Chaos president indeed — and David Brooks has some ideas about why

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
David Brooks: "[President Donald Trump] is… the all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence."

During one of the primary season debates, Jeb Bush said that Donald Trump was “a chaos candidate and he would be a chaos president.” I reprinted this quote in February when it was beginning to sound perspicacious. The last few days have proven it beyond any doubt.

“Chaos” is just one word and not a particularly precise one, although a decent first pick for words to describe the Trump era. More and more analysts are turning to the realms of psychology and psychiatry, (and, I would have to add, “aberrant” psychology) to explain some of the ways to describe why Trump is not up to the job he currently holds.

The other day I started a list of some of the disturbing qualities of the current incumbent, and I will soon add some more, as they occur to me. But for today, I just want to pass along a few paragraphs of David Brooks’ Tuesday column, headlined “When the world is run by a child.”

Tough stuff, especially from Brooks

That’s pretty tough stuff, especially coming from Brooks, whom we normally think of as a fairly moderate and genteel conservative, not one given to name-calling. Brooks, who based the column on a study of the transcripts of many interviews with Trump, expanded on the “child” bit, thus:

“At certain times Donald Trump has seemed like a budding authoritarian, a corrupt Nixon, a rabble-rousing populist or a big business corporatist. But as Trump has settled into his White House role, he has given a series of long interviews, and when you study the transcripts it becomes clear that fundamentally he is none of these things.

At base, Trump is an infantalist. There are three tasks that most mature adults have sort of figured out by the time they hit 25. Trump has mastered none of them. Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif. …

Second, most people of drinking age have achieved some accurate sense of themselves, some internal criteria to measure their own merits and demerits. But Trump seems to need perpetual outside approval to stabilize his sense of self, so he is perpetually desperate for approval, telling heroic fabulist tales about himself. …

Trump is not only trying to deceive others. His falsehoods are attempts to build a world in which he can feel good for an instant and comfortably deceive himself.

He is thus the all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence. Trump thought he’d be celebrated for firing James Comey. He thought his press coverage would grow wildly positive once he won the nomination. He is perpetually surprised because reality does not comport with his fantasies.

Third, by adulthood most people can perceive how others are thinking. For example, they learn subtle arts such as false modesty so they won’t be perceived as obnoxious. But Trump seems to have not yet developed a theory of mind. Other people are black boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval. …

Which brings us to the reports that Trump betrayed an intelligence source and leaked secrets to his Russian visitors. From all we know so far, Trump didn’t do it because he is a Russian agent, or for any malevolent intent. He did it because he is sloppy, because he lacks all impulse control ….

The context

Brooks wrote all this when we were all careening from the story about Trump’s carelessness with highly and deeply classified information — and to Russian officials no less. The technical defense, which you have surely heard, is that a president has a legal right to declassify anything he chooses, on the spot. Apparently that’s the case, so perhaps that one won’t be on the list of “high crimes and misdemeanors” necessary for impeachment.

Trump and his defenders have not explained why it was a good idea to divulge facts about a key ally’s covert operations in a way that will very likely compromise those operations and possibly endanger the lives of agents. But, congratulations, it wasn’t a felony when Trump did it (although it would have been if anyone else had).

I gasped, then laughed, then felt like crying at Brooks’ invocation of the Dunning-Kruger effect (of which I had never before but immediately recognized as a real thing).

But as the day wore on the chaos shifted back to the Comey stuff. The New York Times reported Sunday that President Trump had asked Comey (before he fired him, and this will likely to turn out to be one of the reasons he fired him) to drop the FBI’s investigation into the Russia connections of just-fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (or, at least, Comey said Trump asked him, according to notes he took of the conversation.

It turns out that Comey was an inveterate note-taker, and wrote down the details of his experiences in Trumpland as they were happening. Comey has also let us know that he is willing to testify, but only in public. I’m sure most Democrats would be glad to arrange such testimony, but they don’t control a single committee. Let’s see if the Republicans can hold ranks against the idea of giving Comey a hearing.

Jeb, you tried to warn us.

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Comments (34)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/17/2017 - 09:49 am.

    The only problem with the “Chaos” description

    Is that I think Trump sometimes tries to claim that “chaos” is actually HIS style, i.e., it’s deliberate. He’ll claim that chaos works for him. Sure, this is an bizarre and ridiculous claim, but this guy makes bizarre and ridiculous claims all the time.

