Hillary Clinton’s most enduring gaffe of the 2016 campaign is undoubtedly her “basket of deplorables” remark. “Half” of Donald Trump supporters, she said, are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” people who don’t have a good excuse, like financial stress, for supporting the Trump campaign instead of her own.
Whether Clinton’s assessment of the many political, economic and cultural factors that fueled Trump’s success was fair in some sense didn’t matter. Her comments confirmed for many voters the impression that Clinton was a snobby coastal progressive who didn’t understand their concerns. No one likes to be called deplorable. No one likes to be called stupid.
The Trump campaign made hay with that gaffe, championing Trump as Clinton’s diametric opposite. Trump may not live like you, the argument went, but he doesn’t think you’re dumb. He recognizes your problems. He respects you, and he’s got the power and smarts to fight on your behalf against a political establishment that shares Clinton’s elitism.
That message got Trump to the White House, but now that he’s there, it’s increasingly evident all parts cannot at once be true. Either President Trump is stupid, or he thinks the American public is. That both of those options are true is also an option, but they can’t both be false.
The evidence for this is overwhelming, but I’ll limit myself to two items. The first is Trump’s claim in an interview with The Economist published today that he personally invented the phrase “priming the pump” within the last week or so. Here’s what he said:
[The Economist]: … It’s okay if the tax plan increases the deficit?
[President Trump]: It is okay, because it won’t increase it for long. You may have two years where you’ll … you understand the expression “prime the pump”?
We have to prime the pump.
It’s very Keynesian.
We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Have you heard that expression before, for this particular type of an event?
Priming the pump?
Yeah, have you heard it?
Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just … I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.
This is just bizarre. Priming the pump is a well-known idiom in the English language. It has been around for nearly a century. Trump himself is on record using it in December. How could he possibly think anyone would believe he made up the expression “a couple of days ago”?
Either President Trump is stupid, or he thinks we are. This is either self-delusion or some weird attempt at gaslighting the whole United States over a totally inconsequential matter that offers no political gain. Why would he tell this lie?
My second example is more consequential: the firing of FBI Director James Comey. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, my colleague at The Week, explains, there is no evidence this was a strategic or clever move:
The firing has all the signs of shooting from the hip: no replacement, no slate of qualified nominees to replace him. Trump had previously said he wouldn’t fire Comey. It was just an announcement.
The White House seems to have been surprised at the backlash the firing immediately engendered, which means they have all the political sense of a goldfish. If this was an attempt to frustrate the investigation into the election, it has obviously backfired, since it makes it even more likely that a special prosecutor will be appointed, or an independent commission formed, or that Trump will be forced to appoint someone with unimpeachable credentials for integrity and doggedness to the post.
A Nixonian moment this wasn’t. But this has been a classic Trump moment: impulsive, self-aggrandizing, insecure, passive-aggressive (Trump reportedly didn’t even tell Comey face to face but sent an aide to deliver the dismissal letter), shameless, short-sighted.
Fears that Trump will drag the country into totalitarianism are unrealistic, Gobry argues, not because Trump or some of his advisers lack authoritarian instincts, but because Trump lacks the basic competence to execute complex political maneuvers.
Whatever this sudden firing was supposed to communicate to the public, it has only succeeded in suggesting the worst of Trump’s opinion of our intelligence as a public and of his capacity as president.
As conservative commentator George Will recently wrote, Trump appears to be plagued by an inability to think clearly that is “not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence.” It is that misplaced confidence, I suspect, which convinces the president he can tell absurd and silly lies about inventing idioms and fool the entire country — or that he can fire Comey at this stage without raising millions of eyebrows.
Trump hasn’t made an explicit deplorables-style blunder, but at this point he doesn’t have to. His transparent lies and haphazard attempts of imperium scream louder than any one gaffe.