More on Trump, Knowledge, and Self-Knowledge (Starring Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams)

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

After this piece, on the “open secret” about Donald Trump (and the Congressional Republicans) that Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury revealed; and then this one, on the way people whom the world views as “like, very smart” tend to describe themselves; and then this one, on whether Trump’s history-agnostic “shake things up!” approach might bring rewards, I’ve received scores of interesting messages. For extraneous deadline and editing reasons, I’m not likely to be able to do anything with them until the end of next week, around January 20.

This is a placeholder note of thanks until then, and an announcement of an intention to choose at that point from them a sampling of ones whose insights have survived the news cycle.

And for the moment, two brief samples of material that has arrived.

First a “party girls” hypothesis on why Trump might be going out of his way to say “I’m actually smart”:

I agree with you in general that geniuses, or people who are skilled in some way, or even people who have certain personality traits, never really need to go around saying they are XYZ.

However, I do think there might be an exception for when outsiders or "enemies," or what have you, challenge those traits.

For example, there's a girl who I often tease as a "party girl" even though she insists she doesn't party a lot or isn't wild like some of her friends think she is. She constantly tells me that she is well-behaved and that she is good, when I tease her. My response is always that "good girls or well-behaved girls don't need to tell people that they are well-behaved. People just know." Of course, I am joking with her about being a party girl, but I can see why if someone has an inaccurate perception of you, you might strongly protest.

So, I suppose if someone is constantly ragging on your intelligence or your curiosity, you might protest. Or challenge people to an IQ showdown. I personally think that's childish, but then again, I don't have people challenging my intelligence left and right. (This is not me saying that I am a genius, just that nobody calls me the opposite.)

So yea, I guess my bottom line is that if someone is challenged on character trait XYZ, then maybe that someone might feel compelled to defend themselves constantly.

And, from another reader, a comparison of Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. (For the kids: these were two great baseball talents of the mid-20th century. Ted Williams, of the Red Sox, is the last Major League player to have hit over .400 for a full season, which he did in 1941, when he was 23. He finished that season with a .406 average, after going six-for-eight in a season-ending doubleheader. He was also a celebrated scholar and theorist of the game--and a Marine Corps fighter pilot, who lost several years of his athletic prime for combat duty in World War II and the Korean War. Mickey Mantle was a celebrated switch-hitting slugger for the Yankees. More from baseball’s Hall of Fame site here and here.)

Amidst the torrent of existential national crises, one overlooked Trumpist vice is his braggadocio. Save for charming braggarts like Muhammad Ali, people used to be a lot more humble. Our culture possessed a midwestern temperamental conservatism.

This being winter, I’m watching Ken Burns’ Baseball. Mickey Mantle recalls Ted Williams trying to talk about hitting with him. Poor Mick, he couldn’t follow the conversation, he says. Williams’s profound knowledge of their craft took hold of Mick’s mind, making him over-think at the plate. “I must’ve went 0-for-30 after talking with Ted,” he said while laughing at himself. Mickey Mantle is the only slugger ever to have hit the facade at Yankee Stadium. He had nothing to prove, and so he was secure in his personality such that he could laugh at his shortcomings while simultaneously crediting a rival as a genius.

One more example. I once shared an office with two men who were POWs in the Hanoi Hilton. Neither man bragged of it. When friends and colleagues mentioned it, these heroes were quick to downplay their valor and elevate the valor of others. “I was a late shoot-down,” each would say. “I was only imprisoned for a year and was roughed-up but not as much as McCain, Stockdale, Day, etc.” Anyone familiar with the Hanoi Hilton knows that one year there was akin to 20 years in Hell. But their authentic courage and hard-won self-knowledge strengthened their personalities and erased insecurities that most of us carry.

Genius, heroism, and other forms of human greatness tend to be accompanied by a humility that is hard to find in this era. Ironically, the virtues of humility and temperance were marks of a conservative temperament. My, what “conservatism” has become….