A Defense of Trump as Possessing a Certain Kind of Genius

Yuri Gripas / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday I noted one unusual aspect of Donald Trump’s  tweeted claims that he was “like, really smart” and a “genius.” Namely, that people whom the world recognizes as being in those categories typically don’t make the claim themselves. You can read the case here.

A reader in the business world writes in to disagree. It’s an interesting argument—and I’ll explain at the end why I think he’s right in many aspects even as he overlooks a crucial one. Here’s the reader, who after various flattering-to-me intros says:

I do view you as being overly negative towards Trump because you do miss the following beneficial aspect of him. Try not to immediately recoil from this email as you read it or think of how to rebut each point because taking it in....

While I agree with you Trump isn't thoughtful and he is clearly volitile/ chaotic (he is also old and likely suffering some decline), he has potential benefits, high-risk benefits.

I am making an analogy with:

Trump is blunt and unpredictable but at least in foreign policy he generally is good at identifying long-standing chronic issues where everyone is stuck in a sub-optimal status quo.  All of the usually rational thoughtful actors can not get out of these chronic issues because there are foreseeable consequences to making changes or at least foreseeable risks.

Think of Obama's attempts to deal with Israel-Palestine, North Korea and Pakistan—totally ineffective with nothing actually changing.
(Although Obama did a great job on Iran's nuclear agreement.)

Might as well throw some chaos/rash decisions at these problems and
see if that helps.  It is better than letting them linger forever. Being rash, not thinking through potential consequences, and not risk
adverse is actually good in these cases—being a bit "crazy" and
"impulsive" can be good in limited quantities.

There is a chance you end up in a better place by being rash and thoughtless and then can be viewed as a "genius."

There is theoretical backing for this in computer science in the field
of "optimization algorithms." Basically if you do everything perfectly and rationally you often get stuck in local minimas—a place where any move in any direction from the current status quo makes the situation worse.  But in order to get to a better place you need to make such a drastic side-ways move to find a more optimal status quo.

Trump makes these types of moves. He shakes (randomizes) things up.

In a high level view, having a little bit of Trump, spaced between  rational perfect actors, should lead to a more optimal position for
the U.S. Otherwise no one deals with the sub-optimal status quo

In business many entrepreneurs are not super intelligent (like  Zuckerberg, Gates, Musk, Page, etc.) but rather rash and then lucky.
In many ways most entrepreneurs are irrational because creating
companies is highly risky and often end up in bankruptcy. It
generally makes no sense to start a company if you can command $250K per year at a no-risk job. But it is those risk takers that sometimes win big (and are then called a "genius" but really it is mostly luck + hard work). I would argue that this is the majority of entrepreneurs.

Trump is this and I think it isn't normal in politics and it is high
risk. I would argue there is high potential for accidental genius in
Trump because of his unstable nature, especially if he focuses at the
hard unsolved problems, and avoids blowing up things that are working

Thus Trump is accurate in many of his self-descriptions of genius and
of people being unreasonably hard on him—because they do not
understand his risk-taking style that he has consistently relied upon
in his life. It leads to both bankruptcy and genius, hopefully for the
U.S. he focuses it mostly at the challenging problems that are already
chronically broken.

* * *

Much of what the reader says makes obvious sense, both operationally and historically. Organizations can bog down in business-as-usual-ism. Some effective leaders prize their utter steadfastness and predictability; others, the element of surprise. And the desire to shake things up and throw the bums out is one of the great constants in American public life. (In an earlier round of reader mail, another person made a complementary point. It’s the second message quoted here.)

So if we were talking about a Newt Gingrich, on the Republican side, or a Bernie Sanders on the Democratic or independent one, I’d agree that the stimulative, “creative destruction” aspects of a shake-things-up approach deserve most attention.

The complication with a serving president is that he also has uniquely consequential executive powers, which make the effects of a roll-the-dice approach potentially quite different. Do we want airline pilots who think, “What the hell, let’s try it this new way?” We do not. We want them to do things the tested, proven, risk-minimizing way. Or brain surgeons? (“Hmm, I wonder what would happen if ...”) Or the bus drivers taking our children to school? Or the architects and engineers designing the safety systems for nuclear power plants?

The point is that in these realms the risk/reward ratio is grossly skewed. Things might get better, but they could also get very much worse. It’s all the more so for a president. The previous presidents I’m aware of had a growing sense of these risks and consequences. I believe that’s the main reason they typically look so much older when leaving office than when they were sworn in. It is clear that Donald Trump sees the virtues of surprise and spontaneity. It’s not clear that he understands the risks.