candidate didn’t “know much about NATO” in 2016 – it seems like the sort of thing a would-be national leader would have firm opinions on before launching a White House bid – but I’m just as intrigued by the idea that Trump was comfortable publicly criticizing one of the key pillars of global security in recent generations without actually knowing what he’s talking about.

It’s an epistemological mess: Trump is asked a question, then he answers it, then he learns something about the subject matter. At the risk of sounding picky, that’s not the order in which this is supposed to go.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because this dynamic has come to define much of Trump’s presidency to date. He assumed he could simply tell China to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program, and he said as much many times, but then he had a 10-minute conversation with China’s Xi Jinping, at which point he, in his own words, “realized it’s not so easy.”

Trump repeatedly criticized the U.S. Export-Import Bank, before having a chat with the CEO of Boeing, at which point he said “it turns out” he likes the Bank after all. He talked about passing health care reform without knowing how “complicated” it was. He spoke about U.S. policy towards Syria without understanding Assad regime role in horrific atrocities.

We’ve discussed the problem of Trump suddenly discovering things the rest of us already knew, and that’s certainly an important hindrance to his presidency. But his acknowledgement about NATO is a distinct point: Trump is comfortable telling the public that when he gives an opinion about an important subject, it’s possible, if not likely, he has no idea what he’s talking about.

In the president’s mind, this doesn’t even make him appear foolish or irresponsible. On the contrary, Trump seems to believe he can just guess what the truth might be and it’ll all work out in the end. This is more than an ignorance problem; it’s a learning problem. Trump doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but he’s nevertheless prepared to tell you his thoughts on the subjects he doesn’t understand.

TPM’s Josh Marshall recently put it this way: “Ignorance is just the first stage of Trump’s fairly advanced problem. He is not only ignorant but clearly unaware of his level of ignorance. This is compounded by a seeming inability to understand that everyone else isn’t equally ignorant to him.”

Agreed. We’re talking about an ignorance that’s compounded by a lack of self-awareness, which by any fair measure, is a rather brutal combination.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump's ignorance keeps getting in the way