Can we trust a president who doesn’t read?
A New York Times story published Wednesday detailed how Trump is adjusting to his new digs in Washington. In addition to noting Trump’s amazement with the White House’s “beautiful phones” and how long it takes to retrieve things from far-flung rooms, the story contained a curious aside: “Mr. Trump, who does not read books…”
Wait, what? The president doesn’t read?
Nope. He’s explained it, previously, in classic Trumpian fashion, saying he doesn’t need to read because he makes decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I had.” When asked what his favorite book is, the Trump typically says “The Art of the Deal.” When pressed for a second, he often struggles before saying “All Quiet on the Western Front,” a war novel by Erich Maria Remarque that was adapted into a 1930 film.
Aside from that, Trump’s worldview, it seems, remains shaped primarily by Twitter and the constant howl of cable news: the New York Times piece noted that Trump begins and ends his days “with plenty of television.”
Trump is not the first book-averse president. Ronald Reagan was notoriously uninterested in any kind of reading; the CIA had to prepare briefings for him as short films or slideshows.
President Obama was a voracious reader?—?of both fiction and nonfiction. He even took the time last year to release a summer reading list. In a recent interview with New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, Obama was eloquent about how much reading meant to him: “There’s something particular about quieting yourself and having a sustained stretch of time that is different from music or television or even the greatest movies.”
Trump, by contrast, is a creature in need of constant attention. He acts on impulse instead of contemplation. His Twitter pronouncements can be directly linked to the Fox News segments that preceded them.
But Trump thrives precisely on the kind of attention that literature can’t give him. Good writing makes readers question their beliefs. It increases their ability to empathize with others who are different from them. Trump clearly doesn’t like being challenged, and it’s not a big stretch to say that he can have trouble empathizing.
Building empathy and understanding simply isn’t high on the list of priorities for a guy with gold toilets.
All of this begs the question: Why is it important that our president read books?
The Pew Research Center does an annual survey of America’s reading habits. In 2016, a staggering 26% of Americans admitted they hadn’t read a single book in the last year. Interestingly, reading tends to drop off as the population ages, meaning that older people?—?who skewed most heavily towards Trump?—?are also the least literate.
Trump ran for the office?—?and won?—?on a platform of anti-intellectualism, not so different from Sarah Palin’s in 2008 when she was the Republican vice presidential candidate. In a TV interview with Katie Couric, Palin infamously could not name a single newspaper she read. The clip of Palin talking herself in circles while trying to name a newspaper went viral and embarrassed the Republican Party.
Just 8 years later, Americans seem not to care so much about a leader who doesn’t read. Voters see Trump’s disinterest in literature as a positive thing. They hold him up as a “man of action.” To them, Obama and his ilk are effete, compromising, indecisive. Consulting books means they don’t have natural wisdom.
The reason Trump’s disdain for books is unsettling doesn’t have anything to do with his brainpower?—?he’s been very vocal about having “one of the highest” IQs in America.
It has to do with the fact that our president appears to not have the temperament to immerse themselves in complex ideas. A person who may not have the patience to consider situations from multiple angles. And that’s a very scary thing.