Neil Buchanan: Is Trump Naive? Stupid? Evil? Or All of the Above?

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

Donald Trump is wrong almost all of the time about almost everything.

He lies constantly, and even though he is constantly being caught in his transparent lies, he never admits error, pressing ever forward on his destructive path.

Does he do this because he knows nothing about the world? (That is, is he naive ?)

Alternatively, maybe it is because he is incapable of logical thinking. (Is he stupid ?)

Or is it instead because he has horrible policy goals? (Is he evil ?)

All three of those explanations fit, and then some. As Michael Dorf argued in a recent column, normal human beings can be "evil, stupid, or ignorant," but "Trump is not a normal human being. He is not even a normal but evil, stupid, or ignorant human being. Trump is Trump."

In order to understand how Trump is different, we first need to understand what it means to be normal yet wrong in one of those three ways —naive, stupid, or evil. Because those three categories should be sufficient to explain every bad decision, it is important to understand how Trump is a category unto himself.

When Professor Dorf and I were much younger men, we frequently discussed the many ways in which the nation's then-new president, Ronald Reagan, was wrong. It was a frustrating experience to watch a touchingly naive fool lead the nation in harmful directions, but it certainly created a need to understand exactly what was going wrong.

GettyImages-501380192 Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino on December 14, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Justin Sullivan/Getty

For me, the issue that helped to clarify how to think about all of this was Reagan's opposition to imposing economic sanctions on South Africa's apartheid regime. Led by protests and boycotts on college campuses, politicians on the left at that time were beginning to pressure our reactionary president to force the Botha regime to change its shockingly racist legal and social system.

Reagan resisted, arguing at one point that South Africa was simply in the process of evolving into a civil rights-friendly nation, just as the United States had evolved in the fifties and sixties. This was jaw-droppingly wrong, so much so that it took a great deal of effort to tease out Reagan's many errors.

One possibility was that Reagan simply did not have the facts necessary to see the situation clearly. As bad as the Jim Crow era had been in the United States, it was obvious that South Africa was not "merely" going through what the U.S. had experienced.

Moreover, Reagan seemed not to know how bad things had been here, even though he had lived through those decades. Saying, "They'll be fine, just like we figured it out," could have been explained by complete ignorance about one or both countries. The problem was that, even if Reagan himself believed these fantasies, he surely had access to advisors who should have known otherwise.

If ignorance about the facts was not at work, it was possible instead that Reagan knew the facts but was not smart enough to draw logical conclusions from them. Was there something like 2 + 2 = 5 error at work in Reagan's head, a reasoning error along the lines of "All men are mortal, Socrates was mortal, therefore all men are Socrates"?

Reagan argued that sanctions would do no good, even though it was clear that South Africa's government (notwithstanding its claims to the contrary) was being forced to respond to world pressure. The civil rights leaders in South Africa also rejected Reagan's argument, saying that outside pressure was key to reaching the goal of ending apartheid.

In any case, Reagan's policy errors did not seem to fit into the category of mere logical folly. What seemed much more likely was that Reagan, who had been supported by American racists and who had perfected Richard Nixon's " southern strategy " to scare white voters away from Democrats, was simply not particularly concerned about the evils of white supremacy (and maybe actually supported racist goals).

In short, Reagan's bad policy views could be explained by one of three possibilities. He was naive, or he was stupid, or he was evil. He might also have been some combination of the three.

Being a young man, I thought that maybe I was onto something with the naive/stupid/evil framing of policy debates. Admittedly, there was nothing genuinely new in my taxonomy. People have often said things like, "He's either a fool or a liar," when trying to explain their opponents' errors.

Moreover, one has to decide how to treat things like willful ignorance. Is that a fourth category? It turns out, however, that it is easy to explain this as a version of evil, because a person who decides not to gather facts must be doing so in order to avoid facing the consequences of that knowledge. (This is currently seen, for example, in Republicans' blocking government statisticians from gathering facts about gun violence.)

