What makes Donald Trump so smart?

Trump wants to believe, and wants us to believe, that he’s very intelligent.
But what kind of intelligence is he talking about?


When Donald Trump first described himself as an “very stable genius” — and was roundly ridiculed for doing so — I figured it was just one of those unfortunate phrases that sometimes slip out in the back-and-forth of social media. (I hate to think what a close inspection of my Facebook activity log would turn up.) But when he chose to repeat it just a week or so ago, it became clear that he really means it. Apparently “extremely stable genius” is part of the self-description that bounces around inside his head.

He also puts a lot of stock in the intelligence of others, or at least in its lack: Many of his insults directed at others target their intellect. Recently he tweeted that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had called Joe Biden a “low-IQ individual”, a comment that made him smile. (Kim’s assessment of Trump himself as a “dotard” is apparently long forgiven.) Politico notes:

In recent years, Trump has accused Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), actor Robert De Niro, Washington Post staffers, former President George W. Bush, comedian Jon Stewart, Republican strategist Rick Wilson, MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, and Rick Perry, now his energy secretary, of having low IQs.

Back in 2013 he tweeted:

Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.

Apparently, though, not everyone does know it. (According to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Trump claiming that everyone agrees with him is a tell that he’s lying.) Rex Tillerson called him a “fucking moron” and Jim Mattis said he had the understanding of “a fifth or sixth-grader”. Numerous other high-ranking Trump appointees (John Kelly, Steve Mnuchin, Reince Preibus, H. R. McMaster) have referred to him as an “idiot”, with former economic advisor Gary Cohn adding that he is “dumb as shit”.

You might imagine that insults like this naturally fly back and forth in a high-pressure environment like the White House. But I haven’t come up with a comparable example from the previous administration, where someone who worked closely with President Obama claimed he had below-average intelligence. Maybe I’ve just forgotten.

How to prove you’re smart. Trump could of course settle all this by releasing an IQ test, the way that he has often demanded that others (Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren come to mind) release personal information to prove their claims. He could also support his “stable genius” claim by releasing stellar grades, or pointing to some singular academic honor (like Bill Clinton and Pete Buttigieg can point to their Rhodes scholarships, or Barack Obama his presidency of the Harvard Law Review).

Or he could demonstrate his intelligence to us directly, by speaking to the American people about difficult subjects and impressing us with the clarity of his thought. Barack Obama used to do that. I’ve often come away from an Obama speech feeling like I had learned something, and understood some topic in a way I never had before.

He could show an ability to think on his feet. He could submit to unscripted questions from voters or journalists. And rather than go off into a word salad of free association, he could answer those questions with facts (that are actually true) and insights the questioners hadn’t anticipated. I have attended a bunch of New Hampshire townhall meetings in the last few presidential cycles and watched politicians do this, some more skillfully than others. John McCain was brilliant at fielding whatever question anyone wanted to throw at him, even after he had been on his feet for hours. So was Chris Christie. I didn’t have to agree with their conclusions to appreciate their intelligence.

Obama could even face an audience of enemies and answer whatever questions they raised. He once went to  retreat of the House Republican caucus and owned the room. They couldn’t touch him. The best evidence that they knew they were beaten is that they never invited him back.

A different kind of smart. But maybe I look for that kind of evidence because I don’t define smart the same way Trump does. Maybe my notion of intelligence is self-serving: I was good at tests and classes, so that’s what I look for. I’m good with words and explaining things, so that’s how I want intelligence to be judged.

But maybe when Trump looks in the mirror, he sees a different kind of smart.


The best evidence that he does comes from a 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton. Clinton suggested that Trump doesn’t release his tax returns because

maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.

Trump didn’t dispute Clinton’s claims, but spun them in a positive direction: “That makes me smart.”

To me, that suggests a whole different vision of human intelligence and its uses. Maybe life is a game where we’re all trying to gain advantages over each other. And anybody can claim an advantage they deserve. Millions of Americans, for example, avoid paying taxes by being poor; that’s not very smart. But claiming an advantage you don’t deserve, like not paying taxes when you’re rich — you have to be pretty smart to do that.

As soon as I understood that simple notion, I began to appreciate Trump’s genius. Once you know what kind of intelligence you’re looking for, you can see it all through his life.

Avoiding military service is smart. Risking your life is not smart at all, especially if there are other people who can serve in your place.

Trump avoided the draft during the Vietnam War by getting a medical deferment based on having bone spurs on his feet. But are those bone spurs real? The daughters of the (now dead) podiatrist who signed off on the bone-spur claim believe their father made the diagnosis as a favor to Trump’s father. “Elysa Braunstein said the implication from her father was that Mr. Trump did not have a disqualifying foot ailment.”

