This late-spring morning, in a wide-ranging conversation with TIME, the subject is presidential literacy: What does a President need to know in order to, well, Make America Great Again? How does a candidate prepare to take up the virtually unimaginable burdens of the office? What kind of temperament is required to lead the nation in the first decades of the 21st century? Hearing the questions, Trump is polite but prefers to talk tactics. “I have a number of advantages over somebody else, even a traditional candidate,” he says. “Number one, I seem to get an inordinate amount of coverage. For whatever reason, I can’t even really define why. You turn on CNN, it’s all Trump all the time. It’s crazy. You watch all the networks, that’s the way it is.”
Coverage, however, does not necessarily translate into clarity. A startlingly successful vote getter who just engineered a takeover of the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan, Trump nevertheless lacks traditional presidential credentials. How then to gauge what Trump knows and might do? “I’ve always rated experience far less than capability,” he says, arguing that from Benghazi to her emails, Hillary Clinton’s years in the arena demonstrate a pattern of bad judgment. “When people ask me would you rather have experience or talent, I’ll take talent every time. That’s not to knock experience, and I think I have both.” And he rejects the idea that he’s a political novice. “It’s not like I’ve not been in politics, but just not on this side of the ledger.”
How does he respond to the argument that he’s a salesman above all–someone who will say anything in a given situation, which makes it hard to judge how he would perform in the White House? “First of all, the country needs a salesman,” Trump replies. But, he adds, there is more to him than that: “I think my ideas are really good.”
One example that pops to mind: “The NATO thing,” Trump says. Musing about his unique ability to lead, he thinks back to the day in March when Wolf Blitzer tried to corner him about NATO during a CNN interview. As Trump sees it, his answer was a telling instance of what he believes is his “special” capacity to arrive at conclusions with little forethought. “When Wolf Blitzer asked me about NATO, I’m not a student of NATO, but I gave him two answers: It’s obsolete, and we’re spending too much money because these countries aren’t paying their fair share.”
So Trump was reacting intuitively? “Off the cuff,” Trump replied. “I’m an intuitive person. I didn’t read books on NATO–you do–and yet I was asked the question.”
There it all was: Trump winging it on an issue of global significance (the shape of the Western alliance, a cornerstone of security since former President Harry Truman)–and then congratulating himself for it. By the time of the CNN interview, he had told the Washington Post editorial board that NATO cost the U.S. “hundreds of billions,” only to change it to “billions” when challenged by a Post editor. (Direct U.S. contributions to NATO run less than $1 billion a year.) Trump had this much right: there is a legitimate debate to be had about the future of NATO. The problem was that his harsh language and his hyperbolic assertions about costs raised questions about both his grasp of foreign policy and his commitment to long-standing security arrangements.
But that’s sort of the point. To Trump, precise policy details tend to be irrelevant to his larger campaign argument: that the rest of the world–in the form of immigrants, China, Mexico or even our European allies–is taking unfair advantage of us. He likes the shock and awe of his approach, with no apparent concern for the reactions of Hillary Clinton (and many U.S. allies), for whom talk of an “obsolete” NATO and of building walls, both literal (along the southern border) and figurative (by threatening punitive tariffs against major trading partners), is irresponsible and wrongheaded. Trump, for his part, has little time for such critiques of his campaign declarations. As he likes to point out, if the elites are so smart, then why is the world in the shape it’s in–and why, exactly, is he now the Republican nominee?
Still, politics, like diplomacy and financial markets, values predictability, and on the campaign trail, Trump has proved to be the most unpredictable of men. He disposed of 16 challengers and is now within striking distance of the presidency in part by saying Mexico is sending “rapists” across the border illegally; by initially declining to denounce David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan; by proposing a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. (which he diluted subsequently); and by expressing pleasure at warm words from Vladimir Putin, among numerous examples. Even among Trump’s allies, the fear is that his instinct for the bold statement, combined with his glancing knowledge of policy nuances, has created a campaign–and could create an Administration–that is both undeniably compelling and inherently unstable.
Trump waves away such concerns. “I’m a very stable person,” he says. “I’m so stable you wouldn’t believe it.” He repeatedly implies that his campaign bombast is just that–bombast. “I’m not a fast trigger,” Trump says. “I’m the exact opposite of a fast trigger, but nobody’s going to push us around.”
