This morning's NYT op-ed page is a contrast study, one of intellectual clarity versus a cognitive miasma.
On the right side of the page, in Thomas Edsall's "When the President is Ignorant of His Own Ignorance," lies a mountainous collection of perspicuity. "Trump seems to have no awareness whatsoever of what he does and does not know" is the nifty, quoted epistemological summation of philosophy professor Steven Nadler. "He is ignorant of his own ignorance." (Similar quotes abound in Edsall's column. There is international relations scholar Andrew Bacevich's description of Trump as "utterly unqualified, both intellectually and by temperament, for the office he holds"; and there's Princeton historian David Bell's observation that "Trump himself is abysmally ignorant about both international and domestic affairs, and he is nearly always guided by a single principle: his own self-interest.")
Mixing Nadler's philosophy and others' human psychology, one could say that Trump is the Platonic Ideal of the Dunning–Kruger effect: The man is so inept, so incompetent and so dimwitted, he is utterly incapable of recognizing just how inept, incompetent and dimwitted he is. Yet, paradoxically, he is also just serpentine enough to have known how to enchant mass ineptitude, electoral incompetence and populist dimwittedness. In a reverse metaphor, he was the guru-ish charmer and they were the cobra.
And now he's imploding. Scarcely two months into office, Trump's enormous deficiencies are Galluping along — downward. Each week brings another notch of public disapprobation; the shabby veneer of authoritarian knowhow is being systematically stripped via legislative blowups and amateurish coverups. Trumpism — the antiChrist of the not-sainted but still rather noble American political tradition — is on the ropes. And there it should stay, until bloodied and bruised beyond any recovery. The above-quoted scholars, I think, would agree.
And so we turn to the left side of the NYT op-ed page, where Will Marshall, of the Progressive Policy Institute, recommends a Democratic intervention of sorts. Here, the rough flipside of the Dunning-Kruger effect reveals itself: Those of actual ability often overestimate the ease — and, as a theoretical refinement, I would add the wisdom — of the task before them. In Marshall's clinical case, he conceives that Trump, cornered as he is, may be "willing to make real concessions to [Democrats'] core values and priorities," so that he can "start racking up 'wins.'" Hence "pragmatic Democrats should hear him out."
That Democrats' most fundamental "priority" should be the wholesale destruction of Trump and Trumpism tragically escapes what I would call Marshall's preening, do-gooder ken. There is no judicious pragmatism to be found in cooperating with a venomous snake that has reduced American politics to an abominable domestic spectacle and international embarrassment. Cooperation implies acceptance — what's come to be known as the "normalization" of Trumpism. And indulging in that — the normalization of America's most egregious political atrocity — would only lower Democrats into Trump's snake pit.