Stupidity can kill: How to vet and test would-be presidents

A nuclear bomb from China or North Korea—that’s how I expected to die if Donald Trump was too inept to handle a major crisis. The Trump-worsened coronavirus threat is so prosaic by comparison.

No, this monster-buffoon didn’t cause the virus, but thousands of Americans may die unnecessarily because he downplayed the threat early on, and his flunkies in federal agencies then clicked their heels. We lack enough masks, ventilators and ICUs. If nothing else, Trump’s PR-ish approach has seriously worsened the problem and jeopardized our doctors and nurses more than they would be otherwise. I am in a high-risk age group and might lose out if, like the Italian doctors, U.S. ones must triage patients.

On top of that, my retirement investments have suffered in part because Wall Street sees a major risk in Trump-crazy virus policies. A J. P. Morgan economist said the U.S. economy could shrink by 14 percent in the second quarter alone. Also, think of the noninvestors deprived of the weekly checks they need to live on; they’re the real people I feel sorry for—the ones who will suffer the most, regardless of some compensatory crumbs thrown their way.

Alas, Moscow Mitch McConnell is keen on keeping the President in office, so we can’t count on another impeachment as a remedy. But we can at least hope for the defeat this November of Trump, McConnell and the other enablers of the “very stable genius.” And if nothing else, we can think about remedies to reduce the chances of another deadly human virus occupying the Oval Office.

Here is what I propose, in the spirit of similar ideas from others for the vetting and testing of would-be president:

–Required disclosure of medical histories, employment histories, political donations histories, tax information, both civil and criminal suits and other pertinent legal matters. If nothing else, bankruptcy information should be public. This should include not just listings of diseases or legal actions and the rest, but the full details or all relevant ones. We should see complete tax returns going back at least a decade and maybe longer.

–Medical examinations by independent physicians and other specialists. Psychiatric examinations would be helpful. Trump’s irrational actions confirm the scary findings of a book where prominent experts several years ago raised serious questions about his mental health.

–Systematic testing of knowledge and certain reasoning-related capabilities (perhaps overlapping with the medical examinations), with scores made public.

I’m not talking about the most challenging tests—no need to be a Rhodes Scholar. Rather, I mean examinations at the basic level in such areas as Constitutional law, American history, logic, reading comprehension, basic practical math and rudimentary science and technology. Our “very stable genius” would have flunked all the tests, or at least most. Here’s a president unable to absorb all but the most dumbed-down briefings.

The disclosures and the tests would not be immediately required of anyone running for president in a primary. But they would be a “must” for candidates hoping to be on the ballot in the general election. Imagine the risk of nominating a dummy like Donald Trump.

Yes, Trump is a dummy in terms of governing. I admit he is a brilliant reality show host, marketer and con artist. But those are quite different skill sets. In general, the man just isn’t up to the task. Call him an idiot savant—someone who excels, but only in limited ways.

Who would oversee the vetting? A revitalized Federal Election Commission or the equivalent—yes, I know the limits of the present FEC—might be one possibility.

And the tests? I propose a respected oversight panel comprised not of politicians but of prominent academics, doctors and other experts.

Once again—I’m not demanding that the president be Einstein-brilliant; who knows how Ronald Reagan would have fared despite his excellence as the Great Communicator? Yes, Roman Hruska, maybe there is even room for a few mediocrities. But the President should be mentally healthy and at least minimally up to the job. Defining mental health is subjective. But surely we can draw the lines somewhere to exclude a perpetual third-grader. The stakes are too high not to.

“The federal government requires applicants for certain civil service jobs to take a written exam,” the New York Times noted in 2011 in broaching the issue of tests for political candidates, including nonPresidential ones. “The same holds true for the foreign service. And to become a U.S. citizen you have to pass a civics test. Why do we not require a similar exam for individuals who seek election to office?”

The Times appears to have meant that simply as a question, and most of the expert and VIP essayists were skeptical about the idea, raising excellent points, such as Who Tests the Testers? But that was pre-Trump. I think it’s time to reconsider—given all the lives and money that our misfit of a president is costing us. You don’t need a 180 I.Q. to be willing to listen to specialists in highly specialized areas like public health.

Even without the hoped-for testing per se, we at least need the aforementioned vetting (along with other reforms such as public financing of elections and reversal of Citizens United).

Image credit: Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels.

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David Rothman

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