the national interest

The Oddly Snobbish Anti-Intellectualism of Donald Trump

One of the smartest people anywhere in the world. Photo: Ty Wright/Getty Images

“Folks, we’re run by people that are not smart people, or to put it a different way, we are run by stupid people. Stupid people,” said Donald Trump Monday. Smart versus stupid, along with weak versus strong, is the barometer Trump uses to gauge men’s worth. (Women are usually either beautiful or ugly.) Last summer, when he was briefly tussling with Rick Perry, Trump dismissed the Texas governor as dumb (“He put on glasses so people think he’s smart. People can see through the glasses.”), and later said Perry should have to take an IQ test before being allowed to debate.

One of the more peculiar aspects of Trump’s campaign is his relationship to intelligence. In most ways, he is manifestly anti-intellectual. He is grossly simplistic, both in the concepts he tries to communicate and in the syntax with which he expresses them. He redirects every question from abstract knowledge to personal authenticity: Trump will solve it because Trump is the greatest; Trump’s critics are wrong because they’re disgusting; you should trust Trump’s allies because they have the approval of Trump himself.

Trump displays another classic element of anti-intellectual politics, which is the flattering of his supporters. Unlike those snobs who hate us, we have true smarts, not the kind you learn from books or at fancy schools. “I’m not one of those who maybe came from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents give them a passport and give them a backpack and say go off and travel the world,” Sarah Palin told Katie Couric in 2008. “No, I’ve worked all my life.” It’s no surprise that Trump’s style resonated with Palin. “The elites are shocked by Trump’s dominance, but everyday Americans aren’t,” Palin exclaimed last summer. “Everywhere I’ve gone this summer, including motorsport events in Detroit full of fed-up Joe Six-Pack Americans, the folks I meet commiserate about wussified slates of politicians, but then unsolicited, they whisper their appreciation for Trump because he has the guts to say it like it is.”

Elements of this explicit kind of anti-intellectualism do pop up in Trump’s rhetoric from time to time. “I love the poorly educated. We’re the smartest people, we’re the most loyal people,” he said earlier this year.

But when Trump describes himself, he retreats to the opposite method. Trump is not smart because he is poorly educated; he is smart because he benefited from the most elite education in the world. “I went to the Wharton School of Finance,” he said multiple times in one speech last summer. “I’m, like, a really smart person.” And again this week, he said, “I went to an Ivy League school. Our leaders are stupid people.” Populists like Trump usually take for granted the fact that government officials attended Ivy League schools and use this as evidence of their stupidity. Trump holds up Ivy League education as a credential, leaving open the question of why the many Ivy-educated officials in government are not also smart.

Trump has even boasted repeatedly about the educational achievements of his uncle, which he sees as evidence that he is a member of a genetic intellectual elite. “I had an uncle went to MIT who is a top professor. Dr. John Trump. A genius,” Trump said in an interview with CNN. “It’s in my blood. I’m smart. Great marks. Like really smart.”

In another speech last summer, Trump combined both boasts in a flight of credentialism so obnoxious it would have come off as tacky at a Harvard faculty party 50 years ago: How can it be that an elite education is both proof of intelligence for Trump while the opposite standard applies to his followers? One obvious answer is that it follows the same logic as everything else in Trump’s world. The only basis for knowledge is whatever Trump says at any given time, and one can and must hold mutually exclusive beliefs in the service of this overriding principle.

[M]y uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, 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, okay, 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 there are moments when Trump clearly shows an awareness of the contradiction. In August, he launched one of his riffs on unemployment, repeating his oft-stated belief that official labor statistics have been faked by the Obama administration, and then noted that many of his supporters are unemployed. This observation caused Trump to pivot immediately to a defensive boast of their intelligence. This is a riff that explains a great deal about how Trump sees his relationship with his supporters:

“And there are plenty of [unemployed people] in here. We have great people. We have loyal people.”

“We have the smartest people. So many of my people, they’re so smart. They like to say, ‘Well Trump, I don’t know if he’s got the smarts.’ Let me tell you: we have the smartest people,” Trump said at a rally in Wilmington.

“We have the people that are the smartest, and the strongest, and the best, and the hardest working.”

“We have the smartest people.”

“We’ll put IQs among some of us – you can’t say all of us, right? – against any IQs that we have to deal with.”

Trump’s real belief, as opposed to what he tells his marks, is that rich people are winners and poor people are losers. If you are unemployed or otherwise unsuccessful, you are a loser. A loser is the worst category of all in Trump’s hierarchy, the sum of dumb and weak. Once he broached the notion that many of his followers are unemployed, he wandered perilously close to calling them losers.

But instead he praised them as “loyal,” and from loyal he moved quickly to smart, using repetition rather than detail to reinforce his insistence that his loyal followers are also the very smartest people. It is as if Trump cannot help but assert his dominance. His supporters are imbued with intelligence secondarily, as an outgrowth of their allegiance to him. The Trump campaign is a pitch somewhat like Trump University — by giving him your vote, or your money, a tiny piece of his brilliance will accrue to you, and you will no longer be a sad loser, but you can never be Donald Trump.

The Oddly Snobbish Anti-Intellectualism of Donald Trump