Democratic candidates Pete Buttigieg and Seth Moulton are simpletons by comparison. They could have avoided risking their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq without faking anything; all they had to do was not volunteer. But like many people less smart than Trump, they try to make the issue about him rather than them. Buttigieg said:

If you’re a conscientious objector, I’d admire that. But this is somebody who, I think it’s fairly obvious to most of us, took advantage of the fact that he was the child of a multimillionaire in order to pretend to be disabled so that somebody could go to war in his place.

And Moulton put it like this:

I don’t think that lying to get out of serving your country is patriotic. It’s not like there was just some empty seat in Vietnam. Someone had to go in his place. I’d like to meet the American hero who went in Donald Trump’s place to Vietnam. I hope he’s still alive.

As with so many controversies, Trump could easily clear this up: He could release x-rays of his feet.

Stiffing your contractors is smart. In 2016, USA Today documented hundreds of examples of Trump refusing to pay for work he had hired individuals or contracted small businesses to do. (YouTube lets you watch several of his contractors tell how they were short-changed.)

Michael Cohen’s testimony backed up USA Today’s reporting:

Some of the things that I did was reach out to individuals, whether it’s law firms or small businesses, and renegotiate contracts after the job was already done, or basically tell them that we just weren’t paying at all, or make them offers of, say, 20 cents on the dollar.

Vox summarizes the tactic:

The basic Trump method, established as far back as his Atlantic City casino days, goes like this:

  • First, Trump contracts with someone to do some work for him.
  • Second, the work gets done.
  • Third, Trump does not pay for the work.
  • Fourth, the people Trump owes money threaten to sue him.
  • Fifth, Trump offers to pay a small fraction of the sum they originally agreed on.

The person Trump owes money to is now faced with an unattractive choice. He can accept 20 or 30 percent of what he is owed right now. Alternatively, he can hire a lawyer and fight out a lawsuit that might take months or years. Since Trump is rich and has lawyers on his staff, it’s nothing to [him] to fight an extended legal battle. And since Trump is the one not paying the bill, delay is inherently in his favor.

If you’ve ever had work done for you, you probably paid the money you agreed to. That’s because you’re not as smart as Donald Trump.

Choosing the right parents is smart. The reason Donald became rich isn’t that he’s a great businessman, it’s that his father Fred was a great businessman — and a brilliant tax evader. (That apple didn’t fall far from the tree.)

Last October, the New York Times published its research on how much Donald got from Fred: at least $413 million, “much of it through tax dodges in the 1990s”.

The most overt fraud was All County Building Supply & Maintenance, a company formed by the Trump family in 1992. All County’s ostensible purpose was to be the purchasing agent for Fred Trump’s buildings, buying everything from boilers to cleaning supplies. It did no such thing, records and interviews show. Instead All County siphoned millions of dollars from Fred Trump’s empire by simply marking up purchases already made by his employees. Those millions, effectively untaxed gifts, then flowed to All County’s owners — Donald Trump, his siblings and a cousin. Fred Trump then used the padded All County receipts to justify bigger rent increases for thousands of tenants.

Dealing with Russian oligarchs is smart. According to Foreign Policy,

By the early 1990s [Trump] had burned through his portion of his father Fred’s fortune with a series of reckless business decisions. Two of his businesses had declared bankruptcy, the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City and the Plaza Hotel in New York, and the money pit that was the Trump Shuttle went out of business in 1992. Trump companies would ultimately declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy two more times. When would-be borrowers repeatedly file for protection from their creditors, they become poison to most major lenders and, according to financial experts interviewed for this story, such was Trump’s reputation in the U.S. financial industry at that juncture.

The money for the Trump Organization’s comeback came mostly from overseas, and particularly from Russia, where the fall of the Soviet Union had created new billionaires who didn’t trust the Russian legal system and so wanted to get their money out of the country. The Center for American Progress investigated the many business ties between the Trump Organization and Russian oligarchs.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was vital to get the money out of Russia without a trace, stashing it away from the prying eyes of tax agencies or law enforcement. Clandestine transfer was particularly critical if that money represented proceeds of a crime. Foreign real estate soon emerged as a preferred safe harbor.78 And because the Trump Organization reportedly had a reputation for not asking too many questions, Russian money flowed into Trump’s properties. … In September 2008, Donald Trump Jr. famously boasted of the Russian money “pouring in” and then observed that, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”84

CAP’s Moscow Project goes into more detail:

Some of the individual deals have attracted attention, most notably the Russian fertilizer magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev’s 2008 purchase of one of Trump’s mansions in Palm Beach. He paid a reported $95 million for it—$53 million more than Trump paid for it four years earlier. The transaction has received scrutiny from investigators, particularly because, though Trump justified the price increase by claiming he had “gutted the house” and spent $25 million on renovations, there were few apparent alterations. Such rapid and unexplained increases in price are frequently cited as red flags for money laundering through real estate.

