Donald Trump is afraid of books.
I don’t mean that he’s afraid that someone will write a book about him that exposes some secret or points out his failures and cost him his position of power. I mean he’s afraid to read them. (If you aren’t aware, Trump has noted — again and again and again — that he doesn’t read.)
Perhaps you think this sounds absurd. I would argue that it’s one of the only things about Trump that makes any sense at all.
Let me explain.
Almost all of the things that books do so well are a threat to Donald Trump’s perception of himself as the smartest person in the room, the toughest person in the negotiation, the most successful person in the crowd of billionaires. When someone views themselves exclusively in superlative terms (as Trump obviously does), any evidence to the contrary must be either ignored or else attacked, lest the illusion of supremacy crumble.
Trump is afraid of books because almost all of them, in one way or another, are a serious threat to that illusion. How so? Glad you asked.
Most books, fiction or non-fiction, have something to teach us. In fact, that’s kind of their thing. Implied in the opening of a book is the expectation that the pages within will reveal something to us — perhaps about life, perhaps about increasing our intake of green vegetables, perhaps about the mating habits of ocelots; books are nothing if not versatile.
Yes, if the reader is willing to learn (and sometimes even if they aren’t — books can sometimes sneak up on even the most stubborn people), the books they read will teach them something. But inherent in the bargain is the reader’s understanding that they don’t already know everything and the belief that exposing their own ignorance through reading is actually a good thing. But this requires humility, and Donald Trump doesn’t do humility.
To read would expose Trump to the possibility that there are a great many things about people (and history and the law and and and…) that he either doesn’t understand or is simply wrong about. Perhaps as importantly, reading may expose Trump to an author whose intellect is far keener than his. But since that is incompatible with his self-perception, he’s not going to take the risk.
This kind of goes hand in hand with the first reason, but there’s a subtle difference. Learning new information can challenge a reader’s preconceptions about the ways in which the world works, but that’s not the kind of challenge I mean.
Once they’re published and put out into the world, books are immutable. They don’t get tired and give in, they don’t rearrange their words to soothe their reader’s ego or get a better position on the shelf, and they can’t be bullied. The simple fact that books can’t be manipulated into reflecting Trump’s own worldview back at him (unlike, say, members of congress or his cabinet appointees) is perhaps the biggest strike against them in his mind.
If a book says that Trump’s foreign policy is deranged, that his attitudes towards women are unacceptable, or that his greed is not to be lauded, it’s just going to keep on saying it. Books tell us the truth as they see it, whether we like or not. They’re incapable of sycophancy, which, to Trump, makes them all but useless.
We’ve seen the studies. We know that reading can create empathy. We know that books have the power to change hearts and minds. But to do that, they have to first create a tension inside us, a tension that results from the realization that our assumptions are flawed. That can be a scary feeling, of course. And sometimes, it takes a really long time for that tension to sprout into meaningful personal change. But that kind of tension, and the resulting change, is critical for our growth as people. Books are just one of the things that can make it happen, but, for my money, they’re also one of the most reliable.
I don’t get the sense that Donald Trump wants anything to do with that kind of change. That tension I talked about? That creates uncertainty and a forces a careful evaluation of our motives. But Trump refuses to embrace uncertainty and in so doing throws out the door any chance at the growth that so many readers have experienced because of the books that have changed the way they think.
It’s hard to avoid that uncertainty when you’re a reader. Books challenge my assumptions all the time, and they’ve reconfigured my understanding about a number of subjects over the years. But Trump views uncertainty as weakness. He views changing your mind as an admission of failure. And Trump is afraid of nothing so much as being seen as a failure, a loser. Which means, of course, that books scare him to death.
Donald Trump would have you believe that his reasons for not reading have nothing to with fear, and everything to do with his own self-sufficiency. Experience is his teacher, and books have nothing to offer him. They’re beneath him, a waste of his tremendously important time.
But don’t let him fool you.
There’s a reason he doesn’t read. There’s a reason he’s said he’ll let his advisors do his reading for him. It’s because reading is a threat to his ego, a challenge to his conviction that he’s anything more than a despotic blowhard.
To Donald Trump, nothing could be scarier.