This Spiel originally appeared on The Gist and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Donald Trump is a lot of things: incurious, incompetent, inattentive, inaccurate, insular, and infuriating. Is he insane, or—more broadly speaking—is he not well? Is he not fit? Is he not stable and also so far from genius as to be judged a blithering idiot? In his book Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff says, “Some believe that for all practical purposes, he was no more than semiliterate.”
That is a classic Wolff sentence. What’s that, four qualifiers? What is the definition of semiliterate? It’s one of those words that doesn’t have a strict definition. It’s fallen out of favor in technical circles. I found some evidence that in the ’70s and ’80s, the agreed-upon definition of semiliterate was an eighth-grade reading level and below. I put a few of Donald Trump’s tweets from Jan. 2 into an engine that assessed the reading level of the verbiage. Among these tweets was our president bragging about the size of his button:
The Flesch–Kincaid grade level of that was ninth grade. Perhaps the emotional quotient was juvenile, but the reading level was above subliterate.
One of the critiques about Trump and his mental capacity is that he is truly an idiot, as demonstrated when he talks off the cuff or tweets from the toilet. We only get the semisensible Trump when he’s reading from a teleprompter.
But this disproves, rather than confirms, the charge of semiliteracy. Trump cannot be both unable to read and able to read from a prepared text. To test that the words he was reading are above the subliterate level, I ran a few of his remarks through the Flesh–Kincaid calculator. First I assessed his recent remarks to farmers. He actually didn’t do so well:
Our continent was tamed by farmers. So true. Are you surprised to hear that, farmers? I don’t think so. You have led the way. Great people.
That was marked third grade, but other remarks, like the ones after signing an executive order, were judged to be ninth- to 12th-grade reading level. So although the genius part of “stable genius” is an exaggeration, that’s not the part that people focus on when they argue that Trump needs to be removed because of his mental capacity or lack thereof. It’s the stability part that has been drawing attention.
There was that long, rambling interview Trump gave with the New York Times at his golf club, and Ezra Klein of Vox wrote, “Incoherent, authoritarian, uniformed: Trump’s New York Times interview is a scary read. The president of the United States is not well.” Although I believe that Trump is a not-good president, we can’t say for certain that he’s not well or so far from well as to warrant removal from office. I am not arguing that he is a grounded, empathetic, emotional sophisticate on the path to self-actualization. I’m just saying, “Maybe he’s not not well.”
First, consider the fact that a rambling transcript on paper will always look worse than how the words sound coming out of someone’s mouth. When we talk, we leave out phrases. We confuse antecedents. We engage in tangents. It looks worse and less natural on the page. This was Trump during the campaign in an interview with Matt Lauer:
I think if people read that Q-and-A as a transcript, they would say, “This is just gobbledygook.” Beyond that, there’s a larger downside to questioning Trump’s mental fitness in 2018. It’s that the American people heard this all during the campaign, and enough of them voted for the guy to win the Electoral College. When a candidate accurately represents the acuity and grasp of facts that he will bring to the job, it seems a poor reason to disqualify a candidate from serving in that job.
Vanity Fair in recent weeks wrote “Experts: Trump’s Speaking Style ‘Raises Questions About His Brain Health.’ ” Well, duh, everyone’s speaking style gives you an insight as to his or her thinking style. How do you think the words are formed? What the article—and so many like it—does is rely on supposed expert testimony. There are a few bona fide experts on psychology or cognition, who have never examined Trump, who are frequently quoted on the question of the president’s competency. Their usual tack is to find an interview that Trump did 20 or 30 years ago and compare present-day Trump to that baseline. This analysis has pitfalls.
The Vanity Fair piece quotes STAT News:
John Montgomery, a psychologist in New York City and adjunct professor at New York University, said, “I think it’s pretty safe to say that Trump has had significant cognitive decline over the years.”
No one observing Trump from afar, though, can tell whether that’s “an indication of dementia, or normal cognitive decline that many people experience as they age, or whether it’s due to other factors” such as stress and emotional upheaval.
When experts compare interviews Trump did with David Letterman or Howard Stern or even Charlie Rose in the 1980s, they are using far less stressful situations as a baseline than when Trump has to defend his role in the Russia investigation. When Trump was being asked by Howard Stern about women’s bodies, a little less was at stake than when Trump is trying to talk his way out of jail. One of the big Trump interviews that people cite is a 1987 interview with Larry King. It is said that he is much more articulate then. He uses a softer tone. This makes sense: If Larry King lobs softballs, you respond in kind, not with fire and fury. Maybe Trump is less articulate today, but he was still plenty inarticulate then:
Japan is one of the wealthiest machines ever created. Saudi Arabia, and it’s not … Hey, let me tell you. I’m a big beneficiary of Japan. They buy my apartments in spades. They’re fine people, but they’re laughing to themselves as to what’s happening over here. We’re not kidding ourselves. They’re laughing to themselves, Larry, as to what’s happening with this country.
