25 February 2017

The Price of a Simplistic View of Intelligence - A Trumpian Tragedy

We like the simple notion of a person being either smart or stupid. It's tempting to say, "She's intelligent," or "He's so dumb," as if it's settled.

As it turns out, that's not a particularly intelligent way to think about it.

Almost everyone is either really smart or really stupid in the right context, situation, or task. I can think of half a dozen things I'm stupid at (art composition, foreign languages, dance steps, etc.) and half a dozen things I'm smart at (project management, history, economics, listing half a dozen things). Part of life is getting smart at some things that matter and the bigger part of life is then finding or creating situations in which those smarts create value and make you feel accomplished.

When you blithely assume that someone is just smart or dumb, you can get into all sorts of trouble. You gloss over the fact that the guy you dismissed as dumb is actually really insightful about the kindness of strangers or really clever at tying fishing lures or any of a number of other things. And if you get caught up in the fact that a guy is really smart, you miss the fact that you should distrust all his recommendations for good music or never let him help you to assemble anything from IKEA. Nobody is smart at everything. Almost nobody is stupid at everything.

This distinction always seems to matter but in this Trumpian Twitocracy, it seems to matter even more. Is Trump brilliant and calculating or a bumbling idiot? It seems to me that the only accurate answer is "Yes." When it comes to knowing how to arouse great affection among his base, how to exploit cynicism of swing voters, and completely confuse and baffle his opposition, he's genius. I doubt that anyone in the history of American politics has better understood how to push and pull all the levers of politics as well as him. But when it comes to policy, the man is an idiot. He doesn't understand the difference between the deficit and debt. His protectionist policies to save jobs will actually make them more difficult to keep and create, and all of his understanding of any issue is rooted in his perception of personality rather than appreciation for system dynamics.

It doesn't matter whether you think Trump is brilliant or an idiot, you're right. The more important question - and the important question for everyone - is brilliant or an idiot in what situation? Trump himself knows this. Baffled at his new job, unable even to nominate hundreds of people for key positions, he retreated last weekend to a campaign rally, to feel what it is like to again have command of the situation, to feel his natural talent for soliciting cheers and fierce devotion come to the fore and his natural bumbling at articulating useful policy fade into the shadows.

Your happiness and success will depend on how deftly you create, find or insinuate yourself into situations in which your natural talents and genius bloom and, conversely, how well you avoid those situations that illustrate to the world the ways in which you're an idiot. One of the many things so fascinating about Trump is that his very genius - the ability, against all odds - to get elected has put him into the very situation that reveals his idiocy. Trump's biggest strength actually put him into a situation that reveals his biggest weakness. This isn't a Greek tragedy. It's something unique. Perhaps we could call it a Trumpian tragedy, a genius for getting into situations in which one looks like an idiot.

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