President Donald Trump told reporters and the country yesterday that he was only testing the media when he suggested that using disinfectant and light to fight off the coronavirus was worth exploring. “I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen,” he said.
Does anyone believe that? Anyone? It’s not quite a Jumbo—“What? I didn’t say that!”—but it’s almost as outrageous. Now, the “Trump is a liar!” tropes are re-energized (that’s no big lie, but it’s exaggerated and hyped), and the President has nobody to blame but himself. My sister, who actually participates in a Hate Trump neighborhood group, sent me a musical parody, “The Liar Sleeps Tonight” (it’s not bad) yesterday.
I know what he was thinking: the news media did distort and misrepresent what he said, so “It was a test, and you flunked!” might have seemed like a good gambit. The flaw in that strategy is that the president’s demeanor when he’s riffing is unmistakable by now. The sarcasm excuse was desperate, and more importantly, needless. Trump easily could have said that he was thinking out loud about some possibilities, and that most listeners understood that. What he said instead was stupid (and insulting), and, for what feels like the millionth time, handed a club to his critics.
For the record, the rationalization the President chose in this case is #64, Yoo’s Rationalization or “It isn’t what it is.”
A couple of days ago, Ann Althouse tracked down a Quora piece from 2017 by some guy who had figured out that Trump really was a genius, with an IQ of 150 or higher. “Here’s the thing,” the author opined, “When an IQ differs from yours by more than 20 points, much of what the other person is doing, either direction, is unfathomable to you. It’s as if you are speaking different languages.”
Well, I’ll grant that Trump and I speak different languages; mine is English. I thought the theory was bonkers then, and this episode reminded me why. Trump constantly does (or tweets) things that are signature significance: no really smart person would do (or tweet) such things even once. I’ve written about a lot of them. The stupid tweet about the Squad was an example. This is another. So was the slur on McCain’s military record. Or hiring Omarosa. Or, in my opinion, most of all, saying how smart he is, as Trump has done many times. I know a lot of smart people. Literally none of them announce how smart they are. If you are smart, you don’t have to claim you’re smart. Fredo claimed to be smart.
Trump also doesn’t do a lot of the things a smart leader does. He has weaknesses, like his tendency to blurt out whatever pops into his head. A smart President would figure out that this is a big problem in his position, even if it had served him well at times in his career. A smart President would work on that weakness, and others. Ulysses S. Grant knew he couldn’t be an effective President drinking the way he did, so he kicked alcohol cold turkey. (It nearly killed him.) Trump’s refusal to appoint a strong, independent Chief of Staff (other than John Kelly, who mostly fit that role) who has the power to curb his worst impulses is pure vanity and foolishness, and it may bring him down yet.
The President has areas of unique brilliance, to be sure; IQ isn’t everything. He also possesses some essential talents for management and leadership, while he lacks others. And, until the pandemic struck, he had been lucky, especially in his choice of adversaries whose actions are routinely dumber than his.
Doing and saying stupid things, however, is incompetence, and a President running for re-election cannot afford to broadcast that quality.
This was one of the President’s bad moments. It might cost him, and it should.