The Underappreciated Genius of Donald Trump

This piece appeared in newspapers in early December, 2023.


What an extraordinary human being Donald Trump is!

I say that as one who has delved deeply into lives.

(Such as reading many biographies of Lincoln, FDR, and Churchill in 2011-12, when I was running for Congress and yearning for images of the Good being powerful in this world’s struggle for power. And when – for my book subtitled “Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War” — I made a deep study into some human monsters like Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler.)

And I say it as one with some professional background in clinical psychology.

One way that Trump is extraordinary is the character of his intelligence. I’ve never seen anybody remotely like Trump in how starkly he demonstrates both weakness and strength on the spectrum that runs from stupidity to genius.
On the one hand, we’ve never heard the people who have worked with an American President denigrate the intelligence of the man they served. His Secretary of State famously was overheard calling trump an “F-ing Moron,” and over the years we’ve heard much the same from his Secretary of Defense, his Chief of Staff, and eventually even the Attorney General.

But then there’s the genius.

While it is legitimate to call attention – as people on the left tend to do — to all the dangerous ways that Trump’s ignorance and only tenuous grasp of reality made him ineffective in office– it really behooves us to recognize that Trump also has accomplished amazing things no one else ever has.

A lot of people would like to be President of the United States. Trump won that prize — jumping into the political arena, promptly taking hold of a big portion of the Republican base, and parlaying that relationship into that coveted Presidency.

How can that accomplishment be anything else but a demonstration of some kind of genius?

A lot of people crave attention. But it’s doubtful that anyone in the history of the world has been the focus of so much attention, continually over a considerable stretch of time, as Donald Trump.

(Here we are, several years into the Biden Presidency and the actual President is getting only a fraction of the attention that former President Trump is getting. The nation simply cannot look away.)

Doesn’t this ability to get the spotlight to stay on him demonstrate a genius?

Presidents always work to keep their party in Congress advancing the President’s goals, but I know of no President who exercised the degree of control that Trump has, getting Republican Senators to acquit a President more impeachable than Americans could previously have imagined.

Like no President before him, Trump showed genius in getting the Republicans to subordinate themselves, despite – as it was widely reported – their privately expressing their contempt for him.

That power derived from another extraordinary accomplishment of Trump’s: the relationship – without precedent in American history –with a large segment of the American electorate Trump was able to develop. Weaponizing that relationship with his supporters, Trump could credibly threaten to end the career of any Republican office-holder who went against him.

He could create a party almost wholly in his own image, unlike anything any other President had done.
Early on, Trump somehow recognized that he could say or do anything without losing the loyalty of his followers. (Like “shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose any voters.”) He could even maintain the support of tens of millions of voters after trying to overturn the election he lost, by lying about his electoral defeat and inciting an Insurrection.

As with many works of genius, how Trump has pulled off this off mystifies me. While I can see the effects, I don’t understand just how got so many people to give him that kind of power.

But even if I don’t understand the nature of his genius, I expect that understanding it would be useful for Americans wishing to protect the nation not just from Trump but also from the kind of Force that Trump represents.

For Trump’s extraordinary achievements are clearly tied in with the larger dynamics of our times. Trump has always been a symptom as well as a promoter of something that was rising in the Republican world for years before Trump stepped out onto the public stage. The base he hijacked from the Republican establishment seems to have been ripe for the picking, having been shaped for decades by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Roger Ailes (at Fox), and Karl Rove. (All of them having some touch of genius, themselves.)

Millions of Americans were already primed for the kind of politics that Trump offered: ready to throw themselves into conflict and division, ready to believe false images of reality, and ready to be driven by hatreds, resentments, and a feeling of victimization.

But that takes nothing away from Trump’s accomplishing, right in front of our eyes. Accomplishments I’d never have believed possible: despite everything that’s obviously wrong with him — a dishonest, self-serving, greedy, cruel, determinedly transgressive, bully, all displayed right out in the open, in a democratic society with a free press — Donald Trump has made himself one of the most impactful people in the history of the world.

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