It’s worth noting that the overall Florida real estate market had crashed between 2004 and 2008. Not many Florida property owners were smart enough to double their money during that period.

Trading in your wives is smart. Trump’s brilliance is not restricted to the business world. That whole “forsaking all others” and “till death do you part” thing is just another example of a contract that smart people can wriggle out of. Only suckers grow old with their first spouses, watching their bodies sag and wrinkle with age.

Ivana may have been a 28-year-old model when Trump married her in 1977, but by 1992 she was over 40 and had given birth to three Trump children. Her body was a depreciated asset by that point, so Trump moved on to Marla Maples, who he had met in 1989 when she was 25, and began a relationship with well before his divorce from Ivana. Trump and Maples then divorced in 1999, possibly because he had started dating 28-year-old Melania in 1998.

This short account leaves out his various affairs unrelated to marriage, like Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, as well as the women he has bragged about “grabbing by the pussy“.

At 72, is he done trading for newer models? Melania will turn 50 in 2020, a milestone no previous Trump wife has ever reached.

Employing undocumented immigrants is smart. American workers and green-card holders may have a lot of virtues, but they’re expensive and have a tendency to insist on their rights, all of which is very inconvenient for a business trying to make a profit.

Naturally, then, Trump’s clubs and golf courses have a long history of employing undocumented immigrants. It’s a win-win thing.

Angulo learned to drive backhoes and bulldozers, carving water hazards and tee boxes out of former horse pastures in Bedminster, N.J., where a famous New Yorker was building a world-class course. Angulo earned $8 an hour, a fraction of what a state-licensed heavy equipment operator would make, with no benefits or overtime pay. But he stayed seven years on the grounds crew, saving enough for a small piece of land and some cattle back home.

Now the 34-year-old lives with his wife and daughters in a sturdy house built by “Trump money,” as he put it, with a porch to watch the sun go down.

It’s a common story in this small town [in Costa Rica].

Other former employees of President Trump’s company live nearby: men who once raked the sand traps and pushed mowers through thick heat on Trump’s prized golf property — the “Summer White House,” as aides have called it — where his daughter Ivanka got married and where he wants to build a family cemetery.

“Many of us helped him get what he has today,” Angulo said. “This golf course was built by illegals.”

Cheating people who trust you is smart. The image Trump has consistently presented, particularly in The Art of the Deal, is of a brilliant businessman who received relatively little help from his father or Russian oligarchs, but made billions through his own remarkable abilities.

Who wouldn’t want to learn the secret tactics and techniques of such a successful money-maker? That was the premise of Trump University, a series of workshops and courses available to anybody who believed in the story Trump told about himself. The ads said:

He’s the most celebrated entrepreneur on earth. . . . And now he’s ready to share—with Americans like you—the Trump process for investing in today’s once-in-a-lifetime real estate market.

It was a con, one aimed not at bankers or other real-estate moguls or the government, but at “Americans like you”.

Jason Nicholas, a sales executive at Trump University, recalled a deceptive pitch used to lure students — that Mr. Trump would be “actively involved” in their education. “This was not true,” Mr. Nicholas testified, saying Mr. Trump was hardly involved at all. Trump University, Mr. Nicholas concluded, was “a facade, a total lie.”

Retirees and other folks who couldn’t afford to lose the money were encouraged to max out their credit cards to pay Trump U’s fees. After all, one of Trump’s get-rich secrets was to use other people’s money.

If he hadn’t been elected president, Trump might have stalled the lawsuits from his marks students long enough to get them to settle for far less than the $5 million profit he’s estimated to have made off them. But after the election he decided he needed to make this potential scandal go away, so he settled for $25 million.

Sometimes it’s smart to let the smaller con go so you can pursue the bigger con.

Profiting from public office is smart. Previous presidents have either put their investments in a blind trust or moved them into non-conflicting vehicles like treasury bonds. No law forced them to do this, it was just a political norm that they assumed voters cared about.

It took someone as ingenious as Trump to realize that voters actually don’t care, or that they’ll get used to conflicts of interest that occur on a massive scale.

