There’s a memorable scene in “The Simpsons Movie” from 2007 in which President Schwarzenegger is told there’s a crisis in Springfield. His aide presents him with five folders, each of which includes a different response. Schwarzenegger can’t be bothered to review any of them.
“I was elected to lead, not to read,” he said before choosing folder #3 without opening it.
Four years later, in November 2011, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain was pressed to explain his incoherence and alarming ignorance about international affairs. Cain not knowing details isn’t important because, as he put it at the time, “We need a leader, not a reader.”
Now, life is imitating art once more. The Washington Post reported today that Trump doesn’t much care for reading, and while he has a variety of magazines on his desk – each of which has Trump’s face on the cover – the Republican candidate does not have shelves of books in his office or a computer on his desk.
He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”Trump said he is skeptical of experts because “they can’t see the forest for the trees.” He believes that when he makes decisions, people see that he instinctively knows the right thing to do: “A lot of people said, ‘Man, he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time.’”
The article added that Trump believes he “absorbs the gist of an issue very quickly,” leading him to skip past long documents. He also apparently intended to read some presidential biographies – since he’s, you know, running for president – but decided he didn’t have time.
Looking back, some presidents have had greater appetites for reading than others, and it’s not always indicative of performance in office. But Trump represents an unusual case: he has no background in government or public service; he’s not an academic; he’s never demonstrated any expertise in any area of public policy; he’s never shown any real intellectual curiosity; and on top of this, he apparently doesn’t like books or even long memos.
It’s this combination that leads to concerns about how, exactly, a President Trump would make decisions. If there’s no base of information upon which to draw conclusions, how would Trump be any better than the fictional, animated President Schwarzenegger, pointing at answers with no meaningful thought?
Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University, told the Post, “We’ve had presidents who have reveled in their lack of erudition. But Trump is really something of an outlier with this idea that knowing things is almost a distraction. He doesn’t have a historical anchor, so you see his gut changing on issues from moment to moment.”
I realize there’s a strain of anti-intellectualism in the U.S., and it’s contributed to Trump’s rise in Republican politics. But I also remember taking a closer look at the last president who didn’t like to read, and the results for the country were nearly catastrophic.