Donald Trump operates in a different reality than the rest of us, and it’s not just the one gilded in gold.
Consider the question of refugee vetting. On the one hand, Trump’s campaign issued the following now infamous statement: "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."
On the other hand, the United States has long had an extremely rigorous vetting process for refugees. The United Nations registers, interviews and takes biometric data for all those who apply for refugee status, and the United States gets to choose which applicants are then referred for layers of overlapping interviews and background checks, involving the FBI, the Department of State, and the National Counterterrorism Center in a process that generally lasts up to two years before entry is granted.
The key difference between objective reality and Trump’s reality is that singular phrase: “What is going on?” Trump does not (or chooses not to) know what’s going on, so therefore no one knows what’s going on. Put another way: The Donald is so much smarter than the rest of us (as he so often points out on his Twitter feed), no one can possibly know what’s going on if he himself does not.
In this sense, Trump appears to be much like a child younger than 8 months or a dog of less than average intelligence in that he lacks a sense of object permanence—the ability to understand that things outside your view do, in fact, still exist—when it comes to governance and policy. This is what leads babies to be fascinated by peek-a-boo and dogs to be convinced their owners will never return after leaving to go to work.
Lest you think that Islamophobia is a particular blind spot of Trump’s (which, to be sure, it is), rest assured that his rhetoric is rife with other problems in object permanence.
The nation of Japan has been a steadfast ally of the United States since the aftermath of World War II. Rebuilding the war-torn country was foundational to the postwar international order, and Japan has been an invaluable political and economic partner in managing the rise of China and building up the economies of several South East Asian neighbors. Despite this, Trump has mouthed off at Japan in five of the six Republican debates, lambasting them as a rival and example of America’s perpetual "losing" while discounting the fact that his target is one of our key allies.
To Donald Trump, the positive aspects of the U.S.-Japan relationship are not in his field of vision, so they must not exist. He has not personally benefited from the security regime in the Asia-Pacific, nor does he much care for the economic assistance Japan provides to U.S. humanitarian missions. What he does know is that Japan sells cars—cars often bought by Americans—and that car sales, like many things in Trump’s mind, are a zero-sum game. Never mind that the complexities of globalization lead to Japanese carmakers employing hundreds of thousands of American workers in U.S.-based factories—Trump can’t see it, so it doesn’t exist.
Trump has demonstrated a similar lack of understanding when it comes to nuclear weapons. He failed to coherently answer a question from debate moderator Hugh Hewitt regarding the country’s nuclear triad during the December GOP debate (despite being asked the exact same question by the same person in an early August interview). To Trump, the triad—a term referring to the land, sea and air-based means by which the United States can launch nuclear weapons—does not exist; he simply agreed that nukes are dangerous and then pivoted to talking about Vladimir Putin and the war in Iraq.
And lest you think that Trump will fall back on advisers (the best guys, really terrific) for issues outside his realm, think again. Taking heat for Trump’s answer the next day on "The O’Reilly Factor," Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson asked, “What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?” The astoundingly cavalier nature of this answer aside, it fits the problematic pattern: Deterrence, signaling and second-strike capability are not things that the Trump campaign knows, so they must not exist. Trump is the kind of person who can’t not use something at his disposal – and use it to a degree unmatched by any sane person. Who else needs not just an airplane, but one with gold-plated sinks and seatbelts? In his mind, what’s the point of having nuclear weapons, trade embargoes, sanctions or any of the other myriad tools at the disposal of the executive if they go unused?
The damage of Trump’s object permanence problem isn’t that he is not an expert in any issue (because no president is) or that he falls back on known quantities and talking points in a tough spot (as politicians do); the danger is that he projects his own lack of knowledge onto everyone else. No one knows about refugees, or Japan, or nuclear weapons, because Donald Trump does not know about them—and if Donald Trump does not know a thing, then truly, it must be unknowable.
This is a profoundly dangerous way for any human being to think about the world; needless to say, that goes more than doubly for someone seeking the most powerful position in it.
Elie Jacobs (@eliejacobs) is a NYC based public affairs and strategic communications consultant and a partner with the Truman National Security Project.