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Trump’s Invincible Ignorance

Trump speaks at Washington rally against the Iran deal back in September 2015. Credit: Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom

Timereports on Trump’s unwillingness or inability to consider evidence that contradicts what he thinks he knows about foreign policy issues:

What is most troubling, say these officials and others in government and on Capitol Hill who have been briefed on the episodes, are Trump’s angry reactions when he is given information that contradicts positions he has taken or beliefs he holds. Two intelligence officers even reported that they have been warned to avoid giving the President intelligence assessments that contradict stances he has taken in public.

Trump’s lack of knowledge and dismal understanding of major issues have always been some of his biggest weaknesses, but the problem here is even worse than that. The president is not merely ignorant and unfamiliar with the relevant issues. We have known that all along. According to this report, he is determined to remain ignorant and fixed in his mistaken views about a wide range of issues, and the officials serving under him are enabling this so that they don’t make him angry at them. The point isn’t that intelligence agencies get everything right (they don’t), but on the issues where the president has publicly differed from their assessments he is consistently getting things wrong because that makes it easier for him to pretend that his policies are succeeding when everyone else can see that they aren’t.

That invincible ignorance has serious consequences for U.S. policies and interests and for our relations with other states. One of those consequences was the decision to renege on the nuclear deal with Iran because the president wrongly believed that they aren’t complying with the deal when all evidence shows that they have been complying from the beginning. Trump declared the deal to be “horrible,” and so he refuses to consider the proof that shows his opposition to be baseless. At the same time, he imagines that there has been great progress with North Korean disarmament because it flatters him to think that this is true.

There is nothing wrong with informed skepticism of official claims. It would be unhealthy and dangerous to accept official claims without testing them and putting them under scrutiny. Unfortunately, that isn’t what Trump is doing. He is reflexively rejecting all evidence that undermines his own official claims about the nuclear deal, North Korea, and many other things, and he is doing that because the evidence proves his claims to be false.

This is not even a question of whether one happens to agree or disagree with the president’s policies. The president simply makes things up or repeats the lies that others have told him, and he then uses this garbage information to defend policies that make no sense. That makes it practically impossible for the president to learn or change course when a policy is failing, because he is apparently unable or unwilling to accept new information that doesn’t bolster his preconceived notions of how clever and effective his decisions have been. An unwillingness to listen to dissenting views and a refusal to consider contradictory evidence are among the greatest flaws of our worst presidents, and they presage many more terrible decisions in the next two years.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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