Can Donald Trump Read?

There was an episode of the David Pakman Show making the rounds on the internet in the early days of the Trump presidency; in it, the host argued that our 45th president is not just a reluctant reader, but seemingly incapable of reading: Now we have Michael Wolff’s detailed account of Trump’s election and first year in office with the release of his new book: “Fire and Fury,” in which he describes a president with such a short attention span that when “former Trump campaign advisor Sam Nunberg tried to explain the Constitution to the candidate, [he] only made it to the Fourth Amendment before Trump got bored.”

When I first saw that video of Donald Trump trying to avoid reading during a deposition, it immediately brought to mind aspects of my own learning disability. I have ADD, a condition that remained undiagnosed until late in my adulthood — after I had already managed to earn a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a Ph.D. from Caltech. Even without a formal diagnosis, I was fully aware early in my childhood that reading the written word required a great deal more energy for me than for my peers. My struggle reading was not due to an inability to decode the written word, nor was it due to a failure to comprehend the content once it was fully processed; instead, it stemmed from my inability to stay focused long enough to get the content into my brain. An attention deficit, or ADD, was at the root of my problem.

When I was a student, as a way of compensating for my ADD, I would isolate myself in the stacks of the school library, free from distractions, just so I could get through my required reading. If a passage was dull or particularly challenging (like textbook material, or long esoteric passages in a piece of literature), my mind would immediately wander and I would have to read and reread the passage until I finally processed its content. Only with first hand experience of this type of inattentiveness can one fully understand both the psychological and physiological components of the disability. Reading for long stretches of time can be exhausting if you have ADD, but the physical component is more than just that; there is an additional discomfort that is difficult to describe in words.

In addition to my attention issues, I am a very slow reader; I find that I have to read every word “aloud” in my head, in order to process the content. I have never been able to take in multiple words or phrases in a single glance. I imagine that the slow pace at which I read makes it all the more difficult for me to stay interested and focused on the content.

My slow reading speed also impacts how well I can read aloud; to avoid the anxiety that causes me, I have always refrained from doing so in a public setting. But if I find myself in a situation in which reading aloud is unavoidable, I make sure I am very familiar with the material ahead of time. Growing up with annual Passover seders, I became adept at reciting the designated passage in my head before it was my turn to read it in front of a table full of guests.

Another unfortunate aspect of my learning disability is my absolutely dreadful memory for information and details that require rote learning (including spelling). If something makes sense to me and is part of a concept that my brain has been building upon, I have no difficulty storing it in my long term memory. But if it is a random, dangling detail that is not immediately necessary for my understanding and insight into the bigger picture, I am unable to focus on it long enough to transfer it from my short term memory to my long term memory — where it would be retrievable at a later time.

So, how was I able to compensate for my learning deficits while making my way through an Ivy League undergraduate institution and then earning a PhD from a place like Caltech? In order to reach my goal, I had to rely not only on hard work, but also on my resourcefulness and relentlessness — both of which were fueled by my overwhelming drive to achieve academic excellence. So what fueled the drive itself? It was my deep longing to see myself as an intellectual, worthy of my exceptionally bright peers. There are very few emotions that have the power to motivate more than the feeling that your entire self worth is on the line!

One of the few positives of having ADD is that it often comes with an ability to hyper-focus on an activity that either captures one’s imagination or ignites one’s drive to excel. The ability to hyper-focus is the flip side of the attention deficit, and in my case, it was just the tool I needed to compensate for my weaknesses. Whenever that overwhelming fear of failure kicked in, I was able to use my hyper-focusing ability to push through any and all attention issues. Throughout my years in academia, that fear-induced hyper-focusing was especially useful during the few hours before a test or a paper was due, or while I was in the midst of a complex experiment in the lab. Nothing could distract me during those hours, because I so badly wanted the grade or the scientific result that I believed might finally free me from my often debilitating insecurities.

