During an impromptu news conference outside the White House last Wednesday, a reporter asked Donald Trump whether he should be more civil.
“Well, I think the press makes me more uncivil than I am,” the president said, and then quickly switched the topic from his manners to his mind.
“You know, people don’t understand. I went to an Ivy League college. I was a nice student. I did very well. I’m a very intelligent person.”
Throughout his career, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he’s both well-educated and brainy. Each time, it isn’t clear if he’s trying to convince his interviewers or himself.
In a 2004 interview with CNN, Trump said, “I went to the Wharton School of Finance. I got very good marks. I was a good student. It’s the best business school in the world, as far as I’m concerned.”
During a 2011 interview with ABC, Trump said: “Let me tell you, I’m a really smart guy. I was a really good student at the best school in the country.”
On May 8, 2013, Trump tweeted: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.”
During a speech in Phoenix in July 2015, a month after announcing he was running for president, Trump said, “I went to the Wharton School of Finance. I’m, like, a really smart person.”
The next month, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Trump described Wharton as “probably the hardest there is to get into.” He added, “Some of the great business minds in the world have gone to Wharton.” He also observed: “Look, if I were a liberal Democrat, people would say I’m the super genius of all time. The super genius of all time.”
In December, Trump told Fox News’ Chris Wallace why he intended to be the first president since Harry Truman to avoid getting daily updates from intelligence professionals about national security threats. “I’m, like, a smart person,” he explained.
The day after his inauguration, Trump’s handlers staged a visit to CIA headquarters to divert media attention away from the 750,000 Americans who had come to Washington, D.C., that day to protest Trump’s presidency. But Trump’s scripted remarks turned into an impulsive rambling rant, during which he felt the need to tell the nation’s top spies that was a bright guy: “Trust me,” he said, “I’m, like, a smart person.”
Anyone who feels compelled to boast how smart he is clearly suffers from a profound insecurity about his intelligence and accomplishments. In Trump’s case, he has good reason to have doubts.
A linguistic analysis by Politico found that Trump speaks at a third-grade level. A study by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University compared last year’s Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in terms of their vocabulary and grammar. Trump scored at a fifth-grade level, the lowest of all the candidates.
Trump transferred into the University of Pennsylvania’s undergraduate program after spending two years at Fordham University in New York, where he had no significant achievements.
“No one I know of has said, ‘I remember Donald Trump,’ ” Paul F. Gerken, a 1968 Fordham graduate and president of the Fordham College Alumni Assn., told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Whatever he did at Fordham, he didn’t leave footprints.”
According to Gwenda Blair’s 2001 biography, “The Trumps,” Trump’s grades at Fordham were not good enough to qualify him for a transfer to Wharton. Trump got into Wharton as a special favor from a “friendly” admissions officer with ties to his family.
In two profiles of Trump in the 1970s, the New York Times reported that Trump “graduated first in his class” at Wharton in 1968. Trump was most likely the source of that falsehood. In fact, he didn’t even make the dean’s list, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian, the campus newspaper. He has refused to release his college grade transcripts.
Trump is particularly sensitive about his business career. After college, Trump’s multimillionaire father handed young Donald the keys to his real estate empire. Trump has sought to portray himself as an up-by-the-bootstraps self-made entrepreneur. “It has not been easy for me,” Trump said at a town hall meeting on Oct. 26, 2015. But an investigation last year by the Washington Post revealed that not only did Trump’s father provide him with a huge inheritance and set up trust accounts to provide his son with a steady income, he also helped finance Trump’s first real estate projects.
According to the Post:
“Trump’s father — whose name had been besmirched in New York real estate circles after investigations into windfall profits and other abuses in his real estate projects — was an essential silent partner in Trump’s initiative. In effect, the son was the front man, relying on his father’s connections and wealth, while his father stood silently in the background to avoid drawing attention to himself.”
As a businessman, Trump is known for his bogus enterprises (like Trump University), his repeated rip-offs of suppliers, contractors and employees, and his wild exaggerations of the size of his wealth. At least six of Trump’s businesses have gone bankrupt, but on April 18, 2015, he tweeted this falsehood: ”For all of the haters and losers out there sorry, I never went Bankrupt.”
Presidents don’t have to be geniuses. But a successful president must recognize his own limitations and be willing to rely on others’ expertise. He has to take constant criticism — from the media, political opponents and his own advisors — without taking it too personally. Most important, an effective president needs good judgment — to be able to hear different viewpoints, weigh evidence, think several steps in advance rather than act impulsively and be calm under intense pressure. Trump fails each of these tests.
Beneath Trump’s public bravado is a deeply insecure, troubled man. This makes him unfit to be president, a danger to the country and the world.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.”