    As for Brooks, he’s a smart guy, and he’s certainly made some insightful observations in the last year or so. But I wonder if he ever reflects on or regrets his own role in promoting the Dunning-Kruger effect over the decades with his support for policies and rationale’s based on magical thinking and intellectual fraud? He’s a big Charle’s Murray (Bell Curve) fan for instance.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/17/2017 - 09:59 am.

    And, next week he’ll be bringing his wisdom and soothing rhetoric to the historic centers of the 3 Abrahamic religions–unity and group hugs, all !!

    I try to imagine the world where Trump invites the King of the House of Saud to speak to Americans on Christianity. It boggles the mind.

    And at the end of the week:


    NATO is scrambling to tailor its upcoming meeting to avoid taxing President Donald Trump’s notoriously short attention span. The alliance is telling heads of state to limit talks to two to four minutes at a time during the discussion, several sources inside NATO and former senior U.S. officials tell Foreign Policy. And the alliance scrapped plans to publish the traditional full post-meeting statement meant to crystallize NATO’s latest strategic stance.

    …NATO traditionally organizes a meeting within the first few months of a new U.S. president’s term, but Trump has the alliance more on edge than any previous newcomer, forcing organizers to look for ways to make the staid affair more engaging.

    “It’s kind of ridiculous how they are preparing to deal with Trump,” said one source briefed extensively on the meeting’s preparations. “It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child — someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re freaking out.”

    ….”Even a brief NATO summit is way too stiff, too formal, and too policy heavy for Trump. Trump is not going to like that,” said Jorge Benitez, a NATO expert with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

    (end quote)

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/17/2017 - 01:58 pm.

      In a comforting indication of his awareness of his limitations, Trump is having the speeches for Saudi Arabia and Israel are being written by Stephen Miller, the architect of the Muslim ban EO

      From Wiki

      Prior to this, Miller was the communications director for then-Alabama senator, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He also served as a press secretary to Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Congressman John Shadegg. Miller has acted as Trump’s chief speechwriter and is credited with authoring the president’s “American carnage” inaugural address. He has been a key adviser since the early days of Trump’s presidency and was a chief architect of Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from several Middle Eastern countries.

      Should be interesting.

  3. Submitted by david maeda on 05/17/2017 - 10:29 am.

    speaking of words…


  4. Submitted by Patrick Tice on 05/17/2017 - 10:41 am.

    The Dunning-Kruger effect…

    …is a variant of “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Thoughtful people eventually come to realize that there is much that they don’t know and that their perceptions and decision-making are affected by this gap in knowledge, nonetheless they try to get as much information as possible and move forward. This is SO not Trump.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/17/2017 - 11:31 am.


      The difference between the D-K effect and the insight behind recognizing that you don’t know what you don’t know is that only thoughtful people can recognize the limits of their knowledge. Those who fall prey to the D-K are by definition NOT thoughtful people, so yes, it does describe Trump. The D-K effect is a direct result of the inability to reason well. Such people do NOT nevertheless try to get more information etc. etc. Such people overestimate their competence because they don’t question their own level competence or knowledge. The ability to realize that you don’t know what you don’t know is actually a few intellectual steps beyond anyone experiencing the D-K effect.

  5. Submitted by Roy Everson on 05/17/2017 - 10:56 am.

    Prepare for the sympathy stage

    Introducing this Dunning-Kruger Effect idea is to also open the door to being sympathetic to His Orangeness. True, we are aghast at incompetents, wounded by the effects of their actions, angry that competency is unachieved. But the empathetic-prone among us will reflect upon the self-deluded episodes that we are all prone to. Who among us cannot relate to the pain of self-delusion?

    Add that to the inevitable rise in stories of the leader’s mental incapacity. Given the evidence of his words and deeds people will buy into the idea of early dementia. Who but the most insensitive can resist? In TV Reality Show terms, the Resistence Viewers may not be able to vote Trump off the island in disgust, but the Trumpettes might insist he he take a medical leave.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 05/17/2017 - 11:39 am.

      The Pence Problem

      The problem, of course, is that if we DO manage to get Trump off the island, we are then left with Pence.

      There are no good scenarios here.

      • Submitted by Roy Everson on 05/17/2017 - 05:10 pm.

