The Intelligence of Trump Supporters (Guest Blog)

Dr. Elmer J. Thiessen

My wife and I went to Stratford (Canada) for the first time after the pandemic, enjoying a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. During the intermission we couldn’t help overhearing a conversation behind us, comparing Donald Trump to Richard III. Though somewhat sympathetic with this comparison, I was dismayed about what I heard next: “The supporters of Trump must all have very low intelligence.” Fortunately, the performance of the play resumed and the conversation had to end.

There is an arrogance here which is worrisome. We are the intelligent ones, and anyone who supports Trump just doesn’t measure up. This kind of comment also commits the Ad-hominem fallacy. It involves attacking people rather than the views they hold. And where is the evidence for this claim? I’m sure the range of intelligence of Trump’s supporters is roughly the same as that of the population at large. And I happen to know that some of Trump’s supporters even have Ph.D.’s.

This is not at all to say that there isn’t some justification for comparing Trump to Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III. Both are the epitome of wicked, ruthless, narcissistic, manipulative, and power-hungry leaders. How can anyone still support Trump when there is growing evidence that he was directly responsible for the insurrection on Capital Hill? So I am not at all a fan of Donald Trump and can’t understand the level of support he still enjoys. But I believe it is a mistake to claim that Trump supporters have low intelligence. What then are some alternative explanations for the division of opinion on Trump and his supporters?

For one, the strong divide between Trump supporters and critics is due to differing interpretations of what he does and what is happening in the U.S.A. Here we need to distinguish between facts and interpretations of facts. Sadly, Trump himself often failed to make this distinction when he talked about “alternative facts.” There can be no alternative facts. Facts just are what they are. But there can be alternative interpretations of facts.

This raises the additional question as to how we can evaluate competing interpretations of facts, or the worldviews that underlie competing interpretations. Evaluating alternate interpretations and worldviews is a complex affair, and I believe most people, including philosophers, have not paid sufficient attention to this epistemological problem. While we can’t resort to simplistic appeals to facts or scientific verification, there are criteria to determine when one interpretation is better than another. For example, we need to ask which interpretation is better able to account for all the facts. Simplicity, elegance and explanatory power are additional criteria.

There is another explanation as to why there is such strong disagreement about Trump and so many other issues. Rather than questioning the level of intelligence of those we disagree with, we need to remember that intelligence can become twisted. Our thinking can be corrupted. The Bible declares that all of us are sinful by nature. Sin also affects our minds. Thus, Jesus talks about eyes that do not see and hearts that don’t understand (John 12:40). Paul talks about thinking becoming futile, and hearts being darkened (Rom 1:21).

Here it is most important to note that this problem of warped thinking applies to all of us. Both the supporters and the critics of Trump suffer from minds that twist the data. Both have a tendency to be biased in looking at the facts. Both are in danger of being closed-minded. Both are prone to intellectual arrogance.

So what is the solution to this epistemic problem which is of course much broader than divided opinions about Donald Trump? It won’t help to engage in more argument. Nor will more education solve the problem. Instead, we need to focus more on the complex problem of evaluating interpretive frameworks. We need a better understanding of what is involved changing one’s worldview.

But ultimately, we need to face the fact of sin which corrupts our thinking. We need conversions of the heart which will lead to conversions of the mind. It is only such conversions that will allow us to cultivate the intellectual virtues which are so necessary in a climate of growing polarizations. We need to be people who genuinely love the truth, who are open-minded, who approach the other with an attitude of intellectual generosity, and who always demonstrate intellectual humility about the convictions they hold.

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