This effect is similar to the Big Lie technique developed in Germany before World War II: Ordinary people tell little lies, so they’re well practiced at spotting them. But a big lie requires the kind of audacity that ordinary people lack. Since they can’t conceive of telling such a lie, they assume there must be some truth behind it. As one German leader put it: “It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

Same thing here: Ordinary people understand small-scale cheating, so they’ll get upset if a politician hires an illegal immigrant as a nanny, for example. But if a president spends over $100 million of public funds on golfing at his own properties — more or less just transferring money from the Treasury into his own pocket — it goes right past them. They’ll care if contributions to a Clinton charity might get you an appointment with the Secretary of State, but if $200,000 paid directly to the President gets you membership in a club he visits almost every weekend, and might result in an ambassadorship, or even put you in a position to run a major government agency, it is so bold that people assume it must be OK.

Ditto for the people who contribute to Trump’s campaign: A big chunk of their contribution goes straight into his pocket, because the campaign is run through Trump properties. Since he became the 2016 nominee, Republican Party events have also largely been moved to Trump properties, generating a considerable profit. It’s right out there in the open, so it can’t be corrupt, can it?

He also profits from foreign governments and US companies who want to get in good with him: They are major patrons of the Trump International Hotel and Trump World Tower. The favors they want come from Trump the President, but the payments go to Trump the businessman.

A related issue is corruption throughout the administration. If one cabinet secretary is corrupt, he or she will stand out and be a scandal. But if nearly all of them are, the story is too big for the public to comprehend.

Changing your beliefs is smart. When Trump was breaking into New York society as the son of a new-money upstart, it was a good idea to profess New York ideas. In 1999, for example, he told Meet the Press:

Well, I’m very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I listen to people debate the subject. But, you still, I just believe in choice.

In the past, he also has supported gay rights and even trans rights. Over time, though, all that has vanished as he has harmonized his views with the Evangelical Christians who form a large part of his base.

Picture it: If you had been a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, Bible-ignorant, twice-divorced libertine so comfortable in your debauched image that you can joke in public about incest with your daughter, would it have occurred to you that you could become the darling of the religious right? Could you have pulled that transition off?

That takes a kind of genius most of us can’t even imagine.

What about you? If you are a Trump supporter and look too closely at Trump’s ex-wives, Trump U students, or the pro-choice and LGBTQ people who trusted him, you might have a disturbing thought: At some point in the future, he might be able to gain some advantage from double-crossing you too.

Would he do that? Well, ask yourself this: Wouldn’t that be the smart thing to do?

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments

  • George Washington, Jr.  On June 3, 2019 at 10:43 am

    Few Trump supporters are going to wonder if he will double-cross them in the future. The thinking is that the people who Trump took advantage of in the past, deserved it. Trump’s message is primarily negative – he doesn’t have a positive vision or call on us to do better; instead, he blames “other people” – Muslims, liberals, immigrants, the media, the “deep state,” etc. If you’re not a member of those groups, you have nothing to fear.

    • Guest  On June 3, 2019 at 12:04 pm

      I agree, George, and Trump’s unrelenting self-interest gives them further grounds for staying the course. He’s rich and white nationalist, so he can be counted on to serve related interests indefinitely. For the wealthy Republican elites, Trump does them the considerable favor of energizing the not-wealthy base while undermining regulations and delivering boat loads of tax cuts for those at the top. For the fearful, non-wealthy white base, he provides a beacon for white supremacy/nationalism.

      The big variable then becomes traditional, conservative Christian values. On this count Trump has delivered where it counts the most: judges. That track record apparently covers a multitude of sins. Will Trump eventually betray them on judges like he’s betrayed so many others? It’s possible, but then, with the alternative of a democratic president, more liberal judges isn’t a possibility, it’s a guarantee. Falling back on Trump’s record of conservative judge appointments makes sense at that point.

  • Anonymous  On June 3, 2019 at 4:32 pm

    You’ve nailed it, Doug. And it is grotesque.

    • Deborah  On June 3, 2019 at 4:49 pm

      Sorry, I did not mean to post anonymously.

  • Tom Stites  On June 3, 2019 at 11:48 pm

    To your superb piece about the genius of greed I’d like to offer another dimension: the intuitive genius that guides Trump as he manipulates people. To the rest of us what seems offensive and beyond logic is really a spectacular way of roiling his base, spreading fear and ridicule, casting himself as a victim, stirring paranoia, casting his light at an angle that the rest of us can’t see but that makes us look to the base like hulking villains. This is the genius of a demagogue.

    • Guest  On June 4, 2019 at 9:39 am

      There’s good reason to suspect Doug meant this as something of a tongue-in-cheek piece, but I think your point here, Tom, might be the best answer to the title question.

