Analysis |

Is Trump Really a 'Moron,' as Tillerson Said, or Just Racist and Obnoxious?

From Puerto Rico to Russiagate, Trump has proven his propensity to shoot himself in the foot

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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U.S. President Donald Trump tosses rolls of paper towels to people at a hurricane relief distribution center at Calvary Chapel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 3, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump tosses rolls of paper towels to people at a hurricane relief distribution center at Calvary Chapel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 3, 2017.Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Winston Churchill, savior of Western civilization and arguably the greatest British leader in history, had some dark sides that have receded in memory in the shadow of his epic stand against Adolf Hitler. Churchill was a white supremacist who opposed India’s independence, supported concentration camps in South Africa, viewed Arabs as degenerate horse thieves and backed Zionism, among other reasons, as an antidote to Jewish Bolshevism’s war on the capitalist West. Churchill was also a champion of eugenics, which aimed to improve the human race by weeding out undesirables, a view that was popular in both Britain and the U.S. until it emerged that the Nazis were taking it to its logical extreme. Several decades before that, however, Churchill advocated sterilization of the mentally disabled as well as their isolation in internment camps in which they would be prevented from reproducing.

Churchill was one of the main supporters of the Mental Deficiency Act legislated by the British Parliament in 1913, which replaced the 1886 Idiots Act. In addition to people whose moral corruption cannot be corrected, the Act defined three levels of mental deficiency: Worst off were “idiots,” who needed protection from themselves, then “imbeciles,” from whom society needed protection. and then the “feeble-minded,” those with the lightest mental impairment, who needed constant training and supervision in order to function in society.

The law allowed authorities to detain the mentally impaired and to intern them in homes, camps or so-called colonies: over 65,000 were interned in Britain and a similar number in the United States, although America also instituted mass sterilization of the mentally impaired, which the British did not. The United States had a similar, though not identical, classification of the mentally impaired, which was heavily influenced by the advent of IQ tests. “Idiots” were those with IQs lower than 25, “imbeciles” had IQs lower than 50, but the term “feeble-minded,” which was used in Britain, was replaced by another term coined in 1910 by psychologist Henry Goddard. Those with IQs from 51 to 70 would henceforth be known as “morons.”

All of these terms were eventually deemed to be derogatory and were removed from professional lexicons by the early 1970s, along with the general change in society’s attitude toward the intellectually disabled, as they are called today. The term “moron,” along with “idiot” and “imbecile,” joined the ever-growing stock of insults that include “stupid,” “dumb,” “cretin,” “ignoramus,” “nitwit,” “simpleton,” “numbskull” and the like. But the word “moron” is still pejorative enough that if forced U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to humiliate himself in front of the country on Wednesday after NBC reported that he had used it over the summer to depict U.S. President Donald Trump. In a rare appearance before television cameras, Tillerson praised Trump’s diplomatic wisdom with superlatives worthy of Bismarck, Metternich and Kissinger put together, though he noticeably refrained from denying that he had called Trump a “moron.” That task was left to U.S. State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert, who asserted that Tillerson wouldn’t use such language. Stephanie Ruhl, one of the NBC reporters with the scoop, admitted that Nauert was right: According to her sources, Tillerson hadn’t called Trump a “moron” but a “fucking moron.” True to the principle that one can always find an embarrassing Trump tweet for just about everything, New York Magazine promptly located the 2014 tweet in which Trump showcased a caricature of a Founding Father telling colleagues: “I keep thinking we should include something in the constitution in case the people elect a fucking moron.” Trump probably meant it as a dig at former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Ruhl maintained that not only had Tillerson used the offensive term to describe Trump, but that U.S. Vice President Pence, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mattis and then-Homeland Security chief John Kelly had to dissuade the secretary of state from resigning. Ruhl, whose report was published as Trump was making his way to a Las Vegas still reeling from the horrific shoot-out last Sunday night, said that Tillerson’s tirade came after Trump’s monumentally offensive speech in July to thousands of boy scouts, in which he dissed Obama, praised himself and seemed to be using sexual innuendo to describe the lives of wealthy people with yachts. Tillerson, who devoted many years of his life to the scouts movement as he was climbing to the top of Exxon’s corporate ladder, blew his top and called Trump a “moron” – and probably nastier things as well.