Viewed in historical terms, a Trump presidency would pose an unusual risk to the country. American Presidents can be agents of change, yes, but they are also custodians of a social and political order that requires sophistication, balance and a fluency in the basic vocabulary of government and of statecraft. Trump, however, is a creature of the moment, of improvisation, of polarity. Strikingly, he’s learning public policy less from experts and briefing books–the traditional means of presidential preparation–and more from newspapers and what he once called “the shows.” His tendency to wing it–to act on his gut–effectively means that he’s working off what might be called “political hearsay.” No President can know everything, but all Presidents have to know enough to assess the validity of the inevitable advice that swirls through the Oval Office. While a President Trump can hire experts, experts won’t be making the final calls. Only he can–and will.
You don’t need a Ph.D. to lead the nation, but you do need to know–as Trump did not appear to grasp in one of the debates–what the nuclear triad is. Or that the Quds and the Kurds, not to mention Hamas and Hizballah, are different things. Or that you can’t order military officers to engage in illegal torture. Or that Ted Cruz’s father was not linked to the Kennedy assassination. Or that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, not Kenya. ..
In his long retirement in Independence, Mo., Truman often found himself musing about the things he knew best: American history and the American presidency. “You never can tell what’s going to happen to a man until he gets to a place of responsibility,” Truman observed after he left the White House in 1953. “You just can’t tell in advance, whether you’re talking about a general in the field in a military situation or the manager of a large farm or a bank officer or a President … You’ve just got to pick the man you think is best on the basis of his past history and the views he expresses on present events and situations, and then you sit around and do a lot of hoping and if you’re inclined that way, a certain amount of praying.” Using the Truman test of “the basis of his past history and the views he expresses on present events and situations,” Trump has created plenty of anxiety.
And so, following Truman’s counsel, we hope and we pray. Historically, there is no textbook definition of how to prepare to be President. We have had generals and governors; Secretaries of State and Senators. Trump would be the first American President without significant experience in government or in the military. A problematic feature of his candidacy, however, is not about his political résumé but rather his conscious decision–and it can only be called that–not to educate himself on the norms of national and international affairs. The result is a seemingly endless cycle that, in our public life, leads to confusion rather than illumination. Here is how it tends to go: Trump will say something provocative and factually dubious; the world will react, even recoil; Trump will not apologize–not exactly–but will slowly and sporadically amend his remarks, thus leaving everything in a kind of haze. In a campaign, this addiction to chaos is one thing; in the White House, it would be something else entirely.
“You want Presidents to have sound judgment, modesty, personal self-assurance, an understanding of the constitutional and historical constraints and the potential of the presidency, as well as the ability to decide who can give them the expertise and advice they need,” said the historian Michael Beschloss. “You don’t need Presidents to know every figure in the Coast Guard budget, but you do need to have the confidence that when they are making a decision that you may never hear about, they will be doing so with intelligence, skill and a temperament and set of basic values you feel comfortable with.”
Predictably, the past offers a range of models rather than a single standard. Experienced Presidents make mistakes; inexperienced ones have constructive moments, and vice versa. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were deeply immersed in governance, but each had moments of colossal misjudgment. On the positive side, Truman came to the office amid low public expectations yet created the foundations for the Cold War Western alliance. A student of large organizations, Dwight Eisenhower could seem remote but proved to be a sound manager of the federal government and of the nuclear standoff with the Soviets.
Given Trump’s affinity for Ronald Reagan–or at least affinity for Reagan’s winning image within the GOP–the analogy to the 40th President repays consideration. Trump admirers think of their man as a 21st century version of the Gipper–a charismatic leader who had an occasionally ambiguous relationship with facts and details. In this scenario, Hillary Clinton is Jimmy Carter, the naval officer who loved detail but largely failed to master the events of his time. The problem is that Trump is no Reagan. They do share some surface similarities–neither was a career politician, and both dominated the media of their times. Like Trump, Reagan tended to eschew policy specifics, preferring to conserve his energy to focus on a few big things. The distinction lies in their level of experience in government on coming to the presidency (Reagan had served eight years as governor of a dynamic, fast-growing state and sought the presidential nomination three times) and in their philosophical commitments (Reagan spent decades honing a vision of free markets and anticommunism; Trump appears to have few philosophical commitments beyond one to his own success as a “brand”).
This much is clear: history shows us that the success or failure of a presidency (and of the country) hinges on the President himself–on what he (or she) knows, believes and even feels. Skeptics might think this an overly simple view of the intrinsically complicated nature of reality. Yet to say that the President is the central, decisive figure in our national politics is neither melodramatic nor hyperbolic. It was, in fact, an insight shared by two men who otherwise had little in common: Ike and JFK.
