By Paul Waldman
After the 2017 we had, it seems completely appropriate that as 2018 begins, we're arguing about whether Donald Trump is an idiot or a genius.
Or perhaps "arguing" is the wrong word. It isn't like there's some kind of grand debate afoot, in which the two parties articulate opposing views, marshall evidence, and work to convince the public that their side is correct. You'd have a hard time finding a Republican not in Trump's direct employ who would say with a straight face that the president is an intelligent man, and with the release of Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, in which Wolff describes how the White House staff has to work to accommodate the fact that their boss is a simpleton, the president's insecurities have come bursting out yet again. Nobody's going to call him stupid without him hitting back!
And so he has, announcing on Twitter that "Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart." Why he would write that he's "like, really smart" and not just "really smart" remains a mystery, but he went on to say that he's "a very stable genius," instantly creating a line that will turn up in a thousand comedy routines. Then he sent eager lickspittle Stephen Miller to CNN to testify that Trump is in fact a "genius," while Wolff is "a garbage author of a garbage book."
Naturally, Miller's interview was immediately the subject of intense mockery, as everyone went back to marveling at the fact that the president of the United States is an obvious halfwit. We don't need to argue about whether it's true, because we see it every day.
And we have been seeing it, let's remind ourselves, at least since Trump began his run for president. Not only was he the most uninformed candidate in memory, he had no evident interest in learning about any substantive issue—yet proclaimed himself to know more about everything than anyone.
Of all Trump's boasts, the ones about his intelligence have always been the weirdest, because no one talks that way. There are boastful people who might brag about being rich or having achieved professional successes, but no one—especially not an actual smart person—goes around telling everyone how smart they are. You probably know some smart people in your own life, so ask yourself: Have you ever heard any of them say, "I'm really smart"? Of course you haven't.
Yet during the campaign, this was a topic Trump returned to frequently, despite the fact that it was often when proclaiming his intelligence that he sounded the dumbest. Like this legendary stream-of-consciousness soliloquy from July 2016:
Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart—you know, if you're a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it's true! — but when you're a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that's why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we're a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me ...
This actually follows a format he used frequently: Bring up that he went to the Wharton School (which from his description you'd think admitted only one student in a generation), say that if he were a Democrat everyone would say he's one of the world's great minds, then perhaps throw in the fact that his uncle was an MIT professor. Or as he once put it, "I went to an Ivy League school. I'm very highly educated. I know words—I have the best words. I have the—but there's no better word than stupid. Right? There is none." So true, so true.
Of course, intelligence is complex, and no guarantee of success in the Oval Office. Jimmy Carter is an extremely smart man whose presidency was hobbled by his inability to focus on what mattered, while nobody ever denied Richard Nixon's brainpower. Oliver Wendell Holmes supposedly said that Franklin Roosevelt possessed a "second-class intellect but a first-class temperament."
So if you were building a politician's mind from scratch you'd want him to have the intellect to understand complex policy issues but the judgment to make good decisions with limited information; the social intelligence to connect with a variety of different kinds of people; the wisdom to grasp potential futures from an understanding of the past; and the verbal dexterity necessary to speak eloquently off the cuff, to name just a few of the ways he might be considered smart. Few presidents have them all, yet our current president seems to have none of them.
And as James Fallows points out, one of the hallmarks of actual genius is a kind of intellectual modesty that comes from grasping how much there is to know. "The more acute someone's ability to perceive and assess, the more likely that person is to recognize his or her limits," Fallows writes.
President Trump recognizes no limits on himself, or at least that's what he says in public. Yet only someone with a deep insecurity about the quality of his mind would spend so much time insisting that he's "like, really smart." That insistence speaks of fear and pain, which can only be exacerbated by the fact that his own aides are so frequently quoted in the press (often anonymously, sometimes not) saying that their boss is a blithering fool.
The dramatic accounts in Michael Wolff's book—particularly the comments of Steve Bannon—brought it an unusual amount of press attention, every bit of which seemed to make the president angrier. It only reinforced what we've heard from many White House reporters, about the chaos of this White House and the president's erratic behavior and cognitive limitations. We've only begun to hear about those topics, not only because there hasn't yet been a true insider tell-all from a former Trump aide, but also because things are likely to get worse. Trump is not growing or changing, and the pressures of the presidency have only exacerbated his copious character flaws.
As a 71-year-old man who never exercises and subsists largely on junk food, the potential for Trump to experience a cognitive decline in the next few years is real. If you thought 2017 was crazy, just wait for 2018, 2019, and 2020.