How does the leader of the world's most powerful country make decisions that affect the fate of the planet? President Donald Trump has been offering blinding flashes of his policy-making methodology since before taking office, but in recent days he has described it in his own words. And the picture that emerges is alarming.
"I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody's brain can ever tell me," he explained to the Washington Post during an interview on Tuesday. Days earlier, after hundreds of scientists and 13 federal agencies within his own administration issued a report warning of calamity if climate change is not tackled, Trump breezily declared, "I don't believe it."
On statements dealing with the environment, the economy, foreign policy, staffing choices and others, Trump has shown a supreme confidence in his own judgement and a flippant disregard for the views of experts.
He is hardly the first president to think highly of himself. But unlike his predecessors and reasonably self-aware individuals, Trump refuses to accept there are areas where other people know more than he does.
Trump's decisions are powered by a mixture of self-interest and instinct -- a sense of what makes him look good, even if it hurts the country. He casually dismisses factual information that he believes hurts his image or his political prospects, at times sprinkling the process with damaging bias.
Before appointing Jay Powell to the Federal Reserve, for example, a decision he apparently now regrets, he interviewed then-Chair Janet Yellen, a brilliant economist who seemed to be doing an excellent job. He was reportedly impressed and leaning toward reappointing her.
But he ended up removing her for two reasons. First, his advisers told him that he should pick "his own person" for the position. But, second, and perhaps more alarmingly, because allegedly she was too short, according to several current and former officials who spoke to the Washington Post. Trump likes people who "look" the part, who seem "out of central casting," a bias for stereotypes that favors white men -- the ones who have traditionally held powerful jobs.
We all have biases, and we all listen to our less-than-rational impulses -- what Trump calls his "gut," writes Nobel Economics prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his book, "Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow." But the book also warns about the perils of over-reliance on instinct. Worryingly, this President's reliance on instinct goes beyond the Kahnemanian blueprint.
Trump lies more than any President in memory. But he's also a prodigious consumer of misinformation. And in his efforts to pamper his own ego, he is surrounding himself with fewer people willing to tell him he's wrong. A senior administration official recently told CNN's Jake Tapper that "in this administration, there are firefighters and arsonists," and the President is "getting rid of the firefighters."
What's left is a White House filled mostly with Trump acolytes, leaving him to spin complicated issues in his own mind together with grandiose thoughts of his own genius -- "a very stable genius," as he has explained.
Tuesday's Washington Post interview was a mind-boggling concoction of words that often made no sense, glued together with the sticky substance of his vanity. This time he offered a more detailed explanation of why he rejects his own administration's analysis that if we don't act to stop climate change, thousands will die and hundreds of billions of dollars will vanish in the ensuing devastation. "If you go back and if you look at articles," he said, "they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death, then it's going to die of heat exhaustion."
Who knows what he meant, but he declared, "...a lot of people like myself -- we have very high levels of intelligence, but we're not necessarily such believers." The real world result of this incoherent rambling is a retreat from the global campaign to prevent climate Armageddon. That, incidentally, is music to the ears of climate-change deniers and those who profit in the short term from ignoring a problem that has been persuasively documented by scientists to the satisfaction of most of the world.
To Trump, California fires could be prevented by raking the soil, as he claimed Finland does. The claim prompted the Finns -- whose forests are protected from fires by a colder, wetter climate -- to mercilessly laugh at Trump.
Simply denying reality has been the strategy after the CIA concluded that the Saudi crown prince played a role in the assassination of a journalist who criticized him. (The crown prince continues to deny any involvement). Lashing out at a reality Trump doesn't like was the strategy when General Motors announced plant closures, and the President responded by threatening to retaliate against the American automaker -- even though GM's problems can be traced, at least in part, to higher steel and aluminum prices resulting from Trump's trade policies.
Trump's dangerous impulsiveness is likely to get worse. He becomes more impulsive when he's under pressure, according to the former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, Jack O'Donnell, who remembers the erratic behavior as the casino's debts started coming due in one of Trump's business bankruptcies.
When a businessman thinks he's an infallible genius, his business, his employees and his creditors -- bondholders in Trump's case -- may pay the price. When that man becomes President of the United States, the consequences of chaotic, impulsive, ego-driven decision-making could spell disaster.
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