PERSPECTIVE--Long before he started running for president, Donald Trump repeatedly claimed that he’s both brainy and well-educated. It is one of his most persistent lies.
He did it again on Saturday. In a series of tweets, Trump told the world not only how smart but also how mentally fit he is.
“Throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart,” Trump wrote,
Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star ... to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius ... and a very stable genius at that!
Later in the day he told reporters that “I went to the best colleges, or college,” that he was a “very excellent student” and became “one of the top business people.”
Trump has frequently insisted that he’s smart. But now he’s also defending his mental stability, in response to growing public concerns that his mood swings and impulsiveness reflect psychological impairment.
Since Trump has become increasingly panicked and unhinged over his fears that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into his ties with Russia and his business dealings could end in humiliating impeachment and/or indictment, it may be that Trump’s only way to avoid prison will be to plead mental incompetence.
In the past, Trump’s insistence about his intelligence (he’s called himself a “genius” on more than one occasion) was aimed at his political opponents and the news media, who, he believed, unfairly raised doubts about his mental acuity. In Trump’s view, they were liberal critics who would do anything to discredit him.
But Saturday’s Twitter tantrum was sparked by Michael Wolff’s damaging book Fire and Fury, who reported that “100 percent” of Trump’s closest White House aides question his intelligence and fitness for office. According to Wolff, both Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus derided Trump as an “idiot,” chief economic advisor Gary Cohn said that Trump was “dumb as shit,” and national security advisor H.R. McMaster considered Trump a “dope.” This comes on top of previous reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “moron.”
Wolff’s book paints a picture of a president who is way over his head, poorly informed about public policy, indifferent to the workings of government, values loyalty over expertise within his inner circle, and is unable to think strategically. Like other reports about Trump’s behavior, the book portrays a president who is thin-skinned, addicted to flattery, a megalomaniac, demagogic, impulsive, vindictive, a narcissist, and lacks empathy or a social conscience.
Under the 25th Amendment, the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet could remove Trump from office if they determine that he is “unable to discharge the power and duties of his office,” but few political observers think that they would do so.
Even so, two recent books—Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump, by Allen Frances, former psychiatry department chairman at Duke University School of Medicine, and The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, edited by Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine—have heightened public debate about the president’s mental well-being. Last month, a dozen members of the House and Senate met with Dr. Lee on Capitol Hill to discuss Trump's psychological fitness to be president.
Trump is clearly insecure about his mental abilities. Whenever he has defended his intelligence, it isn’t clear if he’s trying to convince his interviewers or himself.
- In a 2004 interview with CNN, Trump said, “I went to the Wharton School of Finance. I got very good marks. I was a good student. It’s the best business school in the world, as far as I’m concerned,” referring to the University of Pennsylvania’s business school. Most people who mention Wharton refer to its prestigious MBA program, but Trump was in the undergraduate program, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1968.
- “My I.Q. is one of the highest,” Trump tweeted in 2013.
- The next month, in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Trump claimed: “Look, if I were a liberal Democrat, people would say I’m the super genius of all time. The super genius of all time.”
- During a CNN-sponsored Republican town hall in Columbia, South Carolina, in February 2016, Trump reminded the audience that he had gone to Wharton and repeated the same boast: “Look, I went to the best school, I was a good student and all of this stuff. I mean, I’m a smart person.”
Even since he won the White House, Trump still can’t help telling people about his mental muscles.
Even since he won the White House, Trump still can’t help telling people about his mental muscles. In December 2016, a month after the election, Trump explained why he intended to be the first president since Harry Truman to avoid getting daily updates from intelligence professionals about national security threats. “I’m, like, a smart person,” he told Chris Wallace of Fox News.
A few days after his inauguration, during a visit to CIA headquarters, Trump felt the need to tell the nation’s top spies, “Trust me. I’m like a smart person.” In October, during an impromptu press conference on the South Lawn of the White House, Trump again boasted about his intellectual credentials. It came in response to a reporter who asked Trump if he should be more civil. “Well, I think the press makes me more uncivil than I am,” the president said, and then quickly switched the topic from his manners to his mind. “You know, people don’t understand, I went to an Ivy League college. I was a nice student. I did very well. I’m a very intelligent person.”
Anyone who feels compelled to boast how smart he is clearly suffers from a profound insecurity about his intelligence and accomplishments. In Trump’s case, he has good reason to have doubts. Trump has the kind of street smarts (what he’s called “gut instinct”) characteristic of con artists and hucksters, but his limited vocabulary, short attention span, ignorance of policy specifics, indifference to scientific evidence, and admitted aversion to reading raise questions about his intellectual abilities—his capacity to absorb and analyze information and ideas.
Many observers have noted that Trump has a difficult time expressing himself and speaking in complete sentences. A linguistic analysis by Politico found that Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level. A study by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University compared the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in terms of their vocabulary and grammar. Trump scored at a fifth-grade level, the lowest of all the candidates.
Tony Schwartz, who spent a great deal of time with Trump while ghostwriting his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, noted that Trump has a very limited vocabulary. Such observations infuriate the vain and insecure Trump.
