Now that Donald Trump has decided to occasionally tell the truth, he might want to reconsider. It’s gotten him in all kinds of trouble.
The subject of abortion really twisted him in knots (more about his befuddlement further on), first with a not-to-be-deflected Chris Matthews on MSNBC, who persisted in asking Trump whether his calls to make abortion illegal meant that the person who got one should be penalized. Trump’s reluctant acknowledgement that he believes she should receive “some sort of punishment” sent the political world, to say nothing of the social-media universe, into a storm of epic proportions.
Never mind that his response made total sense; the bombs immediately started falling on him from all sides. Obviously, the abortion-rights advocates were slamming him, using him as a surrogate to attack the entire idea that society would deny a “woman’s right to choose.” But the anti-abortion forces also were horrified by his admission. They don’t particularly enjoy having the inescapable logic that of course females should be punished if terminating their pregnancy was against the law. In the perceptions battle, that might be considered harsh. It’s the doctors, they insist, who should face the consequences for what they describe as “murder.” Never mind that in homicide, the accomplice is just as guilty. Trump quickly did something he also never does: He beat a hasty retreat, racing out a statement that what he really meant is that the doctor should be prosecuted, not the female victim, who is somehow forced into the procedure.
Again, he tripped over his words on abortion a couple of days later. This time, the highly skilled inquisitor was John Dickerson, moderator of CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Dickerson was following up the Matthews controversy and asked whether the laws about abortion were among the many he’d change. Again, Trump tried to tread carefully. Again, he stepped in it: “At this moment, the laws are set. And I think we have to leave it that way.” So, again, the anti-abortion leaders responded with such fury that he put out another sheepish clarification explaining he’d appoint judges who would un-set the laws.
Obviously, the Trumpster wasn’t enjoying his flirtation with the truth, so he made sure to weasel out with his usual tactical deceit: Both the Matthews and Dickerson interviews were chopped up to take his words out of context, Trump said. MSNBC and CBS quickly released transcripts to show that the segments were not edited at all. It was another of The Donald’s falsehoods that have served him so well, since his supporters don’t really care when he gets caught in lies. They adore his “telling it like it is,” even when he tells it like it isn’t.
But the abortion blunders, in addition to other statements made about NATO and even nuclear bombs that recently have earned him ridicule of late, might be revealing another truth about Donald Trump: Is it possible he’s just not very bright, or not as smart as he tells us he is? He went to Wharton, after all, but how many people do we know who went to prestigious colleges and are dumber than a stump? Yes, he’s clearly very wealthy. But there are lots of rich people who are dim lightbulbs.
It’s true that he’s succeeded in dominating the Republican presidential campaign and manipulating the media. But how much intellectual heft does that take? No doubt he’s a great showman, but there are a lot of clowns out there who are witless.
He’s had tremendous appeal for those who are so fed up they don’t want to bother with nuance. His appeals to bigotry don’t take brilliance. Any fool can spew hatred. Let’s give him credit. He has certainly dominated the American — make that the worldwide — conversation for months. But let’s not believe for a minute that he has the brainpower to be president. He’s way over his head. That’s the truth.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.