Space the Nation: Four theories for why Donald Trump believes in invisible planes

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Aug 21, 2018

Our president, Donald Trump, believes that the United States military possesses an invisible plane.

He first bragged about it last October, at a press conference about hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. He went on about how much the administration was spending on fighter jets (presumably to distract Puerto Ricans from the lack of emergency help). “Do you like the F-35?” he asked a representative from the Air Force. “I said 'How does it do it in fights, and how do they do in fights with the F-35?' He says we do very well, you can’t see it. Literally you can’t see. It’s hard to fight a plane you can’t see, right? But that’s an expensive plane you can’t see.”

Most recently, he dropped a reference to it in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, noting that not only do we have invisible planes, but our enemies are jealous:

"This is an incredible plane. It's stealth—you can't see it. So when I talk to even people from the other side, they're trying to order our plane. They like the fact that you can't see it. I said, 'How would it do in battle with your plane?' They say, 'Well we have one problem—we can't see your plane.' That's a big problem. Stealth, super stealth. The best in the world. We make the best military equipment in the world. Also, remember this: jobs."

Between those occasions, he’s brought up the “stealth, super stealth” F-35’s invisibility six other times, variously claiming “You cannot see it” and "the enemy cannot see it" and “the difference is, when we fight they can’t see our plane.”

He does not seem to be speaking in metaphor. He did use the word "literally." He has also seemed to chide aerospace manufacturers about it maybe turning out not to be literally invisible. "Hey Fred, she makes a plane you can’t see. It’s stealth. F-35. I hope you can’t see it at least, right? Great job.”

I do not think he's speaking metaphorically. In fact, it is possible he is incapable of speaking in metaphor. Here is an exchange from early in his presidency, with CBS anchor John Dickerson:

JOHN DICKERSON: George W. Bush said the reason the Oval Office is round is there are no corners you can hide in.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, there's truth to that. There is truth to that. There are certainly no corners. And you look, there's a certain openness. But there's nobody out there. You know, there is an openness, but I've never seen anybody out there actually, as you could imagine.
JOHN DICKERSON: But he— what he meant was it's— all comes —
JOHN DICKERSON: —back to you.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Sure. It does. But I think that's true anyway. But it does, there's no question.

No, Trump honestly believes there are pilots out there flying invisible plans. I wish someone would press him on this. Does he think the planes are invisible but the pilots aren’t — as in Wonder Woman? Does he think the planes are made of invisible parts (again, a la Wonder Woman), or do the planes turn invisible at the press of a button (more like a Star Trek cloaking device)? Does he ever wonder why this amazing technology, if it is so readily available, isn’t being put to use in other contexts?

He has, for instance, claimed that that the “big beautiful wall” he wants to build on the border would “need transparency,” because, “as horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them — they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over. As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall.”

As crazy as that sounds, sure! No one wants to get beaned by a 60-pound bag of dope. It might be expensive to build an F-35-style invisible wall but, also, remember this: jobs.

There are some physics- and geometry-based reasons that you should not actually worry about getting beaned by a 60-pound bag of dope thrown over a two-story wall, but there are also physics and geometry reasons for why we don’t have invisible planes. Let’s just assume that Trump is ignorant of the scientific reasons for anything. I assume Trump is ignorant of quite a lot. What I am curious about is what he thinks he knows, such as the existence of an invisible plane.

Why does he believe it exists?

Theory one: He has been told it exists by someone in authority and is just passing along this valuable military secret to the public at large because he thinks it’s cool. This seems unlikely. However, if it were the case, what better way to contain the damage of the revelation than to just have the president continue to reference it, and allow other world leaders to believe it’s just Trump making things up again? Hmmmm.

Theory two: Trump has been told the invisible plane exists by one of the idle rich people he calls at night, who may or may not be pulling his leg. One of Trump’s rich friends is, after all, Ike Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Entertainment… and the Avengers do have the sort-of invisible helicarrier? This seems more likely, to be honest. Trump trusts his rich friends; he trusts them so much he let Perlmutter (an unelected and unappointed private citizen) basically run the Veterans Administration from a table at Mar-a-Lago

Theory three: Trump has read or heard about invisible planes and other sorts of invisible technology in science fiction and is simply confused about what reality is. The hardest thing to believe in that scenario is not that Trump is confused about reality. There is ample evidence that he is, from his belief in massive voter fraud to his conviction that “the human body [is] like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only deplete[s].” Rather, I am suspicious that Trump is at all familiar with science fiction. He is famously unwilling to read anything — his presidential briefing books have been whittled down to infographics — and his taste in filmed entertainment is for mob movies and action flicks, genres where elaborations on the real world are supposed to go unnoticed.

Theory four: Someone used the word “stealth” to describe the F-35 and Trump assumed it meant “invisible” and it has never occurred to him that he might be wrong.

That’s my guess. “It has never occurred to him that he might be wrong” is an embrace of fiction that is also somehow the opposite of fantasy. In his mind, he isn’t creating anything, he’s justifying his own ignorance. His incuriosity demands a narrative that justifies the world as he sees it, and stories he spins may seem fanciful to outside observers but to him, it’s just time for another cheeseburger. He will never turn inward, nor will he ask a question. That’s the only way someone so ploddingly literal could invent such elaborate deceptions, how he could lie so much yet be utterly lacking in imagination. He is really only telling one story. His. He doesn’t want to hear any others.