        The Pence Era

        We are headed into a swamp filled with alligators, Pence might draw the line at a big messy anthill.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/17/2017 - 11:13 am.

    Another one

    …that occurs to me, and that I’ve mentioned before in Trump commentary, is “the illusion of central position,” which may be a corollary to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Small children typically behave as if (largely because this is their reality, at least for a while) the world revolves around their personal wants and needs. It’s a sad moment for elementary-school-aged children around the world when each of them realizes that their birthday, for example, is not only not unique to the planet, and is a day and celebration shared with, by now, several million other children of exactly the same age, but that most of the world’s inhabitants neither know nor care that it’s their special and particular birthday. My grandchildren, despite my best efforts to spoil them, will soon encounter this reality, and they won’t like it. I didn’t either, at their age.

    Mr. Trump, unfortunately, has yet to have that epiphany, and from the available evidence may not have it for some time, if ever. Wealth, in this instance, is a great, though ultimately unhelpful, insulator from the realization that he, too, like Caesar, is just an ordinary human being, and will die just like the rest of us. Much literature has been written about this, with much more commentary down through the centuries about both the phenomenon and the literature it has inspired.

  7. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/17/2017 - 11:24 am.

    A child. Leading the United State of America.

    Lots of us feared, a year ago, what we were perceiving as Trump’s character, or lack of it. Why Trump voters still think we’re in safe hands with him boggles the mind. May be they’ll realize their mistake after he does something really, really awful, or he’s too ignorant to forestall something really, really bad from happening to the U.S.

    I remind everybody: The American intelligence community had warned George W. Bush about Osama bin Laden and Al Queda, before 9/11. Bush didn’t react until it was too late.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/17/2017 - 12:12 pm.


      We’ve been moving towards a Trump presidency for decades, and Trump isn’t the first D-K president, although he certainly is the most spectacular example.

      I remember sending an e-mail to Condi Rice after one of her appearances before Congress. She was describing all the warnings the administration was getting (As Constance reminds us) before 9/11 but explained that she didn’t realize that she was supposed to be doing something (She was the National Security Adviser at the time) about the those warnings. I sent her a quick note explaining that yes, the National Security Security Adviser is supposed to do something about national security, it’s not someone else’s job. So when you someone warns you that there is a threat to national security, you’re supposed to do something about that. You may recall at the time, Rice thought the biggest threat facing the US was North Korean missiles, missiles that still do not exist. Despite the fact that Bush was warned that terrorism was the biggest threat facing the US, they were running around promoting missile defense while ignoring warnings about imminent terrorist attacks.

      It’s always amazed me that after several of the most spectacular intelligence failures in US history, no one in the Bush White House resigned. Talk about Dunning-Kruger effects.

  8. Submitted by Misty Martin on 05/17/2017 - 12:02 pm.

    To be sure, Jeb Bush, did indeed try to warn us.

    By us, I mean the voters who voted for Trump, as I can say proudly, I DID NOT!!!! Even if I have
    felt like a minority of ONE in my church, my community and where I am employed. And I don’t mean to sound like “I TOLD YOU SO!” That would be stooping to the level of which our President is accused, i.e. childish behavior. I just can’t believe my eyes and ears as they continue to be assaulted daily it seems, by events too incomprehensible to try and fathom, and yet, there they are.

    My Republic friends constantly tell me that this is all due to the “fake news” out there, but how can it be fake or false, when there are truths supporting what has occurred? I truly feel like we are in a fairy tale like “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, and many of Trump’s supporters are indeed just “pretending” that he was and is a good presidential choice.

    But thank you again, Eric. I’d never heard of the “Dunning-Kruger effect” and I have to admit, that sadly, it did make me laugh aloud, which is wrong I know. It’s sad really. God help this country!

  9. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/17/2017 - 01:51 pm.

    The Elephant in the Room

    As it were.

    Mr. Brooks wrote a good column, albeit one that rehashes a lot of recent conversations. The problem with it is that he doesn’t try to put the Trump presidency in context. “We’re here, it’s bad” is only part of the story. Why does he not ask how we got here in the first place?

    The truth is, Trump is the inevitable result of Republican politics and rhetoric for the past 40 years. Start with the idea that government is bad, or at least suspect. From that start, what could be more logical than installing a President with no government experience of any kind, elected or otherwise? The Washington elites are bad? Let’s elect a President who has no regard for the norms of governance, not even to the extent of paying them lip service. The media, intellectuals, liberals–they have been demonized by Republican fellow travelers for a long time. Hate political correctness? Here’s a man who insults the same people you do, and who claims to be picked on for doing so!

