Donald Trump’s performance in the The Economist magazine interview was widely ridiculed because his responses to questions were “unimaginative and incoherent” and “riddled with falsehoods and confusion”. Who would have thought the day would come when George W. Bush with his malapropisms and Sarah Palin with her word salads would be seen as exemplars of lucidity by comparison? The magazine published its own scathing review of the interview.
Donald Trump rules over Washington as if he were a king and the White House his court. His displays of dominance, his need to be the centre of attention and his impetuousness have a whiff of Henry VIII about them. Fortified by his belief that his extraordinary route to power is proof of the collective mediocrity of Congress, the bureaucracy and the media, he attacks any person and any idea standing in his way.
David Rennie was one of the four Economist reporters who interviewed Trump and he later described the atmosphere of the Oval Office.
It’s kind of like being in a royal palace several hundred years ago, with people coming in and out, trying to catch the ear of the king. That’s the feel at the Trump Oval Office. He likes to be surrounded by his courtiers.
There is a “Tudor court” side to it. And the role of some pretty senior figures, including cabinet secretaries, was to chime in and agree with whatever the president had just said, rather than offering candid advice.
There was a moment with Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary.
We were talking [to Trump] about China and currency manipulation. On the campaign trail, Trump was very ferocious about [calling China a currency manipulator.] [In our interview], he said, “As soon as I started talking about China being a currency manipulator, they cut it out.” Actually that’s not true. China [stopped manipulating the currency] two or three years ago.
What was striking was, when he made that point, Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, chimed in and said, “Oh yeah. The day he became president, they changed their behavior!” And factually, that’s just not right. It’s quite striking to see a cabinet secretary making that point in that way.
Fundamentally, Donald Trump is a nationalist with a grievance. He thinks that the world has taken advantage of America for too long, and it’s time for America to be tougher and gruffer and more assertive and more selfish.
If you read the transcript of the interview (if you have the stomach for it), you once again realize that the president is someone who is deeply ignorant of the most basic things and talks like a precocious child who thinks that he is clever because he ‘discovers’ things that are well known.
Take this exchange:
ECONOMIST: But beyond that it’s OK if the tax plan increases the deficit?
TRUMP: It is OK, because it won’t increase it for long. You may have two years where you’ll… you understand the expression “prime the pump”?
TRUMP: We have to prime the pump.
ECONOMIST: It’s very Keynesian.
TRUMP: We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Have you heard that expression before, for this particular type of an event?
ECONOMIST: Priming the pump?
TRUMP: Yeah, have you heard it?
TRUMP: Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just… I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.
The phrase ‘prime the pump’ has been around since the 1930s and is widely used to describe Keynesian stimulus programs. So was Trump merely making one of his unfounded boasts or did he actually not remember that this is an old phrase that even he had used several times before just in the past year? Remember that Trump got his undergraduate degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and must have encountered this phrase many times in that curriculum.
Kevin Drum says that this is evidence that Trump’s “cognitive skills are deserting him”. I would not go quite that far. People forget things but that is a long way from symptoms of dementia. With Trump it is even harder to make such a diagnosis because of his ego and long history of lying and rewriting history to self-aggrandize. Pathological lying and excessive narcissism are not necessarily symptom of dementia.
But there is increasing and open speculation about whether Trump is losing his marbles. Even former FBI director Comey reportedly thought that Trump is crazy because of his claims that president Obama wiretapped him, and that was long before he was summarily fired by him. That may have been a mere figure of speech, though.
Ronald Reagan in his second term was suspected of suffering from early stages of Alzheimers that his wife and staffers successfully hid from the public. He confirmed the condition after he left office and eventually died from it. Reagan was just two weeks shy of 70 years when he became the oldest person to be inaugurated as president, but Trump broke that record by about seven months and will be 71 in June.
But whether the rumors about Trump are true or not, it is never a good sign when the president is suspected of not being in command of all his mental faculties.