When Donald Trump made repeated references to a terrorist attack in Sweden that never happened, The New York Times headline said it all: “‘Last Night in Sweden’? Trump’s Remark Baffles a Nation.” As baffled as Swedes may be, their confusion is shared by many, if not most, people in the United States. Whether it is word salads like the aforementioned example, Trump’s continued use of his Twitter account, or his confounding cabinet picks, people are struggling to come up with theories that explain Trump. The “Madman theory” of Trump argues that the asinine parts of his character are meticulously constructed to distract from the genius of his true agenda; my own counter theory, “Forrest Trump” argues the complete opposite.
Proponents of the former point to similarities between Trump and Richard Nixon, who coined the original so-called “Madman theory”:
The madman theory was a feature of Richard Nixon’s foreign policy. He and his administration tried to make the leaders of hostile Communist Bloc nations think Nixon was irrational and volatile. According to the theory, those leaders would then avoid provoking the United States, fearing an unpredictable American response.
Reihan Salam, a writer for the right-wing Wall Street Journal, is one of the more prominent proponents of this link between Nixon and Trump. It allows both diehard Trump supporters and more moderate conservatives alike to take pride in their party’s winning candidate. Barton Swaim in the Washington Post also made this point.
In short, this theory argues that Trump isn’t actually stupid — he just wants you to think he is. Going on 3am tweet storms about sex tapes? Butchering the English language? Making up terrorist attacks that never happened? This is all a part of his plan! And once everyone believes he really is that inane, then he will have the upper hand, but how? Even if this strategy might help him with foreign policy (the Trump administration is only one month old, and this is already a questionable claim), how would this help him to pass domestic policy? The Trumpian “madman theory” seems to extend, frankly, to everyone and not just to nations hostile to the United States.
My own counter-theory derives its inspiration from the classic Tom Hanks film, Forrest Gump. In the movie, Forrest Gump, the protagonist, finds himself getting into a number of challenging situations, but he always manages to come out on top. He is usually unaware of the depth of the challenge he finds himself in, and his good fortune is always incidental. Spoiler alert: the movie has a happy ending, with Gump eventually finding his way into happiness.
Similarly, Trump’s win was largely incidental. While successful in the Electoral College, his campaign was unique in its noted dysfunction. Trump’s comments may have captured the news cycle, but they led to him being considered one of the least popular presidencies in U.S. history. His candidacy was historic not for the number of votes he received, but instead because he is one of the handful of presidents elected to the presidency after losing the popular vote. Just like Gump, Trump haphazardly stumbled his way to success.
I want to be clear: in the film, Forrest Gump has an unspecified mental disability. I am not insinuating that Donald Trump is disabled in any way, nor am I mocking people who are disabled. Unlike Trump himself, I do not derive humor from mocking people with disabilities. (I should also note that the film Forrest Gump received criticism for its portrayal of disabled people.) However, the incidental successes and oblivious outlooks of both Gump and Trump make the comparison worthwhile.
Various Trump supporters in my life have made it clear to me that they dislike the perception as Trump as an imbecile. Fair enough; perhaps Trump is indeed a successful businessperson (although this is disputed)! Yet business savvy does not always translate well to political know-how. So, what is Trump doing to get caught up to speed? Skipping daily intelligence briefings, offering a vice presidential pick “to be in charge of domestic and foreign policy”, and not wearing a translation device during the non-English speech of a foreign leader do not exactly show that he’s willing to learn.
These Trump-supporting friends have told me, “Look at how far he’s gotten — he can’t be as stupid as some people think!” I’m here to reply, “Actually, he could be!” (At least in terms of politics.) But, this isn’t just to name-call an unpopular president; assessing Trump’s character is important when strategizing how to best defeat him.
Maybe I am wrong. We have only completed one of the 48 months of Trump’s presidency; perhaps evidence will disprove my theory. Donald Trump might indeed be a maniacal genius, and these public dysfunctions are merely well-planned, intentional diversions. However, until I see such evidence, I will view the chaos of Trump through a Gump-inspired lens. Given the current volatility of U.S. politics, it seems fitting to end on this note: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
In Post Notes, I add some additional thoughts or context to a blog post I’ve previously written. That can be found here.