Donald Trump’s  lack of regard for truth during his presidential tenure, with (more than 20,000 documented lies and prevarications (Kessler et al, 2020), and behaviors that violated norms of democratic governance, are acknowledged even by his most articulate supporter, Victor Davis Hanson  (Hanson, 2019). Given Trump’s crudities and claims that he doesn’t read (Graham, 2018), it is understandable that people regard Trump as ignorant – including ignorance of the history and traditions of the nation he celebrates.  A Google Scholar query on the phrase “Trump ignorant”* in Nov. 2020 brought up more than 19,200 titles.

“It takes a lot of smarts to play dumb – (Trump, 2008)”

The above image is misleading. It poses the riddle of how a supposedly ignorant businessman who never held public office could manage the political and organizational feat of gaining the highest office in the United States – an achievement denied to highly qualified and influential individuals of both parties. I suggest that there is good evidence that Trump was not stupid and was not poorly informed about subjects of interest to him until something like 2019, when successes and a gigantic ego evidently overrode over what was earlier a degree of caution and willingness to listen to people with diverse views. The image is also fundamentally misleading because Trump wanted people to believe it. In the book, Trump Never Give Up  (Trump & McIver 2008, p 167 ) Trump states:  “. . . . .  it takes a lot of smarts to play dumb. Keep them off balance. Knowledge is power, so keep as much of it as you can to yourself as possible”. So let’s take a more nuanced look at Trump’s background.

In the foregoing book (Trump & McIver, 2008), Trump cites a kindergarten teacher who referred to him as her most curious and questioning student. Increasing ungovernable behaviors in elementary school led father Fred Trump to move Donald to the New York Military Academy. During his five years of attendance there Trump came to thrive under imposed discipline, graduating as a cadet captain, the highest rank.  He  would have gained a solid secondary education including science, math,  and history, but it seems clear that sports were his main interest. The school records show him as a star in baseball and football, but also involved in soccer, bowling, and wrestling . Following this, Trump attended two years at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution where in the early 1960s, history and classics were required courses. However the wires pulled in getting him into distinguished Wharton School of Finance,,University of Pennsylvania, Trump would have gained a solid background in economics and finance, without which he would hardly have been able to

Figure 1. Trump as cadet captain at New York Military Academy. Source: 1964 NYMA yearbook, cited by

In another book (Think Like a Champion, Trump & McIver 2009) Trump cites a list of authors ranging om Pythagoras, Machiavelli, Thoreau, and Albert Schweitzer, to Bill Gates and Billy Jean King. His favorite book is the classical Chinese text, The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, that emphasizes the importance of surprise. Trump’s choices of quotations have a pattern. They tend to focus on achieving success and personal rewards.

Trump first attended two years at Fordham University, a well-rated Jesuit institution with strong core requirements including history. He then completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance,  where he would have gained background in economic history. Appearing to show ignorance or crudity encourages opponents and media pundits to overlook his strategies and tactics. It also serves to distinguish Trump from the academic, political, and media establishment in appealing to a disillusioned base.

The final argument against Trump being dumb is that he went from 3% in polls before he announced his candidacy for president on June 2015, to leading 16 credentialed Republican candidates one month later. His campaign operatives spanned the spectrum of Republican politics from assistants to Robert Dole to Tea Party activists. Trump is not an adversary to underrate.



Chang, Aylsa

Graham, D. A. (2018, Jan. 5). The President Who Doesn’t Read: Trump’s allergy to the written word and his reliance on oral communication have proven liabilities in office. Atlantic Magazine, Retrieved from

Kessler, G., Rizzo, S., & Kelly, M. (2020). Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth: The President’s Falseholds, Misleading Claims, and Flat-Out Lies: Washington Post.

Kranish, M., & Fisher, M. (2016). Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power Hardcover: Scribner Book Company.