Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Emperor's New Information

Illustration by Thórarinn Leifsson for H.C. Anderson's story, 2004.
Jordan was commenting the other day on Trump's knowledge, or lack thereof, of the health care system in the US, I mean the whole thing of how it's paid for, insurance and the PPACA:
I don't think he's ever dealt with it in his own life, and I don't think he pays any attention to his employees' plans or is even aware of how any of that works. Just give everyone health care, for cheap...and remove the taint of Obama...what's the problem? I literally think that there was no more to his thinking than this, until after he was elected and he vaguely understood that something "complicated" was being dealt with (the way a wealthy socialite listens impatiently to a mechanic's description of the problem with the Mercedes, only grasping that she a) can't drive it now and b) will have to pay a lot of money), but even those ideas (along with any chance of his grasping the filibuster, the budget reconciliation maneuver, or those people approaching Australia in boats) were gone the moment those people left the room.
It put me in mind of something Trump said back in October that I never managed to write about, that proves the point pretty effectively, at a staff event at his Doral golf resort in the Miami area:
"I can say that all of my employees are having a tremendous problem with Obamacare," Trump said. "What they're going through with their health care is horrible because of Obamacare, so we'll repeal it and replace it." (CNN)
That turned out to sound like it meant something wrong, and in fact completely untrue—that the Trump Organization was failing to pay for normal employer health insurance and forcing the employees to buy their own policies on the Exchange, and the general manager of the property must have gotten to him before the reporters did:
Asked by a reporter after the event whether his employees have health care coverage through Obamacare, Trump replied: "Some of them. Most of them, no."
Clarifying Trump's remarks, the general manager of Trump's property in Doral, David Feder, said "99% of our employees are insured through our hotel."
"Over 90%, without a doubt," he added.
(The only workers who could be on Exchange plans would be those working less than 30 hours a week and ineligible for the hotel's standard insurance program, for which the company, Feder explained, paid 70% of the premium, which is not terrible, I think.)

But an hour later, as he was taking questions from Fox News, it became clear that he hadn't understood at all what the Doral manager had been telling him (via Fortune):

"I don't use much Obamacare"! As Jordan says, he had no idea what the process was, who it applied to or who made the decision, but he's sitting there committed to presenting himself as somebody who knows all about it, from the real-world inside, as a beneficent boss who takes care of his employees. (He was bragging on how well, asking workers to come to the dais, to say things like, "even though I have many issues with my family because I've been supporting this man here, I love it and I've been so proud to be working in this property," and their diversity, 80% Hispanic, he said, "People don't know these things," because this is different from the more "exclusive" Palm Beach properties, such as Mar-a-Lago, the ones he really likes staying at himself, for which he imports Romanian workers to avoid the local black and Latino labor supply.)

But he had no idea whether any of his employee were "having a tremendous problem with Obamacare" or not, or even what it would mean if they were. He uses these strategies, like a genuine illiterate, somebody who isn't dumb but has never been in the right situation to learn to read, who deploys a whole set of decoy methods so people don't notice, to hide his ignorance. Of course he knows nothing about it at all.

Which has never been a problem for him as a businessman—he's got competent people to take care of it for him, so he doesn't have to—but  he's going to keep pretending he does, to establish his authority to make judgments on the subject, and when he reveals his ignorance in this way the media are going to report it in such a way that we cognoscenti can laugh quietly into our French cuffs while the broader public doesn't even know what happened, and Trump himself may not get it. The job (which I think Haberman and Thrush and Baker do really well in its own terms, and for the sake of historians I'm glad they're doing it) being to send out that message without getting caught and possibly losing their access.

But while you and I are enjoying the spectacle of the emperor's nudity as our private joke, Trump is making these terrible judgments of everything on the basis of nothing—he doesn't like the sound of it, or Obama did it, or Steve Doocy on the TV told him to, and having this large though imprecise influence on the formulation of policy, especially when it has to do with his favorite field of "deals", the art of which he believes he has written a book on (pretty sure he doesn't understand the difference between that and one of the servants writing it for him, though he is undoubtedly aware that Tony Schwartz is badmouthing him now). And people like Schumer (good) and McMaster (maybe not so good) look for ways of presenting what they're doing as something he wants them to do. It's a very difficult situation.

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