    We got to Trump after a long walk that started in Philadelphia, Mississippi, when candidate Reagan stood in that historically-charged place and uttered his support for the politically-laden term “states’ rights.” Before that time, Republicans would have summoned up memories of their party’s consistent support for civil rights, and been shocked at the idea they do such a thing. Those days left the country pretty fast. Mr. Brooks has told us in the past that it was a scheduling problem, not a calculated decision (he was working for Reagan at the time it happened). Whatever. That scheduling issue pushed us down the road to infantile government.

    • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 05/17/2017 - 10:12 pm.

      How We Got Here

      We didn’t end up with Trump as a result of 40 years of republican politics. The Democrats had just as much blame as the GOP. Trump was the last choice for people who were totally fed up with the politics and corruption of BOTH parties.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/18/2017 - 09:19 am.

        Not Even Close

        “The Democrats had just as much blame as the GOP.” Really? Did the Democrats demonize government at every turn? Are they the ones who sneered at the idea of “political correctness?” Did Democrats reject the idea that expertise and knowledge might be good things? The “both sides do it” defense isn’t going to work here.

        “Trump was the last choice for people who were totally fed up with the politics and corruption of BOTH parties.” He didn’t come out of nowhere. Everything Trump has said or done comes straight from the Republican id. For all the polish of the other candidates, what does Trump want to do that they would not? Why do you think the Congressional leadership is so willing to turn a blind eye to a President who will make Warren Harding look like the poster child for good government? I would bet that it’s because he is willing to support and enact their agenda.

        Here, it might be relevant to note that Trump is President only because of the anti-democratic quirks of our Constitution. That doesn’t mean his election was unlawful or illegitimate, but it does mean that claiming he represents some tide of public opinion is utter nonsense.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/19/2017 - 09:19 am.

        I agree with Mike

        Democrats do bare as much responsibility as Republicans for this slide into Trumpism.

        Trump is a chump who never should have gotten anywhere near the Oval Office and wouldn’t have had the Democrats been able to mount an effective opposition. The fact that Democrats were unable to mount an effective opposition is a reflection of 40 years of elite conservative neo-liberalism. Back in the 80s leaders of the Democratic party decided that America no longer needed a liberal political party and would better served by a moderate Republican Party pretending to be liberal. THAT laid the groundwork for Trump because it normalized Republican extremism and oriented ALL policy around the wealthy elite.

        50 years later after several recessions and the largest transfer of wealth in American history to the top 1%; American voters demanded a popular candidate who would return their government back to the people. Democrats responded by handing them a unpopular and distrusted candidate who made a career out of catering to the elite, and bragged about speeches to Wall Street and her support for the Import Export Bank. And then they lost to Trump.

        Trump wasn’t unbeatable, his opposition was just completely incompetent. So yeah, Democrats get some blame for this.

  10. Submitted by charles thompson on 05/17/2017 - 04:57 pm.


    David Brooks using intemperate language? I’m agog. For years I watched this little toad get slapped silly by Mark Brooks on friday nights and now he has the temerity to attack the emperor. I have a sense of humor, but this is beyond even the comfy chair.

  11. Submitted by charles thompson on 05/17/2017 - 04:58 pm.


    Mark Shields.

  12. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/17/2017 - 05:14 pm.

    Brooks has always been a hand-wringing enabler.

    He would have held Pontius Pilate’s finger-bowl in the olde days.

  13. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/17/2017 - 08:47 pm.

    What is the message

    this sends to our kids? As a 67 year old, it looks like we have 1 hell of a corrupt system, and the only way to win is to lie, cheat, BS etc. etc. Truth, integrity, honesty, those words choke in most of our politicians throats. Its not about what is good for America, its what good for, me the party and my campaign contributors. They are watching the grown ups and taking notes.

  14. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/18/2017 - 10:40 am.

    Let’s be careful with non-facts:

    What “corruption” was there in the eight years of the Barack Obama presidency?

    There was nothing to the Republican-created Benghazi controversy. There was nothing illegal and no secrets revealed in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Carelessness is not a crime, as James Comey reminded us, although Trump’s revealing Code-Word highly classified secrets to the Russians seems okay with everyone but the intelligence services who are absolutely appalled at what Trump did, willy-nilly. Like a bragging child who doesn’t understand what he’s done, without consulting the adults around him before he opens his mouth.

