Trump may be dumb, but he’s a talented con man By Robert Reich.
January 8, 2018 Updated: January 12, 2018 2:57pm
For more than a year now, I’ve been hearing from people in the inner circles of official Washington — GOP lobbyists, Republican pundits, even a few Republican members of Congress — that Donald Trump is remarkably stupid. I figured they couldn’t be right because really stupid people don’t become presidents of the United States. Even George W. Bush was smart enough to hire smart people to run his campaign and then his White House.
Several months back, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron,” I discounted it. I know firsthand how frustrating it can be to serve in a president’s Cabinet, and I’ve heard members of other presidents’ Cabinets describe their bosses in similar terms. Now comes “Fire and Fury,” a book by journalist Michael Wolff, who interviewed more than 200 people who dealt with Trump as a candidate and president, including senior White House staff members.
In it, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster calls Trump a “dope.” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus both refer to Trump as an “idiot.” Rupert Murdoch says Trump is another kind of an “idiot.” Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, describes Trump as “dumb,” explaining that, “Trump won’t read anything — not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers, nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.” When one of Trump’s campaign aides tried to educate him about the Constitution, Trump couldn’t focus. “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment,” the aide recalled, “before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.”
Trump doesn’t think he’s stupid. “Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart,” he tweeted last weekend. In October, he said, “I went to an Ivy League college. ... I did very well. I’m a very intelligent person.” Trump wasn’t exactly an academic star. One of his professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School purportedly said that he was “the dumbest goddamn student I ever had.” Trump biographer Gwenda Blair wrote in 2001 that Trump was admitted to Wharton on a special favor from a “friendly” admissions officer who had known Trump’s older brother.
But hold on. It would be dangerous to underestimate this man. Even if Trump doesn’t read, can’t follow a logical argument and has the attention span of a fruit fly, it still doesn’t follow that he’s stupid. There’s another form of intelligence: “emotional intelligence.” Emotional intelligence is a concept developed by two psychologists, John Mayer of the University of New Hampshire and Yale’s Peter Salovey, and it was popularized by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book of the same name.
Mayer and Salovey define emotional intelligence as the ability to do two things — “understand and manage our own emotions,” and “recognize and influence the emotions of others.” Granted, Trump hasn’t displayed much capacity for the first. He’s thin-skinned, narcissistic and vindictive. As dozens of Republican foreign policy experts put it, “He is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood. He does not encourage conflicting views. He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate criticism.”
OK, but what about Mayer and Salovey’s second aspect of emotional intelligence — influencing the emotions of others? This is where Trump shines. He knows how to manipulate people. He has an uncanny ability to discover their emotional vulnerabilities — their fears, anxieties, prejudices and darkest desires — and use them for his own purposes. To put it another way, Trump is an extraordinarily talented con man.
He’s always been a con man. He conned hundreds of young people and their parents into paying to attend his near-worthless Trump University. He conned banks into lending him more money even after he repeatedly failed to pay them. He conned contractors to work for him and then stiffed them. Granted, he hasn’t always been a great con man. Had he been, his cons would have paid off.
By his own account, in 1976, when Trump was starting his career, he was worth about $200 million, much of it from his father. He said recently that he’s worth some $8 billion. If he’d just put the original $200 million into an index fund and reinvested the dividends, he’d be worth $12 billion today.
But he’s been a great political con man. He conned nearly 63 million Americans into voting for him in November 2016 by getting them to believe his lies about Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and all the “wonderful,” “beautiful” things he’d do for the people who supported him. And he’s still conning many of them. Political conning is Trump’s genius. This genius — combined with his utter stupidity in seemingly every other dimension of his being — poses a clear and present danger to America and the world.
The 25th Amendment must be invoked before it’s too late.
© 2018 Robert Reich Robert Reich, a former U.S. secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. He blogs daily at www.facebook.com/rbreich. To comment, submit your letter to the editor at SFChronicle.com/letters.