Two weeks after President Donald Trump claimed, bizarrely, that the Obama administration had wiretapped his campaign, his press secretary suggested that GCHQ – Britain’s counterpart to the National Security Agency – had done the imaginary bugging. British officials were outraged. And soon the British press was reporting that the Trump administration had apologized.
But no: Meeting with the chancellor of Germany, another ally he’s alienating, Trump insisted that there was nothing to apologize for. He said, “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind,” a commentator on (of course) Fox News.
Was anyone surprised? This administration operates under the doctrine of Trumpal infallibility: Nothing the president says is wrong, whether it’s his false claim that he won the popular vote or his assertion that the historically low murder rate is at a record high. No error is ever admitted. And there is never anything to apologize for.
OK, at this point it’s not news that the commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military is a man you wouldn’t trust to park your car or feed your cat. Thanks, Comey. But Trump’s pathological inability to accept responsibility is just the culmination of a trend. American politics – at least on one side of the aisle – is suffering from an epidemic of infallibility, of powerful people who never, ever admit to making a mistake.
More than a decade ago I wrote that the Bush administration was suffering from a “mensch gap.” (A mensch is an upstanding person who takes responsibility for his actions.) Nobody in that administration ever seemed willing to accept responsibility for policy failures, whether it was the bungled occupation of Iraq or the botched response to Hurricane Katrina.
Later, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, a similar inability to admit error was on display among many economic commentators.
Take, for example, the open letter a who’s who of conservatives sent to Ben Bernanke in 2010, warning that his policies could lead to “currency debasement and inflation.” They didn’t. But four years later, when Bloomberg News contacted many of the letter’s signatories, not one was willing to admit having been wrong.
By the way, press reports say that one of those signatories, Kevin Hassett – co-author of the 1999 book “Dow 36,000” – will be nominated as chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers. Another, David Malpass – the former chief economist at Bear Stearns, who declared on the eve of the financial crisis that “the economy is sturdy” – has been nominated as undersecretary of the Treasury for international affairs. They should fit right in.
Just to be clear: Everyone makes mistakes. Some of these mistakes are in the “nobody could have known” category. But there’s also the temptation to engage in motivated reasoning, to let our emotions get the better of our critical faculties – and almost everyone succumbs to that temptation now and then (as I myself did on election night.)
So nobody is perfect. The point, however, is to try to do better – which means owning up to your mistakes and learning from them. Yet that is something that the people now ruling America never, ever do.
What happened to us? Some of it surely has to do with ideology: When you’re committed to a fundamentally false narrative about government and the economy, as almost the whole Republican Party now is, facing up to facts becomes an act of political disloyalty. By contrast, members of the Obama administration, from the president on down, were in general far more willing to accept responsibility than their Bush-era predecessors.
But what’s going on with Trump and his inner circle seems to have less to do with ideology than with fragile egos. To admit having been wrong about anything, they seem to imagine, would brand them as losers and make them look small.
In reality, of course, inability to engage in reflection and self-criticism is the mark of a tiny, shriveled soul – but they’re not big enough to see that.
But why did so many Americans vote for Trump, whose character flaws should have been obvious long before the election?
Catastrophic media failure and FBI malfeasance played crucial roles. But my sense is that there’s also something going on in our society: Many Americans no longer seem to understand what a leader is supposed to sound like, mistaking bombast and belligerence for real toughness.
Why? Is it celebrity culture? Is it working-class despair, channeled into a desire for people who spout easy slogans?
The truth is that I don’t know. But we can at least hope that watching Trump in action will be a learning experience – not for him, because he never learns anything, but for the body politic. And maybe, just maybe, we'll eventually put a responsible adult back in the White House.