• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

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Donald Trump: Our Dumbest President

Saying you're a smart person usually indicates the opposite.

December 11, 2016
 
 

 

 

In response to criticism that he only attends the daily intelligence briefing weekly (or so), Donald Trump told Chris Wallace, “I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.”

President-elect Trump has a habit of telling people he’s smart, frequently boasting of having gone to the Wharton School, and using the exact same, “I’m like, a smart person” formulation in one of his earliest primary rallies.

This got me thinking about the smart people I’ve known.

The smartest people I’ve known never tell you how smart they are. In fact, it’s the opposite, as they’re more than willing to tell you about the things they’re ignorant of.

The smartest people I’ve known are insatiably curious. Everything is interesting to them and that interest often takes the form of enthusiasm.

The smartest people I’ve known read constantly and widely in order to feed their curiosity. Their intelligence is reflected in their knowledge.

When you remark to smart people that you think they’re smart they wince and deflect and say they know lots of smarter people.

If my criteria for identifying smart people is accurate, then it’s safe to say that Donald J. Trump will be, by far, the dumbest President of the United States in history.

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Here’s how I know a developing student writer who is already good is going to continue to get better: When I tell them their work is indeed good, they make a face like they’ve just experienced some mild pain.

Sometimes I get a little pleasure out of torturing them further, “No, it’s really good,” I say, “you know that.” They squirm while I smile. Maybe the slightest grin tugs at the edges of their mouths. The best writers refuse to admit that what they’ve done might be good, knowing that there is a gap between what they hope for and what they’ve done. (A gap that will never be entirely bridged, by the way.)

I have very few worries about these students going forward. They will be fine, better than fine.

They will be successful, secure, happy people.

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Here’s how I know I wasn’t very smart in college.

In my creative writing courses, relatively speaking, my work was pretty good. Having been raised in a bookstore, I'd absorbed enough from reading to create stories that looked more like fully-realized short fiction than others without that head start.

I took the mild praise from my peers and professors and decided I might as well submit my work to the New Yorker. I didn’t even bother to clean up the typos. I mean, I knew the stories weren’t perfect or anything, but I was also hopeful that the New Yorker editors would recognize and want to nurture my genius.

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Applying to and then attending graduate school was where I learned the importance of humility when it came to my writing. While it is emotionally difficult to realize that you are only so-so relative to other serious people when it comes to this work you believe to be meaningful,[1] the actual journey to personal enlightenment was pretty short, a few days at most.

Interacting with my professors and reading my colleagues’ writing was enough to reveal the depths of my ignorance, the degree to which I'd been self-deluded. It proved beyond humbling, to the point that I considered dropping out after the first year.

But I learned being humbled doesn’t hurt. In fact, it helps.[2]

President-elect Trump seems incapable of experiencing humility. Despite the multiple bankruptcies, the failed businesses, the failed marriages, he seems to maintain an impenetrable self-regard.

I want to him to realize we’re all capable of being dumb and it takes real vigilance to guard against it.

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In my opinion, there are a lot of reasons to worry about the coming Trump Presidency. The fact that evidence has emerged suggesting the Russian government intervened on his behalf to help his electoral chances is a biggie. The conflicts of interest and inevitable self-dealing due to the tangles of his businesses and the government seem insolvable. That he is a moral degenerate who mocks the disabled and brags of sexually assaulting women marks him as unsuitable as the leader of the greatest country in the world.

But my biggest worry is the President-elect’s lack of curiosity and resulting deficit of knowledge.

He is literally too ignorant to know he’s dumb.

I pray we survive him.

 

 

 

[1] One of the reasons I was self-deluding about my writing was because it was the only thing that I was good at that was also important to me. I was not a raging ego monster, or anything. It was more the opposite, as I was deeply insecure about most of my existence, but for a brief time writing appeared to be a route out of that insecurity and I lurched for it. Time has shown that living with some measure of insecurity is healthy, useful even. The trick is not to let it rule.

[2] It is possible to over learn this lesson and talk yourself out of trying something out of the fear that it won’t be “good.” I fall prey to this problem often.

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