Trump’s Literacy

Jon Meacham

Winter 2017

It was at once a diverting and disconcerting conversation. Last May, on assignment for Time magazine, I traveled to Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan to ask the then-presumptive Republican nominee about presidential literacy—what does a president need to know in order to govern effectively? How fluent need he be in the details of policy? How familiar with the ebb and flow of history? In our hour or so together, Donald Trump was gracious but evinced little interest in the substance of the questions, often turning, in his freewheeling, free-associating way, to his own popularity.

Had I seen Bobby Knight’s appearances for Trump in Indiana? he asked me. They were amazing, Trump reported—gold-plated. Nobody better out there than Knight. And what about Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback who’d said nice things about Trump, a golfing pal, up in Massachusetts? Hadn’t seen it? Trump called out to his assistants: can they get him a copy of the Brady quote?

As we parted, Trump mused about the approaching general-election campaign: “People keep saying, ‘Donald, you’ve already made history, no matter what happens,’ but I’ll tell you this: I want to win. None of it means anything if I don’t win.” Of course, he did, and now the rest of us are left to wonder about what his victory will mean.

In our closely divided age, reactions to the news of Trump’s improbable victory ranged from the joyful to the apocalyptic. In the wake of the campaign, conventional wisdom—the phrase was John Kenneth Galbraith’s—explained the election as a great roar of populist fury at political, economic, cultural, and media elites who seemed out of touch with working-class voters whose lives have been circumscribed by the inequalities of globalization. There were other, harsher opinions, including the argument that Trump’s rise is at heart fascistic, and his election the first step toward racialist totalitarianism.

Jon Meacham, a biographer, teaches at Vanderbilt and at The University of the South. He lives in Nashville.

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