July 31, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

To Understand Trump, Stop Thinking Rationally

Searching for a motive for malice distracts us from the malice itself.

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Will Wilkinson is so smart I have a hard time keeping up with the firehose of data he opens up to underscore his brilliant policy arguments. After the president did the unthinkable and verbally assaulted a major metropolis, Wilkinson, the vice president for policy at the Niskanen Center and a former Economist correspondent, mounted a heroic 2,000-word defense of urban dwelling in the Post with gorgeous graphics. 

Wilkinson tried to solve a novel and breathtaking conundrum—why would an American president attack a great American city as if some other president were responsible for its problems? Wilkinson’s answer is as simple as it is complex: 

He persists in his efforts to slur cities as radioactive war zones because the fact that America’s diverse big cities are thriving relative to the whiter, less populous parts of the country suggests that the liberal experiment works—that people of diverse origins and faiths prosper together in free and open societies. To advance his administration’s agenda, with its protectionism and cultural nationalism, Trump needs to spread the notion that the polyglot metropolis is a dangerous failure.

Liberalism works. So attack liberalism in order to advance a preferred set of policies. But I think it’s even more elemental—dumber, you might say—than that. To see how much dumber, you need to stop thinking rationally and start thinking tautologically. 

What? A tautology, as you’ll recall, is when you say that something is happening because it’s happening. “It’s raining, because it’s raining” is the classic example.

Most people, especially smart people like Will Wilkinson, can’t think this way. They have spent their professional lives thinking rationally—X causes Y; Y does not cause Y. Wilkinson’s heroic defense is an effort to suss out why the president is doing something and explain why his actions are wrong. Wilkinson should be praised for doing that, but he and other public intellectuals should not stop there. Malice, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge understood, need not have a reason. It can be motiveless.

Editor’s note

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It’s hard to believe, given he’s a New Yorker, but what Trump is saying is this. Cities are bad, because they are bad. The people who live there are bad, because they are bad. Moreover, the people who do not live there are good, not because they don’t live there, but because they are good. Because the good people do not live in cities, and the bad people do live in cities, the good people are victims of the bad people, not because the bad people live in cities, but because they are bad. When bad people do bad things, it’s because they are bad. When bad people do good things, it’s still bad, because they are bad. When good people do bad things, it’s not bad, because they are good. See?

If your head is swimming, I don’t blame you. Mine too. None of this is rational. It’s tautological, which is another way of saying it’s literal and serious madness writ large. 

It’s a madness, alas, we must take literally and seriously. If we continue to look for a reason why the president attacked Baltimore, we are distracting ourselves from what’s going on. Trump is not attacking one set of policies in order to justify another set of policies. There is no motive. There is no cause and effect. He’s attacking the very thinking that goes into policy-making. In other words, he’s attacking our minds until we stop thinking altogether and all that’s left is him and the power he wields.

If you haven’t guessed already, this is precisely what fascists have done in world history, and it’s precisely the kind of thinking that the Republican Party tolerated before fascist thinking grew like a cancer to take over the organization. It’s so familiar as to be invisible. For instance: Black people are lazy because they are lazy, and they remain so even when they work hard. White people are hard working, because they are hard working, and even when they are lazy, they are deserving of public services denied to black people, because black people are too lazy to be deserving of them.

He’s attacking our minds until we stop thinking.

Therefore it doesn’t really matter if you point out that, actually, people in rural areas have as many problems as people in urban areas. By that, I mean that it doesn’t really matter to people thinking tautologically, which is say fascistically. Their minds are benumbed and impervious to argument. For instance, in today’s USA Today, Paul Brandus, founder of West Wing Reports, wrote an epic takedown of red states, saying these are the most dangerous and least educated places, and these are the most dependent on federal transfers of money originating from … where else? Blue states. 

But to the fascist way of thinking that can’t be possible because rural people are the salt of the earth, the real Americans. They are makers, not takers. And anyway, even if it’s true that blue states give more than red states, that’s how it should be. They are deserving, because they are good, and they are good, because they are good. 

I said searching for a motive for malice distracts us from the malice itself. Shortly before the president sent us all on this downward spiral, US Rep. Elijah Cumming, the ostensible target of Trump’s vitriol, remarked on Robert Mueller’s testimony.

He said we can’t just get used to the president’s behavior and accept it. 

“I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on. Because if you want to have a democracy intact for your children and your children’s children and generations yet unborn, we have got to guard against this moment.

This is our watch.”

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Bennett on July 30, 2021 at 7:51 am

    I’ll lightly disagree, John. Trump’s reactions are not attacks on policy. On that score you’re right. But if you’re defining malice as motive-less, then I’ll suggest it’s not malice. Malice often suggests a pleasure in cruelty that is at the same time thoughtful in its exercise (to optimize the cruelty of the situation). But Trump’s reactions are more undirected, more id-oriented. He is a rage-aholic on the one hand (very id-like); over-effusive on the other with praise for whoever pleasures him by stroking his ego–or when he needs to self-stroke (more id); blame averse (more id); projection-prone in classic Freudian style (more id). See the pattern? As a man-child his behavior is too gross for even malice. (How crazy is that? I’m asserting that malice is too fine a term for his habit of tongue-lashing those who call him out and tongue-basting those who invite him in.

    • realsaramerica on July 30, 2021 at 7:51 am

      Agree. And having a man like that in the Oval releases and encourages America’s ID. Stephen Miller is someone whose actions suggest malice.

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