The naive/stupid/evil taxonomy can also be expressed with different synonyms—ignorant/illogical/malevolent, uninformed/irrational/malicious, and so on—and the order can be changed. Hence, Professor Dorf's "evil, stupid, or ignorant" rendering of the taxonomy.

In any case, I have noticed over the years the many ways in which people who are unaware of this taxonomy struggle to identify and understand what they are seeing. Sometimes a shorthand is valuable simply for being a shorthand. And the Trump era has left many people struggling to understand what in many cases boils down to that simple triad.

For example, the conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post recently offered an excellent critique of Trump's ill considered Muslim ban, concluding with this:

One might conclude that the administration is too incompetent or lazy to make [its case in court]. We prefer a different theory: These orders have no national security or other justification, but rather are blatant appeals to prejudice that have no factual, rational basis. No lawyer in the world can defend that in court.

In short, Rubin first considers whether the administration is incompetent or lazy, which are somewhat fuzzy concepts because incompetence can refer either to stupidity or ignorance, and laziness is most likely (at least in Trump's case) a version of willful ignorance, that is, evil.

By saying that Trump has "no national security justification," Rubin means that Trump's argument is not actually "stupid." That is, there is no logical argument from Trump's people that says that A (the ban) causes B (less terrorism). They simply assert their conclusion, as opposed to offering a logically fallacious if-then argument.

Why do they do that? Rubin reasonably concludes that Trump is evil because he is appealing to prejudice. He is so focused on getting to an evil outcome—discriminating against people on the basis of religion and national origin—that he will deny reality and not even bother with logical arguments.

An interesting variation on this method of framing the Trump problem was recently offered by the editorial board of The New York Times : "Stupidity, paranoia, malevolence—it’s hard to distinguish among competing explanations for the behavior of people in this administration."

Paranoia is a particular form of ignorance, because it means that Trump's people are living in a different reality from the rest of us. (Using "naive" here would sound too much like an excuse, which is why I am calling it ignorance, with all of its connotations.)

As I wrote above, however, I agree with Professor Dorf that Trump is not simply the unique case of a normal person who is somehow always dealing with an incomplete or incorrect set of facts, or who makes logical errors, or who is always acting in bad faith —naive, stupid, or evil. He is his own category.

The reason Trump is different is that there is always the sense (or hope) that the normal people who have supported Trump are making one of more of those three errors—and, most importantly, that they might be open to fixing those errors.

A person who thinks that there was a "war on coal," for example, might be persuadable if she exited the Fox New alternative fact zone and saw that it is the simple economics of cheap natural gas and other non-conspiratorial factors that explain the decline of coal.

Also, a person who thinks that Trump will bring back manufacturing jobs might, if prompted, notice that Trump has no actual logical argument regarding how he will make that happen.

Even people who are acting on what I am calling evil motivations are not always beyond reach. Many people are able to confront their demons and say, "Wow, I didn't realize that I was motivated by hatred."

That is one of the reasons that same-sex marriage has gained such wide acceptance so quickly. Many people thought, "What was I so scared or angry about?" And the world became a meaningfully better place.

It is impossible to imagine anything like that happening with Trump.

Many of us do hold out some hope every day that even some of Trump's closest advisors will say, "I can't do this anymore. I tried to deny to myself what was happening, but this is too much." It is safe to say that that will not happen with Steve Bannon or some others, but some people have said that even hard-core Trumpists like Kellyanne Conway might harbor doubts.

But Trump? Not a chance. He is ignorant, both as a matter of never having learned anything and because he likes it that way. He is stupid, usually not even bothering to make an argument, but making incoherent arguments when he tries. (We will, he says, just start winning again, somehow.) His goals are racist, sexist, and in other ways bigoted, and he is corrupt to boot.

What are we to think when we learn that Trump does not care about whether the Russian government is undermining American democracy? He only cares about whether he will look bad and lose power if the truth comes out.

"Trump is naive, stupid, and evil" simply does not cover it. Trump is Trump, and heaven help us all.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a professor of law at George Washington University . He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.