On the eve of the 1960 election, in a speech supporting his Vice President, Richard Nixon, in the campaign against JFK, Eisenhower compared the presidency to the field of battle. “The nakedness of the battlefield when the soldier is all alone in the smoke and the clamor and the terror of war is comparable to the loneliness–at times–of the presidency,” Eisenhower said. “These are the times when one man must conscientiously, deliberately, prayerfully scrutinize every argument, every proposal, every prediction, every alternative, every probable outcome of his action and then–all alone–make his decision.”
Three years later, after a tumultuous time in office that had included showdowns with the Soviet Union over the Berlin Wall and Russian missiles in Cuba, Kennedy published a short piece on decisionmaking in the White House. “It is only part of the story,” Kennedy wrote of the loneliness of the office, “for, during the rest of the time, no one in the country is more assailed by divergent advice and clamorous counsel. This advice and counsel, indeed, are essential to the process of decision for they give the President not only needed information and ideas but a sense of the possibilities and the limitations of action. A wise President therefore gathers strength and insight from the Nation. Still, in the end, he is alone. There stands the decision–and there stands the President.”
If Eisenhower and Kennedy had it right–and they knew the job better than most of us–then the essential issue for voters is discerning the nature of the man or woman who will be standing alone at what Kennedy elsewhere described as the “vital center of action.” Which is precisely where Trump likes to stand, preferably with all eyes on him.
The question American voters have to decide in the coming months is whether Trump is fluent enough about the world to be entrusted with ultimate responsibility. It is telling that he refracts history through the prism of negotiating and dealmaking. Asked about political role models, he mentions Reagan but no one else; asked to name works of history that have left an impression, he says only, “I’ll tell you what does stick with me: the Civil War. Lee and Lincoln and Davis. These are unbelievable historical figures. I think that anything having to do with the Civil War has always been very interesting to me, much more so than even the founding of the country.” (He says he once canceled a golf match to binge-watch a marathon PBS showing of Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War.) “It always seemed like something that could have been settled without the bloodshed,” Trump adds. The deal is all. “I think they could have settled without going to war,” he said. “I always felt that the South overplayed their hand.” His grasp of history isn’t deficient, exactly, but it is superficial. He lives so much in the world as it is that he invests little capital in asking how that world came to be.
He loves the newspapers and magazines; he inhales cable news; he absorbs passing conversations. When he reads books, he says, he reads quickly. He likes biographies of Lincoln, Nixon and Reagan and recently read Edward Klein’s hostile books on the Clintons and Defeating ISIS by Malcolm Nance. For a man so often depicted as the embodiment of narcissism, he does have a surprising capacity to listen to others and to retain what he hears, frequently asking pithy questions in search of clarity. “I’m picking it up from everything,” he says. “I’m an intuitive person.”
Unabashedly improvisational, Trump revels in his lack of conventional political or policy experience. He told TIME that he has begun spending some time with experts, but there is, to say the least, little sign that he is about to wonk out. Asked on a trip to Scotland if he had consulted with foreign policy advisers on the Brexit vote, he replied, “There’s nothing to talk about.” When he met with James A. Baker III in Washington, Trump asked the statesman not about nuclear proliferation or Syria but about the relationship between Nancy and Ronald Reagan. “Everything is about people,” Trump says. He is too much of the present, too much of this exact moment, to spend much time musing about policy precedents.
And his faith in himself is limitless. “We can’t be defending the world and paying for it,” Trump says. “We can’t be taken for suckers with Germany, Japan, South Korea. They should pay us, pay us substantially, and they will if I ask them. If somebody else asks them they won’t.”
Why is that exactly? Why does he think he is uniquely able to do what others could not? “Why is it? Because–I don’t know. It’s just different. It’s like, why is it that Jack Nicklaus won so many golf tournaments? Right? Why is it that Babe Ruth could hit more home runs than all the teams in the American League? Right? They said to him, ‘Babe, how do you hit the long ball?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, man, I just swing at it.’ Which is sort of cool.” Warming to the topic of himself as a natural political athlete, he mentions Lydia Ko, the brilliant young golfer. “On the Golf Channel, they said to her, ‘When you bring the club up, how do you bring it down? What’s your thought?’ She said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t really have a thought.’ It’s just something special.”
Trump is correct that Hillary shows horrible judgment, or perhaps arrogance, because she and Slick Willie have shown for decades that they don’t think laws and consequences apply to them. Of course, bad judgment and arrogance also apply to Trump.