Why do we get so Trumped on the difference between stupidity and genius?

How intelligent is Donald Trump?

For the last year, Donald Trump’s intelligence and cognitive abilities have been consistently assessed from partisan perspectives.  He’s seen either as being highly intelligent, a genius or as an idiot.

Trump is a topical focus and what is more interesting that the two terms are not mutually exclusive.   Why is the difference in meaning even in debate?  What is so confusing? How could two such contrariety definitions be so confusing to disambiguate?

Usually we understand intelligence as being a sliding scale, a numerical IQ

scale of intelligence

Listening to political pundits, left or right, and you start to get the idea that intelligence is understood less as a horizontal scale and more consistently through the metaphor of a  clock-face.

Moving anticlockwise, at the 6 o’clock you’re about average and at 3 o’clock you’re a genius – between 3 and 12 it appears that genius and stupidity increasingly becomes interchangeable and hard to differentiate.

clockface of intelligence

This is evident in the way that people experience Donald Trump.

People who have had direct contact with Trump talk about him from across this spectrum.  There are many that have lampooned his IQ, famously Rex Tillerson did not repudiate that he called Trump a “f-ing moron”.   More recently Chief of Staff John Kelly allegedly has called him an ‘idiot’ as well.  Staff meetings at the White House seem to create these descriptors with some consistency.

John Kelly & Trump

Others, like the icarian Anthony Scaramucci believed he is playing four-dimensional chess.  With the implication that Trump’s thinking so deeply than the rest of us that we can’t perceive his moves. Trump in modest self-assessment stated,

“[I] would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!”

 Trump & 4D Chess

What is the objective evidence?

Like many people, Trump didn’t appear to shine earlier on in life: “Trump’s classmates doubt that the real estate mogul was an academic powerhouse.”   There are anecdotal accounts of his late marketing professor, William T Kelly, saying ‘“Donald Trump was the dumbest goddam student I ever had”, which can’t be directly substantiated.  However, is it really fair to judge people on their early academic performance alone?

The pragmatic reality today was voiced by Chuck Todd questioning Trump’s braggadocio or perhaps insecurity

‘ “Why do you have to tell us all the time that you went to Wharton? People know you’re successful.”

The smoke here is that it is normal to inflate or compensate where we feel we need to explain ourselves or feel we are falling short.

Other observations of Trump’s intelligence have also been coloured by changing linguistic style as he has aged from being sophisticated to more simplistic.  Again, this has been explained as political genius to connect to the rustbelt.  Also, countering this is more recent assessment that his first cognitive test was  ‘aced’ but not agreed on as conclusive by other leading cognitive specialists.

It’s fascinating that he’s capable of being perceived as either a genius or an idiot within the wider community.

Perhaps the answer is more human.  Focusing on why smart people can do stupid things, the psychologists Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer have observed

‘Thinking is hard work and asking tough questions can make you unpopular. So, it’s no wonder that even clever people don’t always use their brain “.

They also observe that having a high IQ score does not mean that someone is intelligent as this doesn’t account for creative and practical intelligence.

“Creative intelligence is our ability to deal with novel situations. Practical intelligence is our ability to get things done. For the first 20 years of life, people are rewarded for their analytical intelligence. Then we wonder why the “best and brightest” are uncreative and practically useless.”

Maybe Donald Trump’s strengths and weakness can be better understood through distinct types of intelligence or just that smart thinking all the time is challenging work.

It is clear that our culture is obsessed with one metric of intelligence.  Leaving a lot of people believing that you can rise to the highest station in the land without being intelligent.

The final insight should go to an acknowledged genius.

The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”
Albert Einstein

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