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

“At base, Trump is an infantalist,” writes Brooks. “Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif.”

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."
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

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:

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“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).

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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.