Intellectual Incontinence

Intellectual Incontinence

“Intellectual incontinence” is the perfect way to describe the president, as Jennifer Senior does in this NY Times op-ed:

From the beginning, Donald J. Trump has taken a rather peculiar view of the new coronavirus: If he can’t see the damage it’s doing, it’s not doing any damage.

It was how Trump justified saying nothing to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who blithely kept his state open through April 2. “They’re doing very well,” Trump said of Floridians on March 31. “Unless we see something obviously wrong, we’re going to let the governors do it.” It is how he justifies opening up the country when tests remain in short supply. “You don’t need testing,” he explained on April 10, “where you have a state with a small number of cases.” Tests were necessary only “if there’s a little hot corner someplace.”

Where he could see it, in other words.

The hole in this reasoning is not terribly difficult to spot. It’s like offering to use a condom after you’ve already gotten a woman pregnant. Horse-has-left-the-barnism as national policy. Yet this is now the logic for reopening the United States, ZIP code by ZIP code.

One could argue, to some degree, that Trump is simply doing what humans are hard-wired to do. “We believe our eyes before we believe what people tell us,” said Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard social psychologist and author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” when I phoned to ask him about the infuriating persistence of this habit. “The apparatus that sees the world is over 400 million years old. The prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that comprehends projection models from the C.D.C. — is maybe 2.5 million years old. That’s brand-new, in evolutionary terms. It’s still in beta testing.”

Which is why fighting things we can’t see is so hard, like pandemics and climate change.

But this, one could argue, is the most important job of the presidency: to sweat the long-term stuff. Our implicit assumption is that presidents will plan, self-moderate and reason. Executive function is an essential requirement for executive office.Debatable: Agree to disagree, or disagree better? Broaden your perspective with sharp arguments on the most pressing issues of the week.Sign Up

In Trump, alas, we have the opposite: a man renowned for intellectual incontinence, rather than discipline. His plans to fight this pandemic vary from hour to hour, minute to minute. He has all the focus of a moth. It’ll miraculously disappear I mean it’s a mild flu I mean it’s serious I mean reopen the country I mean don’t reopen the country I mean yes reopen the country I mean I have absolute authority I mean the governors will do it.

His prefrontal cortex — the very part of the brain that controls executive function, anticipating and regulating and decision-making — is entirely offline.

If this indiscipline were conjoined with a devil-may-care courage — an indifference to what others thought, a willingness to quickly adapt — that would be one thing. But it isn’t. And having the strength to establish new norms is another cognitive requirement to lead during a crisis.

Trump, curiously, was selected and celebrated precisely for his gleeful assault on norms. But during this pandemic, he has been remarkably hesitant to help establish a new way of life. Only under duress did he start to encourage a national program of social distancing. He persisted in shaking hands at news conferences, even when the rest of us were leaving six-foot wedges between ourselves and our fellow citizens. He says that he, personally, won’t wear a face mask.

His gleeful assault on norms is nothing more than flailing about from minute to minute because he’s in so far over his head he can barely breathe. There’s no ” idea” (such as “disruption leads to creativity”) behind it. He just has no idea what he’s doing.

This is a person who thinks the F-35 stealth aircraft is literally invisible. So yeah, his mind is certainly incapable of understanding something like a pandemic.

His narcissism makes it worse, of course:

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