Donald Trump and Barack Obama have almost nothing in common. From their backgrounds to their policy views to their approach to politics, the two men are almost diametrically opposed. But nowhere is the difference between the two men more apparent — and striking — than in their approach to learning and knowledge.
Obama's background was professorial and intellectual. He taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. He went to Columbia University and Harvard Law School. He wrote a critically acclaimed memoir of his life. He regularly talked about books he had read, authors he admired.
Trump is not those things. Actively and purposely so. Two quotes from an interview Trump gave to Axios earlier this week tell that story:
1. “I like bullets or I like as little as possible. I don't need, you know, 200-page reports on something that can be handled on a page. That I can tell you.”
Obama gave an exit interview to the New York Times's book critic, Michiko Kakutani, in which he said (among other things): “I would say Shakespeare continues to be a touchstone.” Trump regularly tweets about his satisfaction or, more often, his dissatisfaction, with what he watches on cable TV.
This is not by accident on Trump's part. Every president is a reaction — whether positive or negative — to the president that came before him. Trump's campaign was pitched entirely at the idea that egg-headed wonks and liberal elitists — including the entire literary and entertainment culture centered on the two coasts — were not only deeply out of touch with the concerns of average Americans but also dismissive of them. Trump isn't friends with novelists. He isn't hobnobbing with Lena Dunham. You get the idea.
WaPo's Anne Midgette touched on this idea in a piece she wrote just after the election, which included this:
I suspect that the more that Trump’s opponents, or the media, attack Trump on this front — for having bad taste, for being boorish, for his lack of intelligence and refinement — the more these voters are, or shall I say were, inclined to embrace him.
You might think people who are drawn to gold-plated seat belts would be attracted by the glitter and splendor of a concert hall or opera house. After all, the “elitist” accoutrements of much high culture have a glitzy razzle-dazzle (ballet costumes! red velvet seats! traditional opera sets!) in common with the Trumpian aesthetic.
But in these art forms, elegance conceals the barb of an event — the art itself — that seems to require explication, that is not immediately accessible, that can make the uninitiated feel stupid.
Trump's lack of intellectualism — or demonstrated intellectual curiosity — is what causes so much concern (and mockery) from many of those who were Obama's most ardent supporters. This isn't a job where you can just wing it, they say. Someone who thinks he already knows everything — despite clear evidence he doesn't — is someone who is very dangerous to himself and the country, they argue.
That Trump embraces that caricature of an anti-intellectual speaks to how much of a change the country is about to go through in transitioning from Obama to Trump. Trump is a businessman, a decider. He doesn't feel the need to read everything about a subject. He wants the key point (or points), not a book on the issue. Trump views the role of the president as the public face of Brand USA. He's not the in-the-weeds guy. He's the big-picture guy.
That conception of the presidency is radically different from how Obama envisioned the job. Obama saw the job — especially in the first few years — as a sort of Professor in Chief. He would be the expert, explaining the hows and whys to a less well-informed public. Trump is the antithesis of that idea. He views himself as channeling the will of the people, a group that has been ignored or laughed at by coastal elites over the past decade.
Far from backing away from his anti-intellectual stance then, you should expect Trump to embrace it in the coming weeks and months.