The President of the United States does not like to read. Back in July, Donald Trump told the Washington Post he didn’t have time to read books. “I never have,” he said. “I’m always busy doing a lot. Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.” According to that story, he mostly reads newspaper and magazine articles about himself. It’s hard to grudge him that, since if I were president I would probably either resolve to read absolutely no such coverage or wind up poring over it all the time. But it also seems like Trump is watching a lot of television. Two weeks ago, Maggie Haberman reported that the president gets up at 6am and watches TV until his first meeting at nine. In an alternately fascinating and terrifying behind-the-scenes story this weekend, she and Glenn Thrush found him retiring to the residence around 6:30 each evening to watch TV, tweet, and talk on the phone. If he goes to sleep at 10pm, that’s another three hours of television every night. I sympathize with his complaint that he is too busy for books, but the president appears to be spending 30 hours a week in front of the TV.1 Even if he only read ten pages an hour, he could use that time to knock off a novel, or at least something by Malcolm Gladwell.
Perhaps the most disturbing piece of news from Haberman and Thrush, though, is the report that Trump did not fully read the executive order that installed Steve Bannon on the National Security Council. Quote:
[Chief of Staff Reince] Priebus bristles at the perception that he occupies a diminished perch in the West Wing pecking order compared with previous chiefs. But for the moment, Mr. Bannon remains the president’s dominant adviser, despite Mr. Trump’s anger that he was not fully briefed on details of the executive order he signed giving his chief strategist a seat on the National Security Council, a greater source of frustration to the president than the fallout from the travel ban.
Not fully briefed on the details of a two-page order! If I were president, and someone pushed aside the reams of printed-out Twitter searches for my name to hand me an executive order, I would read the whole thing before I signed it—even if it took me, like, an hour. But reading soothes me. If I were thrust into the most complicated, high-pressure executive position in the world—a position that required me to live in the White House alone while my wife and son stayed in New York—I would probably need to read lots of books just to keep from going crazy. Especially if I kept attending meetings in darkened rooms:
Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit. In a darkened, mostly empty West Wing, Mr. Trump’s provocative chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, finishes another 16-hour day planning new lines of attack.
What if the Trump administration is not the team of brilliant usurpers who outsmarted the whole political establishment, but a bunch of dummies who can’t figure out how to turn on the lights in their own offices? It’s possible that never reading books and watching six hours of TV every day is not something Trump can afford to do because he’s a natural genius, but rather a habit of stupid laziness he acquired over 70 years of inherited privilege. Maybe never reading books, working for your dad, and marrying a model who speaks English as a second language does something to your brain. Maybe this man, who appears to be an ignorant liar bent on bluffing his way through the last decade of his life, is exactly that.
He took command of the nuclear arsenal, but he didn’t ask anyone from the last administration how to turn on the lights. That might be the move of a daring autodidact, a maverick who doesn’t need formal learning to guide his powerful common sense. Or maybe this man is like other rich people who watch a lot of TV and talk about how they would run the country. The scariest news to come of out of the White House this weekend might be that the president is just like anybody else.