It has often occurred to me that the appropriate response to some of the ridiculous things President Donald Trump utters is: “He’s an idiot.”
Don’t get me wrong (as op-ed writers like to say). I’m not impugning Trump’s IQ. By “idiot” I mean something a bit different: that Trump often doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (That doesn’t exclude the possibility that some of his misrepresentations are knowingly false, i.e., lies.)
Examples of idiotic statements by Trump are legion. Recently they include Trump’s hyping of the efficacy of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19.
Also idiotic in my definition of the term is Trump’s assertion on Twitter Wednesday that “Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election.”
Six hours later, Trump corrected his statement to say that Michigan had sent out “absentee ballot applications.”
“Trump’s an idiot” — or even the more verbose formulation “Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and doesn’t care” — strikes me as the obvious take on a lot of the Trump statements that drive commentators to distraction.
Alas, neither of those formulations takes up much space on the editorial or op-ed pages, which is why it’s tempting for people in my line of work to treat every Trump comment as if it’s a serious policy proposal.
But such overinterpretation runs the risk of giving Trump too much credit.
Granted, some of Trump’s stupidities are used — “weaponized,” in current jargon — to achieve sinister political ends. Trump’s gaffe about Michigan and absentee ballots, for example, serves his purpose of undermining the credibility of voting by mail, potentially laying the groundwork for a claim that, if he lost in November, it would be because of voter fraud.
So maybe in this case he was being stupid like a fox. (Trump also coupled his criticism of Michigan with a threat that appeared to assert a power Congress hadn’t given him: “I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”)
But some of Trump’s idiotic comments aren’t cannily calculating, just ignorant. That includes some of the assertions he prefaces with “Many people are saying” or “There are a lot of people that think …”
In criticizing Trump for such absurdities, it’s important not to overanalyze them. Don’t Get Me Wrong No. 2: That doesn’t mean that his propensity to traffic in absurdities isn’t an indictment of his unseriousness. We want presidents to be serious about what they say. Trump’s reckless disregard for the truth is a potent argument against his reelection.
Still, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes an idiotic statement is just an idiotic statement.
The challenge for commentators is to decide which of many Trump idiocies is worth denouncing.
Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.