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Donald Trump's Very Human Failing

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Poor Donald Trump.

Those aren’t words that one normally hears about the presidential candidate. But they were what floated through my mind during Thursday night’s Republican debate when Fox News's Chris Wallace began grilling him about the details of his plan to cut taxes by about a trillion dollars a year, then make up for it by cutting “waste, fraud and abuse.” Asked where, specifically, he mumbled through some agencies, at which point Wallace dryly said, “Please put up full screen number four.”

“Full screen number four,” as you might already have guessed, had numbers on it. And those numbers showed what everyone paying attention already knew: Trump’s numbers were arrant nonsense. Trump, looking a trifle dazed, said, “Let me explain something,” and launched into a tirade about saving hundreds of billions of dollars by negotiating the sweet deals that pharmaceutical firms are getting from their congressional hirelings. Wallace’s eyes assumed the delighted gleam of an apex predator smelling blood in the crisp autumn air. “Let’s put up full screen number two,” he said.

I don’t really have to tell you what was on “full screen number two,” do I? Oh, heck, I will anyway. The U.S. government spends $78 billion a year on pharmaceuticals, not the $300 billion Trump claims. Apparently, The Donald is such a great negotiator that drug companies are going to be paying us to use their products. Which is, I suppose, one way to create jobs.

It is a columnist’s privilege to conjure up mental dialogue for candidates at such moments. And what I imagined Donald Trump to be thinking was this: “You didn’t tell me there’d be math on this test. Everyone said there was no math!” And that was a perfectly fair inference to draw from the quadrennial Republican tradition of promising completely unrealistic tax plans without having a way to pay for them.

But it’s hard to feel too sorry for him. Trump is the front-runner, and he has reached that location with some rather loathsome tactics, on the debate stage and off. One of the hallmarks of his campaign has been an utter refusal to do the basic homework that a candidate needs to do, such as familiarize himself with the details of some policy areas and, indeed, the details of his own plans. So far Trump hasn’t bothered, nor found advisers who could help him with his term papers -- which is worrying, given that there are no makeups for the pop quizzes with which reality routinely peppers our nation’s presidents.

Instead, he has displayed a penchant for making up numbers on the fly. Most candidates are afraid to do this; they prefer to make up numbers only after long deliberation, carefully handcrafting artisanal figures designed to please the eye while being, however tenuously, connected to reality. There are some benefits to the more spontaneous approach embraced by Donald Trump, most notably that you get numbers that are much more convincing to an audience that doesn’t know what the real numbers are (read: 99 percent of the voting public).

But there are some drawbacks, too, and those came out in force Thursday night. As Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz relentlessly attacked, Trump kept trying to repeat his favorite standbys: He’s employed tens of thousands of people, his polls are great, everyone tells him how great he is, Marco Rubio is short. That was enough when there were 10 people on the stage and you only heard it every 20 minutes or so. But with just four people there, it began to fall flat, and he knew it. There wasn’t enough time between the last time he’d told you he’d created tens of thousands of jobs and the current iteration, so it acquired the plaintive ring of your great-uncle telling you, yet again, how popular he was with the nurses during World War II. And then the moderators had the gall to actually force him to look at his own imaginary numbers and try to defend the indefensible.

It is not news that Donald Trump has no interest in, or command of, policy. But as the moderators kept asking him about details, I became fascinated by how he gets his numbers. How, for example, did he decide that he could save the U.S. government $300 billion a year on its prescription drug spending? It’s such a specific figure, and not what you would necessarily come up with off the top of your head, because made-up numbers, in my experience, tend to come in fives and tens. (People wildly guessing at numbers they don’t know tend to count like this: 5 million, 10 million, 25 million, 100 million, 150 million, 500 million.)

Actually, I think I know where he got it. Americans spend about $300 billion a year on retail prescription drugs. Now, I cannot say for certain that this is where the number came from, but they are awfully close. And I think we can trace a plausible chain of events:

  1. Donald Trump reads somewhere that “America spends almost $300 billion a year on prescription drugs.”
  2. In his head, “America” turns into “the U.S. government.”
  3. An incipient sound bite is born: “America spends $300 billion a year on prescription drugs. I can negotiate and knock that down by [some wildly implausible, yet unprovable, percentage].”
  4. Time passes without using the sound bite. In his memory, it is compressed into “I could save $300 billion a year on drugs by negotiating.” This is the sound bite that he eventually utters in public.
  5. A Fox News debate moderator asks him about it.

This is part of a pattern with Trump’s pronouncements, at least on health care, the area I’m most familiar with. He lazily grabs a sound bite here and there, but because he doesn’t do the boring, necessary work of actually learning what they mean -- much less formulating a plan -- these sound bites have a tendency to mutate. Eventually, enough mutations occur that his monsters take on a life of their own and turn on their master, as they did in Thursday’s debate.

Lest you think that I am being unduly harsh on Mr. Trump, let me point out that this is a very common human failing. Everyone who reads has a half-remembered collection of statistics that they haul out in conversation. It is particularly noticeable if you happen to be in my line of work, both because I have to check my own collection carefully to eliminate the mutations before I can write them down, and because spending so much time on various policy areas means that I notice a lot of the ones emitted by other people.

But those other people have an excuse that Mr. Trump cannot offer: They have other things to do. They are busy doing their day jobs, raising families, keeping up the house and yard, and hopefully getting a little rest and fun in between. It’s not their job to understand every issue and remember the numbers correctly.

Unfortunately, that’s the job Mr. Trump is running for. To be sure, he’d have a lot of help -- at least, if he can find any advisers willing to work with him. But he’s going to have to do a lot of long, hard, boring work before and after their briefings, understanding the details of the situations he’s faced with and the policies he is proposing to address them. The man in charge of the world’s largest military, its biggest nuclear arsenal, its most productive economy, cannot get by like a Boy Scout in the wilderness, building a fire by rubbing two statistics together. Particularly not if they’re both rotten.

And before you say, “Well, he’s not president yet,” remember that the other candidates left on stage have been doing this for months -- years, really. They know their issues. They know their policy plans. They have answers that aren’t just made up on the spot. You might not like the answers they give, but at least they’ve shown they’re willing to do the work it takes to become president. Trump isn’t. He hasn’t shown us that he’s capable of it.

I started this column by saying “Poor Donald Trump.” But the folks we should really be feeling sorry for are the American people, who might end up having their country run by someone who can’t be bothered to find out what’s happening in it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net