1987 Trump evinces a very, very similar style in thinking and speaking as today’s supposedly dangerously deranged Trump. He blames an Asian outsider. He claims that America’s being laughed at. He even does the little shtick about, Hey, but they’re great customers. It’s almost as if the words go faster than the thoughts in his head, and it’s maybe a little hard for us, the listener, to keep up.
That whole interview was rife with digressions and non sequiturs. It also bears pointing out that Trump is so very uninformed as to give the appearance of incompetence or even insanity. He doesn’t grasp fundamental details on policy matters, which reduces him to repeating the same points over and over again. Take this part of that Times golf-club interview:
Now here’s the good news. We’ve created associations, millions of people are joining associations. Millions. That were formerly in Obamacare or didn’t have insurance. Or didn’t have health care. Millions of people. That’s gonna be a big bill, you watch. It could be as high as 50 percent of the people. You watch. So that’s a big thing. And the individual mandate. So now you have associations, and people don’t even talk about the associations. That could be half the people are going to be joining up. … With private [inaudible]. So now you have associations and the individual mandate.
I believe that because of the individual mandate and the associations, the Democrats will and certainly should come to me and see if they can do a really great health care plan for the remaining people. [Inaudible.]
It’s fair to ask, “What is wrong with that man?” But I believe the fairest answer is closer to shameful ignorance than disqualifying insanity.
Also consider that Trump is the most scrutinized person in America. Many people are seeking evidence that confirms our idea that he’s a dolt. It seems plausible that he actually is mismouthing the words to the national anthem during college football’s championship game, when the more likely explanation is that an echo inside the stadium made his lyrics seem off. He makes some stupid point about Puerto Rico being an island.
Trump: This is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water.
Here, from a couple of weeks ago, was New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who may literally be a genius, and he seems pretty stable to me, talking about Long Island.
Andrew Cuomo: It is an island. It’s off the water. The wind off the water on Long Island, which is a narrow strip of land, creates mayhem.
I guess Trump would also add, “And not only is it an island, it’s very long, quite long. Not a lot of people know that.” But the point is, when every one of your utterances is covered by national media, and when, yes, many of these utterances lack coherence, you seem less communicative than others in public life.
In their assessments of Trump, many of his critics are scrutinizing a public figure they loathe on an emotional level who also happens to be a syntactical nightmare. It’s easy to convince yourself that he is unfit, but contrast this to someone who you might regard as a hero or at least a good American. Take John McCain. With that vote to kill health care, McCain was so bold and so brave, or if you thought differently of McCain to begin with, maybe you regarded that thumbs-down vote as showy and impulsive. And of course John McCain has a brain tumor. He’s clearly impaired. Remember the Comey testimony?
McCain: So you reached a conclusion in the case of Mr. Comey, you, the president, Comey.
Comey: No, sir.
McCain: Excuse me, case of President Trump. You have an ongoing investigation.
Yet no one’s trying to impeach McCain or even make the public case that he’s unfit. McCain’s a better person than Trump. McCain is a better policymaker than Trump. Trump fails terribly on those regards, so it’s very hard to separate that from his sanity. It’s not that I’m sure that Trump is sane. He might not be. I’m not, by the way, advocating we totally ignore truly compelling evidence that he is insane, but it seems like a distraction. We needn’t dwell on Trump’s mental processing—just look at the product. That’s the stuff that should be at least voted against and, if the evidence of obstruction of justice or emoluments violation are there, he should be impeached over.
Dreams about proving Trump unfit are comforting to liberals. The very discussion makes us feel good. Trump derangement talk on the left is not exactly in the realm of chemtrails or InfoWars on the far right. It’s more like obsessing over the Carlyle Group during the George W. Bush administration. Yes, the Iraq war was conceived of by people who made money on the war and probably worked in the private sector as war profiteers beforehand. I’m being very harsh in my description, but that’s accurate. It’s disturbing. It’s very hard to adequately prove a quid pro quo and to effect the political change you need based on that fact. It’s the same with Trump fitness claims. I think that actual smart, sane people in Washington can still hold Trump accountable in real ways.
Ezra Klein, in that Vox article, sums it up: “[I]t is plainly obvious from Trump’s words that this is not a man fit to be president, that he is not well or capable in some fundamental way.” I would change “words” to “deeds.” I think it’s obvious from his deeds that he’s not fit to be president, and I wouldn’t necessarily sign off on the word well. I don’t know if he’s well or not. He seems terrible, but I don’t know if he’s unwell.
I will end with another thought from Ezra Klein that I heard him recently say on a podcast that I think was really apt:
That’s the point of being an elite, that they’re there as a safeguard. You have to do that when there is gonna be backlash. The point of being an elite is not that you give blind quotes to Politico; the point is when the country needs it you step the fuck up.
That is correct. There are responsible, competent, powerful people guided by a sense of duty who can save us. These people just have to act with the utmost stability and sobriety, which is a better tactic than trying to prove that Trump is guided by insanity.
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