    There was not one whiff of anything improper in Obama’s White House, which he filled (as he did the entire Obama administration) with highly-qualified, hard-working, articulate and experienced people. It was famously one of the tightest ships known to federal administrations! Even “leaks” dripped to a stop, especially after Obama’s steely hard line with Edward Snowden, who is living out his life in exile for revealing to us what our NSA was doing to us.

    By contrast, Trump’s White House is filled with sycophants who spend hours each day screaming at each other behind closed doors and scrambling to find a new face to make excuses for Trump before the press, McMaster being one of the latest. Trump hasn’t even nominated people for a large number of federal positions that need to be filled–one imagines he’s bored with such details and doesn’t really know enough people. Has anyone noticed that Trump can’t find anyone willing to take the job of FBI Director, after he fired one of the most respected men in Washington from that job, for investigating him?

    Throwing accusations like “corrupt” when the details don’t support the claim is what lots of Americans saw Trump doing, last year. We reject that flame-throwing, and will call it out whenever it surfaces.

  15. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/19/2017 - 02:39 pm.

    It is hard to consider Brooks’ point of view about Trump conservative considering that he admired Obama and wanted Clinton to win…

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/20/2017 - 09:13 am.


      He is considered one of the brightest, best versed, well read, broad minded, and thoughtful conservative commentators in America. (Must be all bad traits for a conservative) The comment fits, if he doesn’t play the party line and thinks for himself, throw him under the bus. Republicans want party wonks, that will follow and support the BS what ever and where ever it goes, party first ethics be dammed. The comment clearly states, if you admire any thing good bad or otherwise outside the party line, under the bus! Sounds like typical despotism.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/21/2017 - 01:15 pm.

        “He is considered one of the brightest, best versed, well read, broad minded, and thoughtful conservative commentators in America. (Must be all bad traits for a conservative)” If those traits are bad for a conservatives, then who considers him the brightest, best versed, etc.? But, to answer your main point (and also Ms. Sullivan’s one), I should not have said “conservative” in my comment and instead just refer to Mr. Brooks’ opinion about Trump in general… Because Trump was not indeed running a conservative campaign for most part nor was he supported by many conservatives and Republicans. So Republicans are generally more independent in their votes and opinions than Democrats – just compare how Obamacare passed and how Trumpcare struggles…

        • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/23/2017 - 04:17 pm.


          You consider them bad traits, Your comments not mine. And where do you get the support for your conclusion “Republicans are generally more independent in their votes and opinions than Democrats”
          Please show the legislative numbers.
          PS: 1 data point does not make a trend.

        • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 05/24/2017 - 10:10 am.

          The process to get Obamacare passed took over a year, in large part because of all the brokering that was done to get Democrats on board (not dissimilar from what Republicans did with the AHCA, except that Democrats made authentic efforts at bipartisanship for most of 2009 before deciding to go it alone). Remember the “Louisiana Purchase” or the “Cornhusker Kickback”, or Joe Lieberman’s torpedoing of the public option?

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/24/2017 - 12:14 pm.

            It was pushed through very quickly at the end before Democrats lost the super majority…

            • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 05/24/2017 - 02:42 pm.

              No, not really true. The original Senate vote took place a month before the special election, and the final vote took place after Scott Brown won the MA seat. (And, more House Democrats voted against the ACA than House Republicans voted against the AHCA. But carry on with your talking points.)

              • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/25/2017 - 07:23 am.

                The final vote took place after Scott Brown was elected but before he took his seat… And all Democrats in the Senate voted for Obamacare while quite a few Republicans in the Senate said they would not vote for it…

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/22/2017 - 09:36 am.

      It’s even more difficult…

      To take people who dismiss integrity seriously.

      “It is hard to consider Brooks’ point of view about Trump conservative considering that he admired Obama and wanted Clinton to win…”

      Brooks has a modicum of integrity.

  16. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/20/2017 - 10:24 am.

    So: No conservative can conclude that Donald Trump is a disastrous President? Conservatives all have to agree with his every stupid remark, his corrupt moves?

    Trump supporters voted for a rabble-rousing populist, not a conservative, in Trump. Big difference.

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