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Opinion | Democrats, Don’t Take the Bait on Trump’s Memory Test

Over the last week, the hottest issue in national politics has been President Trump’s ability to repeat five words in order — people, woman, man, camera, TV — a performance on a dementia test that Mr. Trump has called “amazing.”

Democrats, especially the educational elite, have been having a grand old time making fun of Mr. Trump — and have pointed out that he would have been better off not mentioning the fact that he took a screening test for dementia in the first place.

But is that true? Mr. Trump, in fact, may be winning the public relations cycle, however inadvertently.

In Portland, quasi-military units of the Department of Homeland Security, anonymous in their camouflage uniforms marked only with the word “Police,” have swept people into unmarked vans for being in the vicinity of demonstrations, beaten peaceful protesters, and shot people with potentially fatal “impact munitions” without provocation, fracturing one person’s skull.

The deployment of federal agents with guns to crack down on demonstrators is not just a ham-handed publicity stunt that will likely result in needless civil rights violations and injuries. It is an attempt by the president to use a personal paramilitary force on the streets of America’s cities to do as he sees fit. After Portland, who knows where else Mr. Trump will use his private military.

In this context, anything that distracts attention from the president’s abuses of power in Portland is a good thing for him. And whether or not he can count backward from 100 by sevens is a brilliant diversion, even if Mr. Trump stumbled into it.

That we fall for this unintentional circus act is not an aberration. It is, instead, just the latest version of the competency trap that Democratic elites have fallen into repeatedly regarding Mr. Trump. Indeed, we have a history of underestimating Republican politicians because of their supposed or real incompetence. Ronald Reagan was the B-movie actor, derided as not smart enough to be president. We underestimated George W. Bush as a lightweight son of his accomplished father, a failure in business and comically prone to malapropisms.

We should know better. But with Mr. Trump, the bait is too enticing. Remember how there has never been anyone “more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president?” Remember the New Yorker cartoon after the election mocking an airplane passenger offering to fly the plane because “those smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us”?

These were spectacular examples of the Democratic elite missing the point. As the onetime party of the workers has increasingly become the party of the well educated, many have come to assume that academic intelligence and policy expertise are crucial qualifications to rule. But the point of a democracy is not to select the smartest people. The point is to make elected officials accountable to the people. Voters choose the candidates who (they think) best represent them. For many people, that means the person who (they think) is most like them, best understands the challenges they face, sees the world most like them or shares their policy preferences.

If you want to vote for the person who you think is most competent — based on intelligence, judgment and experience — that’s fine. But very few people actually believe that the presidency should be based on cognitive ability or résumé. Democrats vote for Democrats, Republicans vote for Republicans and both sides use the competency argument when it suits them.

Would I vote for an inexperienced candidate who went to an undistinguished college and supported abortion rights, criminal justice reform and free preschool over a former governor and cabinet official with a degree from an elite law school who opposed all of them? Of course I would.

Or, to put it another way, it can feel good to poke fun at Donald Trump’s incoherence, narcissism and singular ability to embarrass himself. But he is also launching a deadly serious attack on our democratic values.

Let’s not forget which one is more important.

James Kwak is a law professor at the University of Connecticut and the chair of the board of the Southern Center for Human Rights. His latest book is “Take Back Our Party: Restoring the Democratic Legacy.”

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