Opinion

Alex Beam

How smart is Donald Trump?

President Trump appeared last week at a rally in Tampa.
Evan Vucci/Associated Press
President Trump appeared last week at a rally in Tampa.

DONALD TRUMP’S BIZARRE OBSESSION with IQ, or intelligence quotient, is fascinating. In 2016, presidential candidate Trump challenged a critic, Mayor Sadiq Khan of London: “Let’s do an IQ test,” as if intelligence testing were a board game, or an arm wrestling match.

Lately, Trump has been tossing around his crazy epithet “low IQ,” as in “very low-IQ individual Robert De Niro” or “low-IQ Mika Brzezinski.” I wonder if anyone other than De Niro’s mother has ever fretted about her son’s being Mensally challenged. He’s a great actor; does he need great board scores too?

Trump is not the first politician to ply these waters. In 1987, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden lashed out at a questioner, saying, “I think I have a much higher I.Q. than you do.” Biden then proceeded to make Trumpian, i.e. false, claims about finishing in the top half of his law school class.

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I suppose most people want to be thought of as intelligent, and we know Trump is manically insecure about almost everything. Anyone who has to boast that he is “really smart” and “a very stable genius” calls attention to his intellectual vulnerability.

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But why? There’s no evidence that Trump is an idiot; indeed, quite the contrary. He’s obviously lazy, preferring the intellectual slurry of television to the written word. He may have suffered the expected mental erosion of a 72-year-old, but he’s not slow.

Quora, a question-and-answer website with intellectual pretensions, recently asked: “To all those with IQ above 135, how high do you suspect Donald Trump’s IQ to be?”

These self-selected participants of “very superior intelligence” (IQ 120-140; the mean IQ score is 100) generally gave Trump high marks. “While he lacks common sense, or might seem like an idiot, I wouldn’t say he has the IQ of an idiot,” Denis Matie wrote. “My educated guess would be between 110-120.”

“In my opinion, as someone with an IQ of 147,” Angus Penfold wrote, “Donald Trump’s IQ is above average, but in that ‘common sense’ sweet spot of 115 to 130.”

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A Quora poster linked to a recent interview with psychologist-provocateur Jordan Peterson, answering the question, “How high do you think Trump’s IQ is? Does 160 seem reasonable?”

No, Peterson responded, “160 seems really, really high. The smart person that you are likely to meet in your life has an IQ of around 145.”

Peterson continued: “[Trump’s] IQ is clearly well above average. He has been successful in multiple, complex domains, each of which were quite difficult. He’s very stress-resistant. He’s no dummy.”

The Internet coughed up another example of grudging admiration for Trump’s intellect when the website Axios reported on Trump’s antipathy for the FBI’s notoriously ugly J. Edgar Hoover Building, not far from the White House.

“Even the building is terrible,” Trump said. “It’s one of the brutalist-type buildings, you know, brutalist architecture. [Think: Boston’s City Hall.] Honestly, I think it’s one of the ugliest buildings in the city.” This prompted Time magazine’s former architecture critic, Kurt Andersen, to comment: “He can identify brutalism, which makes him a little bit smarter than I would prefer.”

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There are any number of sentences that begin, “If Donald Trump is so stupid, how come . . . ” Indeed there are so many of them that it’s quite possible that he’s not stupid at all.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.