Have you ever noticed that the loudest voice in the room is — frequently enough — emerging from someone so convinced of their own intellect that it leaves you speculating that maybe they’re incapable of feeling embarrassment? Well, it turns out that they very well may not be, because they’re essentially not smart enough to realize they’re not all that smart and, consequently, mistakenly judge their cognitive ability to be greater than it is.
The Dunning-Kruger effect, cited last week by Paul Krugman in The New York Times, is a cognitive bias wherein “inept people are often confident in their capabilities because they’re too inept to know how badly they’re doing.” Krugman was referring to Donald Trump, who would seem the poster boy for being sufficiently dumb enough to believe he’s smart. One indication might be his tendency to tell anyone within earshot how smart he is, which actual smart people don’t tend to do because they don’t need to — their intelligence is obvious.
Trump once tweeted: “My two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart,” pointing to having been elected president “on my first try” as evidence of his superior brain. But problems arise when repeatedly saying you’re smart bumps up against repeatedly demonstrating you’re not, as has been the case with Trump since well before he was elected. In his recent interview with the Washington Post, the president came across as certifiably dull, to put it mildly, certainly enough on its own to frighten even the optimists among us — if there are any left — but unfortunately, there’s more. Coupled with having the impulse control of an 8-year-old and a silver-spoon sense of entitlement, Trump is becoming more of a clear and present danger on a daily basis. Although it’s perfectly reasonable that there are dramatically different political opinions out there, it borders on incomprehensible that anyone listening to him for even a short time would come away with anything but the conclusion that minimally, he’s in way over his head.
Dissembling to the point of gibberish, Trump was obviously amped over the Democrats flipping the house; terrified at the potential exposure of his soft, white underbelly courtesy of the Mueller investigation; and delusional enough to believe Saudi Crown Prince Bone Saw (over his own intelligence agencies) had nothing to do with the torture, murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
For good measure, the president shared his scientific acumen, as well, regarding his own administration’s report that climate change is a very real and growing threat: “People like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily believers ...” Where, one wonders, did Trump acquire such a high level of intelligence regarding science? Well, according to him, he’s got “a natural instinct for science,” insinuating that it’s genetic: “My uncle was a great professor at MIT for many years.” Why would any of this be true? Because he said so, that’s why, and therein lies the rub. A self-proclaimed “stable genius” would have understood before taking office many of the things this president has yet to learn, most notably that despite kowtowing by the Republican Party, he serves the country — the country does not serve him. The Department of Justice was not designed to protect him from accountability and the Judiciary is not a rubber stamp for his agenda. After two years of listening to Trump’s vacuous, superficial responses, it’s readily apparent that he doesn’t really know very much about an awful lot. He’s been the recipient of a charmed life that has prepared him for nothing much beyond living that charmed life. He’s never really learned anything other than “Gimme” because when you’re surrounded from infancy by assorted nannies, paid staff and sycophants, specifically programmed to say “Yes” in every situation, “Gimme” is all that’s necessary. It’s taken an excruciatingly long time for the president to understand — even marginally — that in the non-gilded world, the response to “Gimme” is frequently “No;” or perhaps even “Wait your turn,” responses with which spoiled brats are unfamiliar, engendering confusion, pouting, tears of rage and episodes of terrible behavior. A child brought up with the notion that the rules do not apply, has great difficulty upon learning that they do.
Whether Trump’s overestimation of his own intellect is the Dunning-Kruger effect writ large or simply the byproduct of 72 years of pampering hardly matters. With the Mueller report about to drop and the Democrats controlling the House, the president is about to learn a few things, maybe for the first time, and it’s not going to be pretty.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.