In the presidential debate on Tuesday night, President Donald Trump had one message for people who went to a state college, didn’t do well in college, or didn’t go to college at all: You’re stupid.
In response to a question about COVID-19, former Vice President and Democratic nominee Joe Biden said that Trump "still hasn’t even acknowledged that he knew this was happening, knew how dangerous it was going to be back in February, and he didn't even tell you. He's on record as saying it. He panicked or he just looked at the stock market. One of the two. Because guess what? A lot of people died and a lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter, a lot quicker."
The president’s response: "Did you use the word smart? So you said you went to Delaware State, but you forgot the name of your college. You didn't go to Delaware State. You graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word smart with me. Don’t ever use that word."
It was a stunning moment, especially from the man who once crowed, "We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated."
Trump's claim that he loves "the poorly educated" itself evinced profound condescension for the very group of people he claimed to value. But his attack on Biden’s education during the debate was a new level of vitriol and disrespect. Given that white voters without college degrees do indeed support him in much higher numbers than college graduates, you would think the president wouldn't be so quick to equate a diploma with intelligence—unless he thinks his own followers are stupid.
For a guy who thinks he's very smart, Trump was also wrong about the whole "college makes you smart" thing. There's little question that learning of course improves intelligence. But it is not the case that what college you went to (or didn't go to) is evidence that you are smarter or dumber than someone else.
Often, attending an elite school reflects a broader constellation of privileges: Some level of intelligence, sure, but also class, affluence, personal connections, and the luck of being born into a particular family. (Let's not forget that more than a third of Harvard’s class of 2022, for example, are legacy students.) There are a lot of extremely smart young people in the world. An infinitesimally small number of them wind up at America’s top colleges. A great many don't have the opportunity to go to college at all.
Trump to Biden: "Did you use the word ‘Smart’? He said he went to Delaware state but you forgot the name of your college. You didn’t go to Delaware state. He graduated the lowest or almost the lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word “smart” with me." pic.twitter.com/pM4RJVXdso
— TV News HQ (@TVNewsHQ) September 30, 2020
Trump's insult to Biden’s education was, like so much of Trump's behavior, more about his own insecurities than anything else. Trump, after all, was a transfer student to the University of Pennsylvania, and reportedly only got into the Wharton School of Business because his big brother called in a favor with the admissions office. And at the time, Wharton was not the elite institution it is now. Even in 1980, more than a decade after Trump attended, Wharton accepted more than 40 percent of applicants; today, the school accepts just over 7 percent. It's a top business school, but it is not, as Trump claims, "The hardest school to get into, the best school in the world." Nor was Trump the best student at it. Contrary to Trump’s claims of being "top in his class," he was not even close. And while he demanded that Barack Obama release his college transcripts, Trump has refused to do the same.
Trump is a showman, not a man of substance, which is surely why he conflates the trappings of intellect—a degree from an elite university—with the actual stuff of intelligence. But his nasty insult of Biden's alma mater was also a tell: Trump has zero respect for the people he claims to represent.
In some key swing states, white women without college degrees seem to have caught on, and are increasingly throwing their support behind Biden. White men, degreed or not, still lean toward Trump, and the least educated white men are his strongest supporters. But it doesn’t take a college degree to listen to what Trump says and understand this: Trump thinks his own supporters are so dumb they won’t even notice his contempt for them.
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