Trump persistently insults anyone who disagrees with him. Trump has constantly denigrated his opponents and detractors as “losers,” among them actresses Rosie O’Donnell, Cher, and Meryl Streep, civil rights icon John Lewis, businessman Mark Cuban, GOP political operatives Karl Rove and Ana Navarro, NBC’s Chuck Todd, Jeb Bush, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and conservative columnist George Will. He did it again in his Saturday morning tweet, calling Fire and Fury author Michael Wolff a “total loser.”
It turns out that “loser” is one of Trump’s favorite words. An archive of Trump’s Twitter account reveals that between 2009 and his January 2017 inauguration he used the word “loser” 234 times. His other favorite insults included “dumb” or “dummy” (222 tweets), “terrible” (202), “stupid” (182), “weak” (154) and “dope” (115).
Trump sometimes uses other words to convey the same thought (he called Tennessee Senator Bob Corker a “lightweight”), but his insults all seek to demean his critics in order to boost his own ego. Whether he’s attacking Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, San Juan’s Democratic Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, or former political advisor Steve Bannon, Trump views the world in zero-sum terms, as if there were a finite number of IQ points.
Trump surely knows he didn’t get into Wharton on his own merits.
Trump surely knows he didn’t get into Wharton on his own merits. He transferred into the University of Pennsylvania’s undergraduate program after spending two years at Fordham University in New York.
"No one I know of has said ‘I remember Donald Trump,’" Paul F. Gerken, a 1968 Fordham graduate and president of the Fordham College Alumni Association, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Whatever he did at Fordham, he didn’t leave footprints." According to Gwenda Blair’s 2001 biography, The Trumps, Trump’s grades at Fordham were not good enough to qualify him to transfer to Wharton. Blair wrote that Trump got into Wharton as a special favor from a “friendly” admissions officer who knew Trump’s older brother, Freddy. The college’s admissions staff surely knew that Trump’s father was a wealthy real estate developer and a potential donor.
Moreover, Trump has for years exaggerated his academic accomplishments at Penn. On at least two occasions in the 1970s, The New York Times reported that Trump “graduated first in his class” at Wharton in 1968. That’s not true. He didn’t even make the dean’s list, as the Daily Pennsylvanian, the campus newspaper, reported.
Trump has refused to release his grade transcripts from his college days. The fabrication that Trump was first in his class has been repeated in many other articles as well as books about Trump, but he has never bothered to correct it.
“He was not in any kind of leadership. I certainly doubt he was the smartest guy in the class,” Steve Perelman, a classmate of Trump’s at Wharton, told the Daily Pennsylvanian in 2015.To the contrary, the late professor William T. Kelley, who taught marketing at the Wharton School for 31 years, said that “Donald Trump was the dumbest goddam student I ever had.”
Trump’s insecurity about his intelligence and academic accomplishments is also revealed in his efforts to portray himself as an up-by-the-bootstraps self-made entrepreneur. Of course, upon graduating from college, Trump didn’t have to apply for jobs or go through interviews with potential employers who would judge him on his merits. Instead, his father Fred Trump handed young Donald the keys to his real estate empire.
“It has not been easy for me,” Trump said at a town hall meeting on October 26, 2015, acknowledging, “My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars.” An investigation by The Washington Post in March 2016 demolished Trump’s claim that he made it on his own. Not only did Trump’s multi-millionaire father provide Donald with a huge inheritance, and set up big-bucks trust accounts to provide his son with a steady income, Fred was also a silent partner in Trump’s first real estate projects.
According to the Post: “Trump’s father—whose name had been besmirched in New York real-estate circles after investigations into windfall profits and other abuses in his real estate projects—was an essential silent partner in Trump’s initiative. In effect, the son was the front man, relying on his father’s connections and wealth, while his father stood silently in the background to avoid drawing attention to himself.”
Trump’s career is littered with bogus businesses (like Trump University); repeated rip-offs of suppliers, contractors and employees whom he failed to pay for services rendered; and the misuse of the Trump Foundation to feather his own nest while trying to look like a philanthropist. Six of Trump’s businesses have gone bankrupt. Despite this, in 2015 Trump tweeted: “For all of the haters and losers out there sorry, I never went Bankrupt.”
Embarrassed by his lackluster academic record, his dependence on his family’s connections and wealth to get into college and to succeed in business, and his troublesome and abusive business practices, Trump lashes out at anyone who challenges him, no matter how insignificant the matter.
In Fire and Fury, Wolff reports that Trump’s staff treats him like a child who needs “immediate gratification.” Trump’s White House aides told Wolff, “It's all about him. ... This man does not read, does not listen. He's like a pinball just shooting off the sides.”
Although Trump has the self-awareness of an adolescent, it is obvious to many others that his compulsion to constantly boast “I’m smart” and to deride others as “losers” is rooted in his profound sense of self-doubt.
Presidents don’t have to be geniuses. But a successful president must recognize his own limitations and be willing to rely on others’ expertise. He has to take constant criticism—from the media, political opponents, and his own advisers—without taking it too personally. Surrounding oneself with yes-men and -women who are afraid to tell the president he’s wrong is a recipe for disaster. Most important, an effective president needs good judgment—to be able to hear different viewpoints, weigh evidence, think several steps in advance rather than act impulsively, and be calm under intense pressure. Trump fails each of these tests.
Beneath Trump’s public bravado is a deeply insecure, troubled man who is unfit to be president. This makes him a danger to the country and the world.
(Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. He is an occasional contributor to CityWatch. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, Common Dreams, The Nation, and Huffington Post.)