  • Bill Dysons  On June 4, 2019 at 1:53 pm

    This is a great post that should be widely shared! I can’t tell you how often I have conversations with my liberal friends where I have to remind them over and over again that Trump’s lack of liberal values isn’t evidence of a lack of his intelligence. If Democrats can’t come to grips with the fact that Trump is an incredibly skilled politician and deal with that fact appropriately, then I think he’s going to coast to re-election in 2020. Democrats did the same thing in 2004 – they tried to brand Bush as a stupid buffoon. Conservatives would never make this mistake. They called Obama all sorts of hateful things while he was in office, but I’m pretty sure the majority of conservatives never thought he was stupid.

    • SamuraiArtGuy  On June 4, 2019 at 2:45 pm

      Donald Trump is completely capable of cruising to another term unless the Democrats can stop beating up each other and take Trumps truly weapons grade talent for political manipulation and demagoguery seriously. He’ll eat their frakking lunch and bury then with shiny sparkly bullshit.

      What’s truly terrifying is that much of his base truly believes in his every utterance that he clearly does not believe himself. Another cohort doesn’t give a s**t that he’s full of s**t so long as he “sticks it to the libs,” and it “their guy.” Tragedy is, he’s not, Trump is only for Trump. Always has.

      • Bill Dysons  On June 5, 2019 at 10:18 am

        I disagree that he has fooled anyone in his base. They know what they’re voting for and they’re generally happy with him. I think the idea that Trump’s lies are designed to fool or delude his base into supporting him is another “comfort myth” that liberals buy into that is going to end up screwing them in 2020.

  • SamuraiArtGuy  On June 4, 2019 at 2:35 pm

    I would love David Roberts to take on this topic. He wrote a brilliantly insightful piece for VOX about Trump’s lying and use of language. “The question of what Donald Trump “really believes” has no answer – It is a category error.”
    https://www.vox.com/2016/9/29/13086236/trump-beliefs-category-error

    “Even to call him dishonest, to say he “lies,” doesn’t quite seem to capture it. The whole notion of lying presumes beliefs — to lie is to say something that one believes to be false, to knowingly assert something that does not correspond to the facts.

    “It’s not that Trump is saying things he believes to be false. It’s that he doesn’t seem to have beliefs at all, not in the way people typically talk about beliefs — as mental constructs stable across time and context. Rather, his opinions dissolve and coalesce fluidly, as he’s talking, like oil on shallow water. That’s why he gives every indication of conviction, even when, say, denying that he has said something that is still posted on his Twitter feed.” – David Roberts, Vox.

    NYers have called him a shyster for decades — it’s Yiddish, and it’s not a compliment. But it’s in this same ballpark, in this he could almost be described as an Idiot Savant – having an exceptional talent at manipulation, while being stunningly ignorant, and having the moral compass of a brick.

    • Guest  On June 5, 2019 at 12:50 pm

      It’s not a compliment, Samurai, but with the dual megaphones of Twitter and a rapt news media that has proven its willingness to shower him with disproportionate coverage in primary/election season, it’s an advantage.

      A lot of “Trump is dumb” perspectives ignore this advantage. Heck, even Doug didn’t deal with it directly in this piece. “Dumb” republicans can beat smart (Gore), capable (Kerry), and eminently qualified (Clinton) democrats in presidential elections. “The other guy is so dumb/evil” platform, even if true, apparently hasn’t been enough to tip the elections. Maybe that will change this time around. Judging from his announcement video, it appears Biden is making that bet.

  • frankackerman0617  On June 4, 2019 at 5:17 pm

    Thank Doug. One of the deficiencies in our current system of “news” is that there are not many accessible or indexed repositories of past issues/actions/pronouncements. Your approach here provides a lot of references to Mr. Trump’s past without, for the most part, directly attacking him. Going forward I think it is important that Trump’s opposition try to separate his presidential policies and actions from his personal qualities.

    • mary  On June 4, 2019 at 9:21 pm

      A few thoughts about this very well written piece on trump’s intelligence. First, what intelligence he has he is wasting. The cajuns have a term for someone like trump, it’s called “connais”, a short-cut for the formal French term, “connaitre”, and in the cajun parlance, it means a person who is “sly, clever, with a suggestion of shady intent”. I don’t care whether he’s smart or merely clever, what matters to me is he’s mean, selfish, vindictive, and narcisistic. Doug has drawn a great portrait of his many hypocrises which he doesn’t try to hide but does often refuse to admit. As for me, I cannot separate his policies and actions from his personal qualities, but I do see him clearly.

      • SamuraiArtGuy  On June 5, 2019 at 8:28 am

        As mentioned above, the Yiddish word is “Shyster.” It’s not a compliment.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: