July 19, 2016
Donald Trump doesn’t read, and that’s not even the scary part
by Chad Felix
Well, okay. Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP candidate for president, isn’t much of a reader, as the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher reports. And, well, yeah, really, no one, absolutely no one, is surprised.
Back in June we did report that Donald Trump has read—or at least claims to have read—some books, including All Quiet on the Western Front (favorite of every adult who hasn’t read a book since Sophomore English but is on a date), as well as a bunch of books about China, a subject (or at least word) the Man Who Would Be Cheddar Dust If Only He Were Not Man is apparently very fond of. But even that meager number of books, thirty-nine, feels grossly exaggerated when one considers Trump’s veritable inability to comb, much less style, ideas into anything resembling a coherent thought-pompadour. This is to say nothing of the contents of said thought-pompadour, which are disgusting, no matter whether they’re presented to the world coherently.
Now, call me naïve, call me a dreamer, call me a believer, but books—reading them slowly, thoughtfully, perhaps even without a specific purpose in mind—could help (or could have helped) with all of this, as books have an amazing ability to provide those who read them with information that is digestible, usable, sometimes even entertaining. Furthermore, books are really good at taking us beyond the confines of our own heads, where things may look a bit different, an experience that increases empathy and makes one less of an insular jerk.
But—and Trump is very clear on this point—there is no time. He’d just love to read big, boring presidential biographies some day, but not now. No time.
Okay, that’s fair. Running for president with a team of, what, like seven (?) people and very little money is tough, and a total time suck. Besides, the fact of Trump’s veritable disinterest in books isn’t unprecedented. As Fisher gathers (and this seems to be the main point of his article), American presidents are not uniformly erudite, deep thinkers. Trump is not alone here. Furthermore, reading a whole lot in and of itself is not a hard and fast requirement for a successful presidency. In fact, Fisher writes, “There is no clear correlation between studious presidents and success in the office.”
So how does Trump process information, then?
[Trump] said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”
Trump said he is skeptical of experts because “they can’t see the forest for the trees.” He believes that when he makes decisions, people see that he instinctively knows the right thing to do: “A lot of people said, ‘Man, he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time.’ ”
Okay, so Trump, in his mind, is perceptive, can do much with little. Fisher continues, revealing that this has been the case with presidents before:
Trump’s approach to understanding complex issues and reaching decisions is not unique in the annals of the presidency. Historians who have studied presidential styles depict a divide between men such as President Obama or presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, who were given to reading extensively ahead of important decisions, and presidents Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who preferred to have issues presented to them in short memos or orally.
Obviously Trump, who reportedly asked that an important, extensive, hundred-plus page report on China be given to him in three pages, falls into this latter category. What Fisher and his sources are getting at, generally, is that there are different kinds of decision-makers in the world and these differing types process information in different ways. Obviously this is true. But the fact that Trump is just one of these leaders who don’t read much doesn’t make the prospect of the man leading our country any less scary. What matters most may not be how the important, potentially world-altering information that the President of the United States receives every day is processed, but rather that it be processed, in whatever way, with intelligence and thoughtfulness. What’s scary about Trump is not per se that he doesn’t read, but that, when confronting information “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge [he] already [has],” he can’t see the forest for the breeze that threatens to send this metaphorical pompadour down a terrible canyon, asses grazing the gulch, the rest of the world close behind.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.