He wasn’t the first and won’t be the last, of course. Stupidity is one of the more easily accessible and widespread explanations for Trump’s behavior. It’s no coincidence, of course, that his election resurrected the futuristic cult classic “Idiocracy’ about a dumbed down America that chooses a loutish porn actor as president. It’s true that Trump has claimed in the past that his IQ is much higher than that of Obama or of comedian John Stewart, but in that case, he’s doing an excellent job of concealing his intelligence, as his visit this week to Puerto Rico showed.

Trump came to the island under a cloud of criticism over the federal government’s allegedly slow response to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria as well his own dismissive attitude toward Puerto Ricans and their leaders, which stood in stark contrast to the tone of his message in the hurricane-hit states of Florida and Texas. But rather than trying to cheer up Puerto Ricans, as he did in Texas, or console them, as he would later do in Las Vegas, Trump insulted the island’s residents on their own home turf. He told them they should be grateful they weren’t hit with a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. He didn’t stop complaining about the drain of Puerto Rican recovery on the federal budget, which he didn’t even mention in Texas or Florida. And to cap it all off, Trump was filmed tossing out paper towels to his audience in a scene deemed by one broadcaster as “the least presidential ever.”

Some people ascribe Trump’s behavior in such events to obnoxious racism rather than stupidity. Prejudice and racial stereotypes are such a prominent feature of his personality, they maintain, that he just can’t keep them under lock. He has described himself as ‘the least racist person ever,” but since he launched his presidential run by describing Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, Trump has described Puerto Ricans as lazy, Muslims as wannabe terrorists, African-Americans as thugs, Jews as proficient with money and women as inferior sexual objects. It’s only among neo-Nazis, apparently, that Trump has found “some fine people.”

Others cite Trump’s sensational victory in the elections – assuming that it wasn’t all the result of a Russian sting operation – as proof of his political smarts. According to this view, all of Trump’s scandals, controversies, insults and inanities are but a ploy aimed at rallying his base, first to win the elections and then as leverage against the unruly Republican Party. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Trump is a smart guy pretending to be a dunce. If that’s true, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be worried by Barak Ravid’s report on Wednesday that Trump told the United Nations' secretary general that the prime minister is more problematic that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. If Trump is a “moron,” on the other hand, as Tillerson testified, then his words about Netanyahu should be taken as seriously as his assertions about Obama’s birth certificate, his support for Marine Le Pen in the French elections and his praise for the homicidal Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who will have the privilege of hosting Trump next month.

The problem with the Trump-is-actually-clever theory is that his outlandish statements and unfounded assertions don’t just harm America’s international image or divide its own population – they often do the most damage to Trump himself. The U.S. president has shot himself in the foot so regularly that it is only natural to assume he may not be the sharpest pencil in the box. He fired FBI Director James Comey, a move which Steve Bannon described as the worst presidential mistake ever, but then made things much worse for himself by admitting, contrary to the official line, that he did so because of the investigation of his ties to Russia. Trump made sure that even if Special Counsel Robert Mueller didn’t collect enough evidence on the alleged collusion, he would always be able to nail Trump on obstruction of justice. The same is true of Trump’s ham-handed effort to concoct a cover story for his son Donald’s hitherto unreported meeting with a Russian lawyer with close ties to the Kremlin, which fell apart within hours. Or the time he undermined administration efforts to claim that his Muslim ban was anything but by confirming that this is exactly what it was. And so on and so forth.

Intelligence is no guarantee of success, of course. Jimmy Carter had an IQ of 176, but most Americans consider him to be the worst U.S. president in modern times. Trump came to the White House with less useful or general knowledge than his predecessors, but his uniqueness lies with the fact that he seems uninterested in learning. He disdains the mainstream media, doesn’t trust his intelligence briefings and seems to rely on Fox News and even loonier right-wing news sites for his basic information about the world. He has admitted that he often makes decisions without knowing the facts, not a trait usually associated with the astute.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo wrote an article about Trump’s suspected dimness, which spawned the term “Trump’s Razor” after “Occam’s Razor,” of which Netanyahu is fond. Whereas Occam’s Razor stipulates that where there are several possible explanations for something, the simplest one is usually correct, Trump’s Razor says that where there are several possible explanations for something Trump has said or done, the stupidest is always the right one. But even if we assume that Trump is far from stupid, and definitely not a “moron,” most people would agree that both his election and his presidency are an insult to America’s intelligence, as well as the world’s.

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