In November 1999, presidential candidate George W. Bush sat down for a radio interview. A reporter asked him to name the leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, India and Pakistan, all of which had been in the news. He could come up with only one.
This was an embarrassing failure. Newspapers editorialized tartly about Bush’s grasp of international affairs. His rivals took him to task, with Vice President Al Gore saying that a president needs “the basic foreign policy knowledge necessary to protect America’s interests and security around the world.”
Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan offered to “give Mr. Bush a few maps and geography lessons.”
It’s hard to recall that we once lived in an age of giants who were expected to know the names of foreign leaders. Donald Trump is proof of how much our standards have slipped. He couldn’t find India if you dropped him at the Taj Mahal.
It is almost impossible to underestimate his knowledge about issues, including the ones he talks most about in his campaign. On Tuesday, he addressed Obamacare and promptly buried himself in misstatements that showed off his pristine ignorance.
“I can say, all of my employees are having a tremendous problem with Obamacare,” he declared, standing in front of workers at a Trump resort in Florida. “You look at what they’re going through with their health care is horrible because of Obamacare.”
He then proceeded to contradict himself, portraying his employees as supremely fortunate. “They’re not worried about their health care,” he insisted, “because we take great care of people.”
That may be true, because they generally get coverage through their employer, sparing them from buying polices through the insurance exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act. The general manager of the resort later acknowledged that “very few” of these employees would need to obtain policies on their own. So they are not having “a tremendous problem with Obamacare” after all.
Trump was not done advertising his confusion. “I don’t much use Obamacare, I must be honest with you, because it is so bad for the people and they can’t afford it,” he said. All he had to do was dip one toe in the water to find himself in over his head.
But why should this topic be different from any other? Trump regularly denounces NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership as though he is thoroughly familiar with them, but he plainly has no clue.
His critique of TPP is a content-free tirade: “The TPP is a horrible deal. It is a deal that is going to lead to nothing but trouble. It’s a deal that was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone. It’s 5,600 pages long — so complex that nobody’s read it. It’s like Obamacare; nobody ever read it. They passed it; nobody read it. … But this is one of the worst trade deals.”
He may not be aware that China is not part of the TPP. Would anyone expect him to know how many nations have signed on — or to be able to name half of them? Or to name three provisions in NAFTA?
Lapses and blunders that would have torpedoed other candidates have done no harm to Trump. He said Vladimir Putin would not go into Ukraine, long after Putin had occupied part of it. He thinks Supreme Court justices sign bills. He doesn’t understand why we have nuclear weapons if we don’t use them.
He favors “closing parts of the internet” to stop the Islamic State. He claimed he got the endorsement of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a federal agency that doesn’t endorse candidates. He promised to close down the “Department of Environmental,” which doesn’t exist.
He claimed his skill in using the tax laws “brilliantly” allowed him to avoid paying taxes. His accountant disagreed: “I did all the tax preparation. He never saw the product until it was presented to him for signature.”
No presidential candidate can know everything about all the issues that will come before him or her. Trump is unusual in lacking the most basic knowledge about any of them. Nor can we expect him to make any effort to acquire it. He says he makes decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge” he already has, “plus the words ‘common sense.’”
George W. Bush, come back. All is forgiven.
© Copyright 2016 by Creators Syndicate Inc.