The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s apparent ignorance of basic political terms is on full display overseas

President Trump’s June 29 news conference during the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan covered a wide range of topics. (Video: The Washington Post)

Liberal democracy appears increasingly in the balance around the Western world, but the president of the United States doesn’t seem to even know what it is. Neither does he seem to grasp what “busing” means.

President Trump held a lengthy news conference Saturday in Osaka, Japan, during which he displayed his apparent ignorance of some very basic political terms and historical concepts.

When asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments saying Western-style liberalism was “obsolete,” Trump apparently thought this term literally referred to the western United States and American liberals.

Here’s the exchange (key parts bolded):

NEW YORK TIMES’S PETER BAKER: His comments to the Financial Times right before arriving here was that Western-style liberalism is obsolete. I know you probably --
TRUMP: Well, I mean he may feel that way. He’s sees what’s going on, I guess, if you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, where it’s so sad to look, and what’s happening in San Francisco and a couple of other cities, which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people. I don’t know what they’re thinking, but he does see things that are happening in the United States that would probably preclude him from saying how wonderful it is. At the same time, he congratulated me, as every other leader of every other country did for what we’ve done economically, because we probably have the strongest economy we’ve ever had, and that’s a real positive. But I’m very embarrassed by what I see in some of our cities, where the politicians are either afraid to do something about it, or they think it’s votes or I don’t know what. Peter, I don’t know what they’re thinking. But when you look at Los Angeles, when you look at San Francisco, when you look at some of the other cities — and not a lot, not a lot — but you don’t want it to spread. And at a certain point, I think the federal government maybe has to get involved. We can’t let that continue to happen to our cities.

Democratic liberalism, of course, does not refer to the western United States, but rather the Western world — which generally includes the United States and much of Europe. And liberalism is a political theory that values the freedom of the individual. That term has come to be associated with left-leaning American politicians and political activists, but some right-leaning political thinkers still claim the term as their own.

Broadly speaking, democratic liberalism has been the leading political ideology across the western world since World War II. Of late, though, populist movements across Europe have gained power, leading to questions about how long liberal democracies can survive. Putin’s comments were clearly about that, but Trump doesn’t appear to have processed this very significant development on the world stage.

That wasn’t his only flub on a very basic political term, though. In another portion of the news conference, he was asked about an exchange in Thursday night’s portion of the first Democratic presidential debate over busing. Trump, yet again, didn’t seem to understand what the term meant:

ABC NEWS’S JONATHAN KARL: I’m sure you saw the exchange between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on the issue of federal busing — federally mandated busing. Biden thought that was a bad policy; he tried to stop it. Kamala Harris said it was an important part of desegregation, including in her own experience. Where do you stand on that issue of federally mandated busing?
TRUMP: First of all, before we get into that, I thought that she was given too much credit. ... And as far as that, I will tell you in about four weeks, because we’re coming out with a certain policy that’s going to be very interesting and very surprising, I think, to a lot of people. Jennifer, do you have a question?

So Trump is going to come out with a policy on federally mandated busing ... in 2019? After that odd answer and given Trump’s apparent desire to quickly move on from the issue, NBC News’s Kristen Welker followed up on it later:

WELKER: I just wanted to follow up on the question about busing. Do you see it as a viable way of integrating schools. Does that relate to the policy that you’re —
TRUMP: Well, that’s something that they’ve done for a long period of time. You know, there aren’t that many ways you’re going to get people to schools. So this is something that’s been done. In some cases, it’s been done with a hammer instead of a velvet glove. And, you know, that’s part of it.. But this has been certainly a thing that’s been used over the — I think if Vice President Biden had answered the question somewhat differently, it would have been a different result. Because they really did hit him hard on that one. But it is certainly a primary method of getting people to schools.
WELKER: And does it relate to the policy that you’re going to unveil that you just floated?
TRUMP: It relates to everything we’re doing. And you’ll be hearing about it over the next couple of months.

“A primary method of getting people to schools.” Trump apparently believes busing refers the federal government forcing local school districts to provide children with transportation. What’s most amazing about these answers is that not only was this issue the focus after Thursday’s debate, but also that Karl prefaced his question by explaining the term. Trump still couldn’t do anything with that.