This is coming from me, a local columnist in Dallas, Texas, so basically I bring no authority, expertise or gravitas to the subject and shouldn’t even be opening my mouth. My excuse is a column I read on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News this morning, but between you and me, it’s just an excuse.
Mark Davis wrote that President Donald Trump handled Vladimir Putin cleverly and well in this week’s summit: “The pandering toward Putin is basic Art of the Deal, designed to elicit future behaviors Trump believes are more important than any benefits of public scapegoating.”
Davis, a radio host who is a regular contributor to the Morning News, writes from a consistently conservative perspective. I always disagree with what he says, but I think he says it well.
But from reading Davis, I went straight to my daily mainline injection of CNN, where everyone was telling me that Trump’s performance in Helsinki was prima facie evidence he has been compromised by the Russians. The exact nature of the compromise was left a little ambiguous, as usual, as if it’s too obvious to merit explicit recitation.
But I knew what they meant. It’s somewhere between fiendishly dark financial shenanigans and pee tapes.
That’s what I want it to be. My own fantasies lean more toward the fiendishly financial because I have a hard time believing he would be all that embarrassed by the pee. I would love for it to turn out to be the plot of a John le Carré novel, and that may well be because I love John le Carré novels.
None of that is why I am breaking my own self-imposed rule (well, self- and editor-imposed rule) against talking about the president when I am so clearly not qualified to do so. Sorry. I just can’t stand it. Today I am overwhelmed by a sense of being the court fool, the one who must blurt it out:
What if he’s just an idiot?
In fact, isn’t that the more apparent explanation? Isn’t his being an idiot the answer that explains things more efficiently? And why are we all so resistant to that answer — the idiot theory?
This is a man who thought that Canada once burned the White House to the ground. Ponder that. Could a person of anything like normal intelligence believe that Canada once burned the White House to the ground?
I guess technically the answer could be yes, for a while, but not much after age 7. And I understand all the stuff about Canada still being a colony in 1812 and loyalists and so on, but no, that is not what he said to the Canadian prime minister. He said “you guys,” meaning the modern nation of Canada. OK, he asked. That’s even more idiotic.
At some point in the life of a normal adult who could read, the truth about Canada burning the White House would have penetrated by now. Somehow it would have invaded the mind of a person who had anything approaching normal intelligence and who read books or who read anything at all. The true facts would have snuck in there somehow.
One morning, a newspaper snaps open loudly above a cup of coffee. An alarmed voice calls across the kitchen: “Hey, the National Enquirer is saying it was England!”
Let’s imagine that you are a person of average to above average intelligence, and let’s also imagine that somehow you got pretty far down the road in life believing that Canada once burned the White House to the ground. By that point in adulthood, your entire worldview — all of your assumptions about politics, the continent, Saturday Night Live — everything you assumed to be true would have that terrible kernel of belief about Canada embedded somewhere deep in the weave.
Think what it would do to you to find out it was Great Britain. American legend has it that when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, signaling victory for the colonies and the end of the American Revolution, a British band played a ditty called “The World Turned Upside Down.”
For a person of normal intelligence, finding out in adulthood that it was Great Britain, not Canada, that burned down the White House would be something like the world turned upside down. Smaller revelations have sent people to live in monasteries in Nepal.
Unless you’re an idiot.
If you’re an idiot, you don’t care. It wouldn’t bother you one iota to find out something like that. Who cares? Being an idiot is sort of like being high all the time. Everything’s fantastic, no matter what.
Doesn’t that remind you of someone? Isn’t that the simpler, more proximate explanation? Shouldn’t the burden of proof be first to establish that he’s not just an idiot before spinning theories of Kompromat and Art of the Deal?
In fact — and this is just from Dallas, not from a place where anyone would know anything — Trump probably is less interesting at this moment in history than we are, all of us, me, Mark Davis, the lot of us. We are interesting mainly for our near-rabid determination not to say that Trump is just an idiot.
Putin was standing right next to the man. Putin admitted he wanted Trump to win the election. He smiled when he said it. Trump smiled, too, while Putin was talking, but it was his furrowed brow, jibber-jabber, I-don’t-get-a-word-of-this smile. Then he said he was sure Putin had not meddled. So why wouldn’t all of us on all sides not have looked at that and said, “OK, the guy’s just an idiot”?
I wanted to bring some kind of false appearance of journalism to this, so I researched (Googled) reasons why people won’t admit the truth about their leaders. And, of course, there is lots of research to be found out there about it because there are lots of doctoral candidates.
The reasons all have to do with loyalty. There is something called a Dunning-Kruger effect, for example, in which people are ill-informed, but they have no idea that they are ill-informed. The psychologists call this a “double burden.” I would call it a double need to find something to write a dissertation about. If the people knew they were ill-informed, they would be well on the road to no longer being ill-informed, right? What day did you talk to them?
Anyway, a lot of the research I found is in material that began to get circulated in social media and started becoming widely Googleable in 2016, right after Trump got elected. So it’s all being put out there by people who can’t stand Trump, and they are circulating it to prove that Trump’s followers are stupid.
But wait. If the real answer is that he’s just an idiot, then aren’t the elaborate conspiracy spinners like me just as stupid? We go around daydreaming about Chinese money laundering and golden showers. Yikes. I’m glad nobody has invented a way to sonogram our fantasies.
I’m not a religious person, but sometimes I find that other people’s religious convictions can provide useful metaphors. So let’s imagine, just for the sake of conversation, that somewhere on a delicious white meringue of cirrocumulus cloud, an old, white-haired woman is seated on a bejeweled and glittering silver throne surrounded by young men with long, white tails fluttering in the air above her on white wings playing harps and pan-pipes. Have I got this right? Forgive me if I’m a little off on the details. You get the idea. God.
She’s watching us, wringing her hands and doing face-palms. She mutters to herself, “People, people, people. It’s so simple. You elected an idiot for president.”
Why can’t we see it? What is our resistance? And isn’t it interesting that the resistance, when viewed from the cloud, is so universal, so pervasive of both sides, supporters and detractors?
Rather than acknowledge the obvious, the supporters spin theories of Art of the Deal, imputing all kinds of cleverness and guile, saying that he pretends to be an idiot as part of a wily strategy. The detractors go just as hard and as far in the opposite direction, saying that he pretends to be an idiot to deflect scrutiny from nefarious international financial conspiracies.
Why does anyone think he’s pretending? Exactly what did Trump say or do in his Putin press conference to give anyone the impression he is capable of wily anything? Tell me one word that was wily.
International financial idiocy, sure, that could be out there. There might be some combination of a Trump hotel in the middle of a desert with beauty pageants and, OK, fine, golden showers or something else grotesque.
Of course there also could be several shark-toothed, open-shirted, heavily necklaced, Vodka-nosed, Russian thugogarchs lurking nearby in the sand dunes. Is that really wily? Isn’t that more of a simple 911 call?
Of all the denial, I have to admit it seems worse on my side of the dial. Over here where I stand, people would much rather have a traitor for president than an imbecile.
Don’t you think it probably has something to do with our reverence for the office? We have to invent a theory that seems commensurate.
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Treason is terrible, but it also has a certain magnitude, almost a dark grandeur. If Benedict Arnold had been a horse thief, no one would know his name. All of us, supporters and detractors alike, need theories of Trump that will protect us from some terror we must share. Is it a terror that might even unite us?
Oh, wait. I think I hear the lady up on the cloud muttering to herself again. Let’s see if we can eavesdrop. She’s saying something about her theory for why we elected an idiot to be our president.
“Because you are idiots,” she says.
Yup. That was the one I was trying to avoid.