Usually it is fine not to have any idea what you are talking about.
But for a presidential candidate it can be a little awkward.
Asked by Bob Woodward what made Abraham Lincoln succeed, Donald Trump offered the following response:
“Well,” Trump said, “I think Lincoln succeeded for numerous reasons. He was a man who was of great intelligence, which most presidents would be. But he was a man of great intelligence, but he was also a man that did something that was a very vital thing to do at that time. Ten years before or 20 years before, what he was doing would never have even been thought possible. So he did something that was a very important thing to do, and especially at that time.” And then he started to ramble about Richard Nixon.
As Katherine Miller asked on Twitter, “Does Donald Trump know what Lincoln did as president?”
Most of us go through life pretending to know many things about which, in fact, we have no idea. Usually this is fine. This is the foundation on which all conversation is built. If you admit the contrary, everything would screech to a halt. So instead you listen and nod and say, “I don’t think that goes far enough” or “I couldn’t have said it better myself!” at intervals.
You can have a long discussion about the TPP and only discover months later that one of the people discussing it with you thought that it was some sort of innovation in toilet paper. (In retrospect, this explains some of why the discussion got so heated, though by no means all.)
Usually this is innocuous. There is just too much TV for us to have watched it all, and pretending you have can sometimes save a relationship.
There are many conversational gambits for not appearing ignorant of the thing that everyone else in the room appears to know about. One is that you wait for someone else to say something, and then you say, “I agree with Marco, but I think we need to go much further.” Another is you say one thing, and then you pretend it was a joke when everyone stares at you in horror, and then you say the opposite. Another tactic is to pretend you did not hear the question. Or you can divert the conversation from the thing you were just asked that you in fact know nothing about to something that you do know about. You can do this with varying degrees of subtlety, as Trump has the whole campaign.
But if someone asks you point-blank, “What is my fiance’s name?” you can’t say, “Look, fundamentally, it all comes down to breaking up the banks.”
When we do it, it’s fine. We could Google it any time we want. We need these little concessions.
But when a candidate does it —
The trick of turning these into gaffes is that there are some things that everyone knows, in theory. The capitals of countries. Who’s on the supreme court. How the electoral college works.
In theory, we know this. But in practice, there is genuine dramatic tension in “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader” — because there are many things we have agreed that Everyone Knows that, in fact, maybe six people know off the top of their heads.
But then there are things everyone actually does know in practice, and those are the stuff of which gaffes are made. How a grocery checkout works. That John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy are not the same. What Abraham Lincoln did.
Now Trump and Bernie Sanders, the two most consistent and exciting candidates, are being hoist by their own transcripts. Sanders kept trying to insist that the answer to every foreign policy question was a vote he had made in 2002. Which — okay? It works without a follow-up. But with follow-up, it can be devastating. (Daily News: “Where would a President Sanders imprison, interrogate? What would you do?” Sanders: “Actually I haven’t thought about it a whole lot.”)
Trump’s charisma has been hard to quell. Insinuating that all his fans were failures and bigots didn’t do it. But revealing that he is not, in fact, smarter than a fifth grader — that he lacks a “great brain” — just might.
The great sustaining myth of Trump was that behind the scenes there was a guy who knew what he was doing and that he would eventually emerge from the fray and be “so presidential” that “you will be bored to tears.”
Up until this past week, Trump had managed to coast by on charisma for the 30 seconds of answer required.
Here he is at the first debate:
BAIER: His name is General Qassem Soleimani, he’s blamed for hundreds of U.S. troops death in Iraq, and Afghanistan. His trip to Russia appears to directly violate U.N. Security Council resolutions to confine him to Iran. So, Mr. Trump, if you were president, how would you respond to this?
TRUMP: I would be so different from what you have right now. Like, the polar opposite. We have a president who doesn’t have a clue. I would say he’s incompetent, but I don’t want to do that because that’s not nice. (Applause, laughter)
But remove the laughter and the applause and you have — a man who is very clearly not answering the question and is fumbling around for an answer until he finds an applause-worthy talking point. And when he has to answer a question for more than 30 seconds, that becomes painfully obvious.
“I have a great brain” is a nice, easy statement to disprove.
Read any transcript and it is just The Donald helplessly repeating the same simple third-grade-level phrases over and over again. It’s not presidential, just boring.