Are you just like Donald Trump?

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An interesting article from 2016 appeared in my Twitter feed yesterday. In the article, Donald Trump, who was about to gain the Republican Party nomination for the U.S. presidency, explains that he is too busy to read books.

Trump claims that he reaches the right decisions, “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

In educational parlance, we would state that Trump is claiming the possession of general critical thinking skills that he is able to apply to any situation and that, well, trump the need for detailed, domain-specific knowledge. If you agree that such generic skills exist then that makes you just like Donald Trump.

Trump’s views also prove that the belief in such skills is not somehow left-wing and that the alternative view, that knowledge is vitally important, is somehow right-wing. There is plenty of wilful ignorance and anti-intellectualism on both sides of politics.

I tend to disagree that critical thinking skills of the kind that Trump proclaims actually do exist independently of domain-specific knowledge. You can read Dan Willingham’s case against such skills here.

However, whatever you think of the man, Trump is highly successful by any traditional measure. He does, after all, occupy the highest office in his country. Presumably, he must have made some good decisions – good for him if not the rest of us – in order to get there. This, I think, leaves three possibilities.

1. Trump is right and generic critical thinking skills exist (although this leaves open the question of whether they can be taught). He possess them and this accounts for his good decisions.

2. Trump is lucky. He has no special insight that enables him to make good decisions but he just happens to have made more good ones by random chance.

3. The balance of good and bad decisions made by Trump is roughly what we would expect from chance. However, Trump is a wealthy individual who started out with lots of cash from his father and capitalist systems tend to protect the very wealthy from the consequences of their bad decisions.

If you’re just like Donald Trump, then you can use your critical thinking skills to decide which option is likely to be true.


5 thoughts on “Are you just like Donald Trump?

  1. False analogy. Successful people are often philistines who read very little. I met the only true genius I’ve ever known when he was an undergraduate–for all that any of his friends knew at the time, he was just into sex, drugs and rock and roll, but in fact he was conducting original research in particle physics, and he became one of the pioneers of laser technology. He never did any postgraduate work–one of his professors admitted it would be a waste of time. He was in his forties when he was engaged by Hughes Aircraft to lead three of the four major areas of Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ initiative. Yet he recently admitted to me that he hardly ever read a book; ironically, a lot of his insights came when he was stoned. Pure maths is a bit like that.

    The only friend I can think of who made a lot of money was truly uneducated–I don’t think he ever owned a book. For a year or two, he was the roommate of my physicist friend, and like him, he came from a dirt-poor family of relatively recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. He started out as a biker, got a job as a roofer, and went into business at an early age. He was ruthless and single-minded–a prime example of Jim Slater’s ‘Zulu Principle’: the secret to success is to learn more about one narrow subject than anyone else.

    In Trump’s case, you’re wrong to suggest that having wealthy parents is the key to success. The key to prosperity, yes–but capitalism was more dynamic than land-based feudalism because rich kids usually lack motivation, and the ‘creative destruction’ entailed by capitalism allows clever and able poor kids to win out over the sons and daughters of the wealthy, who as often as not are prime examples of regression to mean as well as having an enormous sense of entitlement.

    Lastly, success in politics does not necessarily entail anything more than animal cunning and ruthless ambition. In all my time writing for the Centre for Policy Studies, one of the few I met who was genuinely well-read was Gove. Rhodes Boyson was another. But that’s what think-tanks are all about–politicians need educated people to think for them. One Tory education shadow was quite frank: he had no ideas of his own, and he wanted to pick our brains.

    So whatever you say about Trump, his only real departure from form is that he was savvy enough to understand that the time was ripe for a semi-house-trained polecat in the Oval Office, and ruthless enough to get there. For all the backs that he’s raised, only time will tell whether his presidency will be judged a success.

  2. Tom how was Greg’s argument a false analogy? Also, while you have mentioned some relevant points, they are somewhat different arguments and overly reliant on anecdote. For example Trump can have access to opportunities due to wealth, and regression to the mean among wealthy lineages can still occur as it is a statistical effect. (Think of the roulette wheel, most people lose money on average but some win big. If you didn’t bet you had zero chance of winning.)

    While narrow focus is well correlated with success hyper-specialization is still niche and those people are still learning it is just very concentrated. The role of POTUS may be unique but it seems likely that a wide range of skills (knowledge) would be necessary to preform it well. You can’t even rely on expert advisers if you don’t have good background knowledge (think let’s just Google it).

    Finally I want my politicians to get ideas from experts in the field. Why would I want them knocking out ill informed guesses about what to do.

  3. I think it’s survivor bias.

    High self-confidence born from a series of high risk decisions that mostly panned out for him. Twenty other people like him just didn’t get lucky despite having the same ideas and abilities.

    There’s quite a few Trumps in our world, after all.

    Elon Musk is not as gauche and has more of the “right” opinions, but is full of his own self-importance and wisdom. And a business empire perpetually on the brink of collapse, running on other people’s money.

    Richard Branson is another.

    What is unusual is that Trump is quite open about it. Others generally at least *pretend* to not be flying by the seat of their pants.

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