The cynical brilliance of Donald Trump

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Trump brags about his ISIS knowledge_00000312

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Story highlights

  • Michael D'Antonio: Trump is intelligent -- just not in a way most people would admire
  • He knows how to use the words words in the right ways, D'Antonio writes

Michael D'Antonio is the author of the book "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success" (St. Martin's Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. He is scheduled to appear on AC360 on Monday night.

(CNN)In his usual style, President Donald Trump recently stood on the White House lawn and reminded us that he's a "very intelligent person" and offered as proof the fact that he graduated from an Ivy League college where he was a "nice student." The "nice" part was apparently a way to connect his remarks to the question that prompted him, which was not about his intelligence but about whether or not he might want to act more civilly.

The President offered his self-admiration shortly after Sen. Jeff Flake joined the chorus of criticism related to the Trump style of politics. (Fellow Republicans John McCain and George Bush had both spoken out previously.) Trump set off the usual observations about his bad manners and the wisdom -- some might say intelligence -- of bragging about how smart one may be. However, anyone who concludes that this braying means he's stupid would be wrong.
Donald Trump has never shown himself to be intelligent in the way of a sophisticated orator or a cultured man. In the hours I spent with him, he told me he's not much interested in books, or art, or ideas that challenge his preconceptions. However, he does possess a kind of brilliance that has been underappreciated by every person who has ever dismissed him because he often acts like a boor.
    Ever since he crashed the consciousness of greater New York with self-promoting claims to being a real estate impresario -- before he ever built a single building -- Trump has shown a consistent ability to spin fame, fortune, and power out of mere words. When he famously said, "I know words, I have the best words," then-candidate Trump wasn't talking about his vocabulary. What he was noting was his ability to deploy just the right terms, in just the right way, to reap maximum benefit.
    For Trump, having the best words means knowing that calling his 2016 opponent "lyin' Hillary" Clinton, or his adversary in the Republican Party "liddle'" Bob Corker, produces an indelible impression. These crude words get immediate attention from the press, which amplifies them and repeats them until many people have trouble looking at Clinton or Corker without hearing the negatives in the mind. Trump's intelligence, in this case, lies in using the right word, in the right way, and knowing how the media will then do the rest of the work for him.
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    Trump touts intelligence, Ivy League pedigree

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    Prior to politics, Trump used his best words in his feuds with the woman he called "my fat little Rosie" O'Donnell and others to get attention for himself. It didn't matter to him that he behaved like a bully in order to get noticed. It mattered, only, that he got noticed.
    On occasion, Trump also used his words to simply inflate himself. The best example of this practice can be heard in the opening monologue from his TV show "The Apprentice," in which Trump explained that he was "the largest real estate developer in New York." This was never true, but it was repeated on national television hundreds of times, and very few listeners would ever make the effort to confirm or knock down the claim
    The specific kind of intelligence demonstrated by Donald Trump includes his ability to judge what people know, or care to know, and whether any of his lies, distortions and distractions matter to most people. Additionally, he knows that many people would rather hear him exaggerate by saying he's the biggest, or the best, or even the smartest, because his presentation is just that much more riveting with the extra salesmanship.
    It is salesmanship that is Trump's great gift, and this requires the intelligence to create the self-image that makes his pitch acceptable to his target audience. Here the President demonstrates an understanding of American society that is both keen and up to date. In this era of social media, when everyone sells his or her best self in the online world, we understand and accept a level of self-promotion that in the past would be regarded as unseemly bragging. Our friend's Instagram photo doesn't really show the "best ice cream sundae in the world" but we know what he means, and it would be bad manners to correct him.

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    Trump also knows that we are all bombarded with so much information, every day, that sorting fact from fiction is impossible. In fact, we are all so challenged to keep up that it can be irritating to hear someone say that something we heard and believed isn't true. Better to conclude, as the President suggests, that those pesky facts are "fake news" and remain in cozy ignorance.
    In the same moment when the President told us he was so intelligent he also said, "I think the press makes me more uncivil than I am." This is not true, but agreeing with it would feel good to anyone who voted for Trump.
    If you still don't think Trump is intelligent, consider that in this column I repeated Trump's slams on Hillary Clinton, Bob Corker, Rosie O'Donnell, and echoed his "Apprentice" hype about his status as a builder. Donald Trump knows that even as I explain his methods, I cannot help but help him satisfy his purpose. This may not be the kind of intelligence we can all admire. In fact, it is a cynical, abusive and, some might say, evil form of brilliance. But it is brilliance nonetheless.