But the tangible results of my hyper-focusing were not what actually freed me; those boosts in my self esteem were fleeting. Instead, what irreversibly strengthened my sense of self were the moments when, as a result of hyper-focusing on a multitude of facts all at once, I was able to experience the joy of synthesizing an original idea. One of the happiest periods in my life was the month or so I dedicated solely to writing my dissertation. My relentless determination to present a cohesive, compelling story from my data, as well as meet my deadlines, forced me to hyper-focus not for just a few hours at a time, but for days on end. The facts accumulated, the thoughts flowed freely from one bit of information to the next, and I felt elated by the connections I was able to form between a multitude of ideas.

Those were the moments that helped me gain some lasting confidence and move closer to the self-acceptance I longed for. But, by the time I finally got sufficiently comfortable in my own skin to not be derailed by self-doubt, I was already burnt out from all the energy I had expended searching for ways to bypass my learning disability. On top of that, without a follow-up goal that I could realistically reach without giving up everything else in my life, I could not maintain my drive to excel academically.

So, I decided to switch brain hemispheres and become a full time artist. While in my right brain, energy need not be expended to compensate for my deficiencies; instead, it can be used to activate my imagination, a thought process I find invigorating, not depleting or anxiety producing. These days, I use my hyper-focusing skill to help me create artwork; I sit on the floor for hours on end and paint without stopping to do the most basic of things — like eating, drinking or standing. Taking this creative journey as far as I possibly can has become my alternative goal in life.

My life transformed even further as advances in digital technology began expanding the ways in which information could be stored and accessed. For most of my adult years, I did not read books cover to cover; I would start many, but rarely made it even halfway through. Then audiobooks came along and it felt like a door opened up in my brain. Since I started keeping a list, around 4–5 years ago, I have listened to over 140 audiobooks, including Caro’s nonfiction account of LBJ’s early years in the White House and Dostoevsky’s lengthy novel, Crime and Punishment — books I would never have tackled just for the hell of it. In the process, I made the great discovery that I do my best listening when I am simultaneously painting; that’s when both my brain hemispheres are working at once, leaving little space for my mind to wander elsewhere.

In addition, as search engines like Google expanded their capacity to provide any and all information with just the tap of a finger on a smart phone , my deep frustration with my long-term memory issues (and my difficulty with spelling) greatly diminished. That access not only changed my ability to write and participate in discussions that I would have avoided in my earlier years (for fear of forgetting a basic fact or relaying something inaccurate or uninsightful) — it also expanded my brain capacity. Prior to the year 2000, I never discussed politics because I lacked sufficient knowledge to formulate a factually-based, cohesive opinion. By not engaging, I lost numerous opportunities not only to broaden my perspective, but also to improve my reasoning skills. Now, I can hardly keep my mouth shut!

I sincerely apologize for how self-absorbed this all sounds, but I believe that insights derived from my own struggles can help explain why Trump appears to be unable to read in the video from the David Pakman Show. Just imagine someone with my attention issues — perhaps times two or three or more, and without any apparent intellectual curiosity, and you’ll arrive at Donald J. Trump. Both Trump and I are unable to get through a book; we both hate reading aloud; we are both terrible spellers and we both lack a stockpile of facts that we can easily retrieve from our long-term memory. The big difference is that I have NEVER, even in my wildest dreams, considered myself capable of leading the free world. Yet Trump, with his breathtaking hubris and utter lack of self-awareness, believes that he is capable of doing so. Sadly, so do millions of American voters.

Considering the extent of his unregulated impulsivity, Trump appears to have the hyperactivity piece of ADD, as well as the inattentiveness (a condition known as ADHD or Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). The hyperactivity component generally compounds the inattentiveness, and in Trump’s case may be responsible for his apparent inability to focus long enough to read almost any material that does not interest him, even if the information is absolutely necessary for him to do his job. I suspect it is physically uncomfortable for him to concentrate on anything unpleasant, and it requires more effort than he is able to muster — certainly at the age of seventy. I must say, it’s quite shocking to see a supposed billionaire real estate mogul admit that he never reads leases, and even more shocking that, as the president of the United States, he doesn’t appear to even read his own executive orders, and his national security briefings have to be tailored to fit someone at a grade school reading level.

