Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump administration has forced the president and his supporters to address the president’s mental fitness, or lack thereof. On Saturday, Trump labeled himself a “very stable genius.” On Sunday, he tweeted out quotes from a column defending his presidency, but awkwardly mistranscribed the key word “consequential” as “consensual” — not only the wrong word, but a fairly awkward one for a known genital-grabber to use — and then, urging his audience to “Please read entire column,” mistakenly typed in the author’s email address rather than the hyperlink for the column.
Anyway! You were saying — very stable genius.
Faced with the accusation that he is a half-wit, the president and his defenders have formed two rebuttals. The first is that the mere fact Trump won the presidency and has approved conservative policies proves his wisdom. “Actually, he is smart enough to beat 16 other Republicans, who is smart enough to beat Hillary Clinton, who is smart enough to help Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan pass the largest tax cut in modern times,” argues Newt Gingrich. “This guy is the only guy that’s gotten anything done in, I don’t know how many years you want to count,” insists Rush Limbaugh, “so who’s smart, who is that moronic, who’s dangerous, who poses threats, who’s worth it, and who’s worthless?” Victor Davis Hanson argues, “Economic robustness seems predicated on massive deregulation, the expectation and then the reality of comprehensive tax reform and reduction, wooing home capital and industry, expanded energy production, loud business boosterism, recalibrating foreign investment and trade, and declining illegal immigration. Did Trump do that between scarfing down cups of Häagen-Dazs?”
The second defense holds that the questioning of Trump’s mental capacity is no more than liberal snobbery. “I still remember what the intellectuals of the late 1970s and the ’80s frequently said about my old boss, Ronald Reagan. Remember, he was unintelligent,” recalls Laura Ingraham. “He slept in the afternoons. He went to a second-rate college, just an actor, shallow.” Reagan “had the same problem and handled it well,” Trump tweets.
Both defenses have something in common. Rather than segregate questions about Trump’s brain away from the broader partisan debate, they dissolve the former into the latter. They believe that Trump’s being called dumb by the intellectual elite is intimately connected to his political identity. This belief is largely correct. As it has moved farther and farther right, the Republican Party has grown increasingly anti-intellectual. Trump’s base adores him, not despite his obvious mental limitations, but because of them.
Two caveats are in order. First, many intelligent people have conservative values, and rationally support the Republican Party. Second, while Trump’s lack of mental aptitude may be similar to that of previous Republican leaders in kind, it is very different in degree. That said, Trump’s flamboyant ignorance and disdain for intellectual standards are very much in keeping with modern conservative politics.
The belief that the government should base its policy on neutral expertise dates back to the Progressive Era. The conservative movement has always recoiled at this model. Conservatives believed that elected officials ought to draw their guidance from the timeless limited-government values of the Constitution, which had been forgotten by the technocratic elites, but lived on in the simple values of ordinary people. A 1951 editorial in The Freeman, a conservative magazine, stated, “The truly appalling phenomenon is the irrationality of the college-educated mob that has descended upon Joseph R. McCarthy.” Ronald Reagan’s immortal “A Time for Choosing” speech declared the issue of the 1964 election to be “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
College-educated voters used to be a loyal Republican constituency. But the conservative movement used to be a dissenting faction within, and sometimes outside, the Republican Party. As the GOP has grown more conservative, it has simultaneously grown more anti-intellectual. It has been a jagged downward path from Reagan to Trump.
Trump and his allies are correct that Reagan’s critics accused him of senility in office. That is because Reagan had almost certainly undergone significant mental decline by his second term. Lou Cannon’s biography describes President Reagan frequently misidentifying members of his own Cabinet, describing movie scenes as though they were real, changing his schedule in order to follow the advice of an astrologer, and bringing up a science-fiction movie, in which aliens cause the Soviets and Americans to come together, with such frequency that Colin Powell would joke to his staffers, “Here come the little green men again.” As Cannon concluded, “The sad, shared secret of the Reagan White House was that no one in the presidential entourage had confidence in the judgment or the capacities of the president.”
Reagan succeeded because his staff insulated him from his own limitations — much to the chagrin of movement conservatives, whose slogan, “Let Reagan be Reagan,” reflected their not-wrong understanding that the largely moderate White House staff was softening the president’s hard ideological edges. The cult of Reagan that developed on the right transformed a historical accident into a governing ideal. Everything Reagan did was retrospectively perfect, and every subsequent Republican presidential contender has labored to cast himself as Reagan’s heir.
Since Reagan’s time, conservatives have not only reflexively dismissed questions about the intelligence of any leader who seemed wanting, but presented these traits as encouraging evidence of Reaganesque qualities. Reagan’s immediate successor, George H.W. Bush, was a highly qualified and experienced public servant who, not coincidentally, failed to win the trust and affection of his party’s base. His son, George W., cast himself as the heir to Reagan rather than to his own father. In 1999, Bush offered up, as an example of something he does not like to do, “sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something.” Bush eventually grew to take his job more seriously, but his trust in his gut instinct over analysis never left him.
The vice-presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin represents an important marker in the evolution of the Republican Party. A candidate who plainly lacked familiarity with national-level public policy was nonetheless not only defended by conservatives, but embraced with a fervor that exceeded the grudging enthusiasm of the candidate who selected her. That liberals abhorred her as a rube merely served to confirm her authentic membership in the conservative tribe. “This is not the first time that I’ve seen a governor being questioned by some, quote, ‘expert,’” insisted John McCain in her defense. “I remember that Ronald Reagan was a cowboy.”
Donald Trump was able to vanquish his rivals and capture the Republican nomination for many reasons, but one of them was his ability to win a race to the mental bottom. He dominated the many televised debates with crude bullying. No candidate before Trump had made such a mockery of the very idea of having facts to support his position; he would simply dismiss his adversaries as short, ugly, nerdy, or female. His inability to grasp complexity has forced Trump to fixate relentlessly on a simple themes, like the wall and the lack of gratitude displayed by minorities, that resonate with his supporters. Trump is the apotheosis of the anti-intellectual style, the perfect spokesman for the conservative agenda.
Trump’s allies have tried to swat away questions of his mental fitness by casting him as a populist who speaks the plain language of regular people. “When President Trump refuses to speak in stale political platitudes, his critics think he is missing something. But the truth is, President Trump speaks to the country in an authentic and genuine way that Americans understand and appreciate,” says Ronald Lauder, voice of the people and heir to the Estée Lauder fortune.
Trump himself does not play the pseudo-populist game. He brags incessantly about his brains and his academic pedigree, from his Ivy League status to his brainy uncle. Being seen as a regular Joe is his worst nightmare. He wishes to be seen as a brilliant mind. Yet Trump owes his success to his inability to carry it off.