You are a passenger on a plane. A large number of things have gone wrong. The plane is buffeted by head winds. The flight radar is down. The airline’s system for scheduling flight crews was hacked by one of its competitors. The pilot in the cockpit doesn’t know how to fly. For the moment, the autopilot is still engaged and the plane is flying normally.
From the point of view of the passenger, which of these problems is the most serious?
Most of us would say that the most urgent problem is that the person sitting in the Captain’s chair lacks the ability to fly. The autopilot may be engaged, but we know that at any moment we could face a challenge where only the diligence and competence of the pilot stands between us and disaster.
And yet in the analogous situation here on the ground, we suffer from a collective blindness to our most acute risk. Take the following example. It is July 2017. The collective conclusion of the U.S. intelligence agencies is that North Korea had test-fired an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. We now know that the President refused to believe this intelligence, dismissing it as a “hoax” because Russian President Vladimir Putin told him North Korea lacked that capacity.
What is revealed by this breathtaking anecdote? What about it should concern us most? For most of the press and commentariat, the main issue was the malign influence of our prime adversary’s leader over our President, and perhaps further evidence of “collusion.”
In my opinion, this misses the point. The issue isn’t Russia. The issue is that the pilot cannot fly. Our present safety is an autopilot illusion.
· The President is functionally disabled. He lacks the ordinary ability to absorb and process information, what psychologists call “executive function.” Executive function requires the ability to pay attention, gather information and structure it for evaluation, focus and remember details, and make decisions based on available information. We now have testimony from dozens of former White House insiders about how this disability is manifest: he lacks interest in many of the problems and decisions presented to the President. He will not read, sit through briefings, or absorb facts relevant to decisions.
· Instead, to navigate the world and make decisions, Trump depends on a completely different modus operandi. A problem is interesting only if it involves him personally. The world is divided into friends and enemies. Friends are those who flatter him and appear for the moment to buy into his narcissistic narrative of greatness; enemies are everyone else. Information is credible if it comes from friends and advances his narcissistic narrative (does it make me look like a winner?). Information is not credible (to be dismissed as “fake” or a “hoax”) if it does not. Understanding Trump really is that simple.
· It is possible to be an effective politician without executive function. After all, in politics you win or lose; slogans and messages are based on emotion and content matters little. Someone passionately convinced of his own greatness will “sell” that illusion more effectively than a non-narcissist.
· Governing is another thing altogether. Substance does matter. A President cannot navigate the complexities of national security without engaging with the facts and making some analysis – or, as an alternative, seeking the advice and taking the counsel of those who do. But Trumpian populism is deeply suspicious of expertise and authority. The narcissist is convinced he can fly the plane alone, despite lacking any of the skills of a pilot.
· So imagine that day in July when the intelligence services presented their analysis on the North Korean missile threat. On one hand, we have the collective analysis of thousands of independent non-partisan experts and professionals. It is presented in writing. It is evidence-based. It is complex and nuanced. It isn’t about him. In the past, the intelligence services have refused to tell him what he wanted to hear. On the other hand, we have Putin, an A-list celebrity who has flattered him shamelessly, whose strongman rule he admires, and who probably was instrumental in his election. Putin told him, mano a mano, that North Korea lacked the capacity to develop ICBMs. It was the answer he wanted to hear. It should surprise no one which of the two sources Trump would rely on.
It doesn’t matter how much you hate government or wish it would shrink. The world is a dangerous place. The man his secretary of state called “a moron” might be able to do the job if he surrounded himself with first class advisors and took their advice. He doesn’t. Integrity and competence are causes for firing in the Trump White House. The republic is in no less peril than our plane with a pilot who doesn’t know how to fly.
Contemporary fundamentalist conservatism has been built on a foundation of Orwellian inversions (e.g, Fox News as “fair and balanced”). But before Trump, I believed that conservatives who called themselves “patriots” were sincere in their professions of “country first.” Not anymore. Most Republicans have thrown national security under the bus in the pursuit of power. John McCain called them out before he died, but they didn’t listen. Our enemies are circling. We see storms on the horizon in every direction, and yet the GOP fights to keep the man who cannot fly in the pilot’s seat. When the plane crashes, historians will know where the blame lies.