The man who will soon command the world’s largest armed forces has received only three intelligence briefings since Election Day. He’s facing a lot of urgent matters, surely — locating every possible billionaire or benefactor to serve in his administration, for one. Another is planning “thank you” rallies across the country to maintain his cult of personality. But truthfully, there isn’t anything more important for the president-elect to do than learn about the free world he’ll be leading. Problem is, learning may be the thing he hates the most.
The list of Awful Things About Donald Trump is interminable, but right near the top should be his utter lack of curiosity. It still may be below the allegations of housing discrimination and sexual assault, to say nothing of his instinct for petty retaliation or the emerging reality that he is going to use the White House to bolster his brand and line his pockets. But right now, his intellectual laziness may be the most dangerous thing about him.
Trump’s sloth isn’t the "I streamed all six seasons of Game of Thrones in a weekend" kind. While he’s proven able to keep a rigorous campaign schedule, travel and public speaking aren’t nearly as stressful as what he’ll face in the White House, where every day is a never-ending cascade of small but deeply consequential decisions that require the full focus of a prepared mind. In that sense, Trump hasn’t given any reliable indication that he’s willing to do the mental labor required from the president of the United States.
Critical thinking is at the heart of that job. Skepticism can be healthy, but not when you’re unwilling to admit that you’re wrong. That’s why it is so alarming to see how blithely Trump dismisses expert judgment. Not only that, but he relies upon shadowy references. Trump may be more than willing to cite a story from conservative conspiracy site Infowars, but he maintains a blanket distrust of (United States) government intelligence. When Fox News asked him in August why he is so dubious about U.S. experts, he started rambling about Middle Eastern conflicts with the finesse of an intoxicated sports-talk radio caller whining about a blown call. Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway recently said that Trump is “utilizing information from multiple sources” in addition to what he is told during his intelligence briefings. Given his appetite for cable news, are these “sources” broadcasting live every night during prime time? Or is the source thin air, from which he pulls so much of his understanding of the world? Despite often being provably wrong, Trump has an unshakable faith in his own correctness. But in positions of power, being hardheaded is not strength; it’s a fatal weakness.
President Obama, by contrast, is someone who seems to know what he doesn't know. Republicans criticized him as too inexperienced in 2008 — and whether to combat those impressions or to merely get ready for his job, Obama devoured briefings in the months leading up to his first term. Trump, who has zero experience in government or the military, is instead doing what he’s done all along: winging it, confident that the bravado that guided him through so many failed and unethical business decisions will prove superior to the U.S. intelligence apparatus and lifelong public servants and policy experts. Trump doubled down on that wrongheaded attitude when he chose Michael Flynn to be his national security adviser. Flynn — a former intelligence officer and current Islamophobe and conspiracy theorist — has only had one briefing since his selection a week after Trump’s win. No, that isn’t normal, either.
A blind faith in one’s own certitude directly conflicts with the rigorous thinking the presidency requires. Trump will arrive in Washington with all the unearned confidence and ignorant bliss that has characterized his careers in real estate, entertainment, and politics, hoping to skate by because he’s done so all the way to the White House. The guy likes getting rewards, but not the work or knowledge required to reel them in.
I didn’t know until Trump ran for president that he doesn’t read books. “I never have,” he told the Washington Post in July, a baffling admission from someone who was pursuing the most powerful job in the world. “I’m always busy doing a lot. Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.” Trump didn’t seem to care that he doesn’t read much, either. Our next head of state freely admitted that he doesn’t even like long documents: “I want it short. There’s no reason to do hundreds of pages because I know exactly what it is.”
We’ve seen similar behavior from him before. In October 1993, Trump didn’t bother to read a statement he’d prepared for a congressional hearing.
According to Newsweek, Trump abandoned the prepared text because he found it boring, and instead opted to go off the cuff. In the testimony before the House Subcommittee on Native American Affairs, he alleged, without offering any proof, that organized crime was “rampant on Indian reservations” and that if Native Americans were allowed to continue building and operating casinos, it would lead to one of the “biggest scandals since Al Capone.” He said that the operators of those casinos “don’t look like Indians to me.” Colman McCarthy, writing about Trump’s testimony three weeks later, had it right. “For all his money, real or on paper,” he wrote, “Donald Trump shows signs of intellectual poverty.”
Bigotry thrives on a person’s unwillingness to investigate the facts. And President-elect Trump has a deep investment in creating his own reality rather than critiquing his own judgment. Hence, the swamp he’ll be draining will be those in Washington who think critically and know policy. He is about to escalate his war against facts, even if that puts the nation in danger. And all that matters to him is whether he wins.