I worked for a leader who was sometimes accused of lacking in the smarts department. But no one I know who spent time with President George W. Bush was left with that impression.
Bush took an almost gleeful satisfaction in picking holes in arguments, as any half-prepared briefer quickly learned. He was also an avid reader of history. (I remember him passing along to me “Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Laws That Changed America” and “A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan” after he had finished them.)
Most important to Bush’s political rise, he has a remarkable facility for reading the emotional contours of small groups. If someone is feeling ignored or reluctant to contribute a relevant point, Bush zeroes in to make him or her feel comfortable and included. During the 2000 campaign, I recall a briefing on humanitarian military interventions, attended by all of Bush’s first-string foreign policy advisers. Not being one of them, I was seated at the periphery, in a chair with my back to the wall, trying to avoid notice. About halfway through the meeting, Bush paused and said to the group: “You know what I’d really like to know? I’d like to know what Mike Gerson thinks about this.” I sputtered something so forgettable that I have since forgotten it. But the memory of feeling valued remains.
People close to President Trump may well have similar stories of unsuspected sharpness and acumen. But if this is a secret, it is a well-kept one. Trump has said he has no time to read. “I never have,” he said in 2016. “I’m always busy doing a lot.” People who brief him report a gnat-like attention span. Trump’s frequent accusation that others are stupid or “low IQ” sits uncomfortably with his own shocking ignorance of history, science and economics. Most recently, he seemed to understand “Western-style liberalism” as local governance in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Asked his view of busing, the president judged it “a primary method of getting people to schools.”
Does presidential ignorance matter? A few presidents — such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln — rose through the power of brilliant writing and rhetoric. Ulysses S. Grant wrote a memoir of enduring literary value. The 1912 presidential election pitted the author of “The Naval War of 1812: A Complete History” (Theodore Roosevelt) against the author of “Congressional Government: A Study in American Government” (Woodrow Wilson).
There is not, of course, a necessary connection between brilliance and judgment. And it is true that writers tend (sometimes unfairly) to prefer the kind of intelligence expressed in writing.
That said, it is evident that Trump’s combination of ignorance and arrogance exposes the United States to needless global ridicule. His misunderstanding of basic economics — particularly his insistence that China will pay tariffs rather than U.S. consumers — has led to bad and dangerous trade policy. But Trump’s most consequential deficit may lie in his emotional intelligence — what political scientist Joseph Nye defines as “the self-mastery, discipline and empathic capacity that allows leaders to channel their personal passions and attract others.”
This ground is also covered by the term “temperament.” And we are seeing what happens when presidential temperament is entirely absent. Trump’s lack of self-mastery often makes his interventions in foreign and domestic policy spasmodic and unstrategic. His incapacity for empathy results in cruelty — see the migrant children at the border — that strikes at the moral core of American greatness. Trump is unable to find any value in the views of a political opponent, which puts both national healing and useful compromise beyond his abilities. He is only capable of governing on behalf of those who support him, making him vulnerable to manipulation through flattery.
This is bad enough in the context of American politics. It is worse on a global scale. Ultimately, the lack of presidential temperament leaves Trump unable to distinguish between friends of the United States and autocratic rivals who play on his vanity. And this allows strongmen such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to murder, intimidate and attack Western liberalism under the protective cover of Trump’s narcissism.
This is a more disturbing matter than gaps in the president’s knowledge. Those who dismiss the importance of presidential temperament must reckon with the fact that Trump’s endless self-regard is being exploited — and easily exploited — to undermine the interests of the United States.