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Politics

‘Too complex to fly’? Trump riff on planes shows aversion to technological change and science

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President Trump stands before Air Force One, which he often uses as a backdrop, during a rally in November in Bozeman, Mont.
(Jackie Yamanaka / YPR)

He has demanded “goddamned steam” to power the Navy’s aircraft carriers and prefers a wall to drones and other technology to secure the country’s southern border.

He has rejected the scientific consensus on climate change and repeatedly, wrongly, pointed to occasional wintry weather as proof that he’s right.

And this week, amid a safety scare involving Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 airplanes, President Trump complained that modern jets are “too complex to fly.” He added: “I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better.”

The president, a septuagenarian who tweets yet doesn’t email, text or use computers, and openly marvels at the invention of the wheel, is not shy about his old-school attitude toward technology. That backward-looking approach is at the core of his nostalgia-based appeal to voters longing for a supposedly better, simpler era of American greatness.

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Yet this worldview represents a break from the generally futuristic stance of Trump’s predecessors in his lifetime. His most recent comments in a pair of tweets Tuesday morning — alluding to the Boeing models involved in two calamitous crashes in six months — cast into vivid relief the puzzling, even perilous mind-set of a 21st-century chief executive so stubbornly change-averse and all but indifferent to technological advancement in an era of intense global competition.

“It is profoundly concerning, and it’s not just about scientific evidence but evidence more broadly,” said John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration. “He just says and tweets whatever he thinks from his gut, not from data or evidence or facts. And that’s extremely dangerous — dangerous in terms of national security, foreign relations, all kinds of areas.”

“There are 87,000 flights a day” in the United States, Holdren added. “We prove 87,000 times every day that planes are not too complex to fly.”

Whatever the cause of the latest crash Sunday in Ethiopia that killed everyone on board, following the catastrophic accident in Indonesia in October, Trump waited until Wednesday afternoon to order the MAX models to be grounded indefinitely pending investigation. Fifty-one nations, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, already had ordered the planes out of service, and members of Congress in both parties urged the administration to do so as well.

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Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who donated to Trump’s inaugural committee and traveled with him to Hanoi last month to celebrate orders for MAX planes from three Vietnamese airlines, spoke with the president Tuesday after his tweets about the alleged danger of planes’ complexity. The company has been planning to update the flight control system in 737-MAX jets to fix issues with a stall prevention system.

When Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner model had a battery fire problem in 2013, during the Obama administration, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the aircraft for six weeks until a fix was in place. Yet fire incidents continued into 2014, prompting Trump to tweet in March of that year, “Lithium ion batteries should not be allowed to be used in aircraft. I won’t fly on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner — it uses those batteries.”

In his tweet Tuesday, Trump complained that planes are so complicated they require “computer scientists from MIT,” and added, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot.”

That provoked a parody from The Onion, a satirical website.

“President Donald Trump complained Tuesday about the overly complicated controls needed to operate modern-day doors,” its purported news story said, quoting the president as having groused: “The only Americans who know how to operate these complex doors are MIT engineers and rocket scientists, and regular people can’t go inside or outside anymore.”

Trump’s rivals aren’t amused.

“Evidence and science are not as popular in this administration, but our lives depend on this administration’s ability to understand and process this information,” said Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who, at 37, is the youngest of about a dozen declared Democratic presidential candidates. “Your crazy uncle can be amusing, but when you put him in charge it can really leave you at a disadvantage.”

Under Trump, the FAA hasn’t had a permanent administrator for 14 months. The president, who owns a Boeing 757 and considered naming his private pilot to lead the regulatory agency, has long been fascinated with aviation and unabashed about sharing his opinions on air safety.

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Still, he has proposed cutting the funding for the agency each year. His just-released fiscal 2020 budget proposal would curb spending for the Department of Transportation by nearly a quarter.

“Trump is a real estate guy, not a technology person. His administration has been slow to react to many digital developments,” said Darrell M. West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

It wasn’t until January that the Senate confirmed Kelvin Droegemeier, an extreme-weather expert, to serve as the president’s top science and technology advisor, leaving the job vacant for nearly two years. Trump didn’t nominate anyone until last August.

Droegemeier’s job is to advise the president on federal research spending and policies in areas including artificial intelligence, climate, medicine and cybersecurity. His appointment came long after Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord in 2017 and ended a number of Obama administration regulations aimed at combating climate change. Congress has mostly ignored his proposed reductions in scientific research investments.

In February, Trump signed an executive order outlining a national strategy on artificial intelligence that called for increasing access to federal data, providing financial support for research and development, enhancing digital infrastructures, and improving workforce development. The order did not include additional funding to accomplish those goals, however.

“That’s a dangerous mixed message the president is sending,” said West, who noted that China’s investment in artificial intelligence technology far exceeds that of the U.S. “Trump seems slow to take advantage of the opportunities of technology and doesn’t worry enough about the risks in terms of national security and economic competitiveness.”

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has set a goal of surpassing the United States technologically by the year 2030.

“The core theme of this president and this campaign is the idea that you can turn back the clock, that you can ‘make America great again,’ that the answer for people worried about change is we’re going to stop it and reverse it — and that’s just not true and it’s just not possible,” said Buttigieg, whose generational appeal is part of his presidential pitch.

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“There’s obviously a shallow appeal to leaders telling us we don’t have to change,” he said. “But at a moment when automation and AI are deeply transforming our economy and our society, we’d like to believe we have leaders who get it.”

On another defining issue, Trump proudly expresses his skepticism that humans are contributing to climate change. Asked last year whether he’d seen his own administration’s dire forecast on the potential impact of global warming, Trump replied, “I don’t believe it.”

During a rollicking, partisan address this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump mocked Democrats for proposing a “Green New Deal,” joking that a shift to wind energy would impede his ability to watch television on breeze-less days.

“Anti-intellectualism has been quite common in American political culture for a very long time,” said Emrys Westacott, a professor of philosophy at Alfred University in New York. “Trump is probably the most extreme example of a president who consciously tries to manipulate and exploit the resentment felt by those who feel they are being left out or looked down upon by the ‘elites.’ ”

Noting that the president “gets quite a lot of support from communities where traditional jobs have disappeared due to automation,” Westcott said, “Of course, Trump prefers to blame immigrants or unfair foreign competition, or companies that move operations overseas.”

He added: “I suspect that people are somewhat aware that automation is actually a major factor bringing about the decline of certain sorts of work, and manage to suppress this awareness when Trump announces to cheers that he will revive industries like coal mining and steel.”

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