Trump’s difficulty reading and his aversion to learning new material is certainly not new news. Just consider how badly he wanted to win those debates and ultimately the presidency; yet that all-consuming desire still couldn’t push him out of his comfort zone and get him to study enough domestic and international policy to sound even remotely knowledgeable in front of millions of debate viewers!

But Trump’s problems go far beyond his attention issues. On top of his debilitating ADHD, he appears to suffer from a condition called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Although the psychiatric community has long considered it unprofessional and unethical to diagnose an individual with a mental disorder without a comprehensive, one-on-one analysis by a mental health professional, some psychiatrists have felt that the massive body of empirical data already available in Trump’s case is sufficient to label him a pathological narcissist without an up close and personal evaluation. Some even believe that Trump’s case is so extreme that they are willing to give him the diagnosis of “malignant narcissism” — a disorder that combines several mental illnesses into one and is rarely used in the field.

As a consequence of having both ADHD and NPD, the only reading material that appears to interest Trump enough to push him through his attention deficit is content about himself. Just imagine how limiting that is! Also limiting is the fact that Trump does not appear to have embraced, as I have, the remarkable tools provided by modern technology (other than Twitter) to help him compensate for his severe learning difficulties. Instead, due to his extreme narcissism, he believes that he is just fine functioning without much knowledge or facts. Unfortunately, the act of winning the election only served to embolden him and solidify this breathtakingly narcissistic delusion. So far, it seems that no staff or family member has been able to break through his protective bubble of delusional thoughts. On the contrary, the bubble is growing by the day, filling with more and more “alternative facts.” His sole compensatory skill is his ability to fabricate and believe his own version of reality.

I also explored Trump’s limitations, and much more, in the essay I composed during the dizzying days immediately following the election: Therefore, I was not particularly shocked by what I saw in the David Pakman Show video, or what has been reported in books and in the media about his intellectual limitations. Because of my personal awareness of how learning disabilities like ADD and ADHD can impact one’s sense of self, I can easily imagine just how much Trump’s difficulties storing and processing new information must add to his lifelong struggle with deep-seated insecurities. It was very illuminating to watch the video clips of Trump, particularly the one taken during a deposition; when his aversion to reading was being exposed by the opposing lawyer, he looked pathetically timid and frightened. In fact, whenever Trump is pushed into a corner, no longer able to defend his blatant lie or hide his shocking ignorance, he responds like a stereotypical bully — he backs away from his characteristic aggressive, boorish behavior and claims something lame like: “Well, that’s what I was told.”

To be clear, Trump is certainly not illiterate; he is undoubtedly capable of reading and processing the written word. But due to the compounding effects of having two disorders (ADHD and NPD), Trump is unable to mask his severe learning disability, or find effective ways to compensate for them. As a result, his lack of fitness to be President of the United States is clearly evident to anyone who has spent time observing him — and that includes foreign adversaries who can use that knowledge to weaken U.S strength and power on the global stage. In fact, the author of “Fire and Fury” reported that his “indelible impression of talking to [Trump’s staff] and observing them through much of the first year of his presidency, is that they all — 100 percent — came to believe he was incapable of functioning in his job.

It’s true that George W. Bush also showed signs of an attention deficit, but his disability appears minor now, in comparison to Trump’s. That fact alone is disconcerting, considering how poorly the Bush presidency turned out. We don’t know yet, just how badly Trump’s presidency will turn out, or exactly how and when it is going to end; nonetheless, it’s not likely to end well. My deep hope is that by the time we wake up from this nightmare, Trump will be the one who has suffered the most from his recklessness and ignorance, not the American people. We all have a responsibility to do whatever we can to guarantee that that is indeed the case!