While dyslexia has been mentioned now and then as one of the reasons Donald Trump is so ignorant of what it takes to govern in a free society, I want to explore it as foundational to his inability to learn and grow while in office—and also as a way to link disparate troubling elements in his makeup.
So what follows is the informed speculation of a former classroom teacher.
Considering Trump’s well-documented aversion to reading and his difficulty with complex sentence structures when he talks without a script, my hunch is that he has mild to moderate dyslexia, a neurobiological condition that makes it difficult to learn to read and can also affect sentence formation and vocabulary. When he was young it may not have been adequately diagnosed and treated.
Because trying to read was frustrating, as time went on he read as little as possible. Because he experienced humiliation and shame in the early grades when he saw other children acquiring information with ease from books, I believe he came to resent those children who were academically successful, who loved school, and drew the teacher’s praise. His own natural curiosity about the world waned.
Trump has left himself no way to enjoy learning and to benefit from knowledge. As he grew older, he neither had the patience to laboriously read even moderately difficult material. Nor could he enjoy listening to people who knew a lot more about specific realms of knowledge than he did. That felt like school, which he hated. Reporting indicates he still can’t tolerate policy briefings of more than a few minutes.
How does Trump’s difficulty in reading relate to his penchant for uttering falsehoods? I think he began faking when he was six or seven and couldn't keep up with the other children his age who had learned their letters and were starting to read sentences and little stories. He wanted to be "great" so he made things up. Faking got baked into his personality.
He couldn’t stop now, not for anything.
Trump was fortunate to find a lucrative role in television where he didn’t need to read much and his fakery, tall tales, and grandiosity enhanced his media personality. If only he had stayed there!
Instead, he turned into a president who not only disregards expertise and knowledge but also enjoys surrounding himself with people who are totally unsuited to their offices or are even more ignorant than he.
He especially rejects academics, scientists, and people with deep knowledge of other cultures when they oppose his actions. These people are to be scorned and distanced from his regime. He loves lording it over them and making them unhappy.
Consider his current imposition of very large tariffs on imports from China and elsewhere despite vehement opposition from a whole array of economists, diplomats and international trade experts. He simply cannot allow himself to learn from those people and refuses to admit he has made some bad decisions and should change course.
Estimates are that Trump’s reading level is about fifth grade, maybe fourth or sixth. That’s enough to tweet and to follow a teleprompter, but not enough to comprehend an ordinary longish article in The Wall Street Journal. If there were a way to give him a reading test, I would have someone choose a few such articles, give him three times as long to read them as a typical Journal reader would take, and then ask him for a coherent explanation of what’s in each one.
I would wager thousands of dollars that he couldn’t do it. He could never have read his textbooks at the Wharton School. Someone would have had to read them aloud to him or create "bullet points" so he would grasp the main ideas.
Dyslexia is not predictive of a particular fate but combines with elements in each person's personality. One person might become an excellent forest guide who knows all the birds, small creatures, and trees intimately and doesn't need to rely on reading. By contrast, another might undertake a strenuous course of tutoring to maintain grade level in school, be open about his or her reading problem, ask for extra time in exams, and eventually graduate from college with a stellar record. A third might inherit a lot of money, then create and monitor a foundation to help people with various disabilities. A fourth, discouraged, might drop out of school and settle for doing odd jobs in the neighborhood.
And a fifth might fake and falsify his way to fame and power and enjoy lording it over so-called “smart” people and thwarting their hopes. I am suggesting that Trump’s lifelong experience with dyslexia, instead of increasing his capacity for compassion, has instead combined with problematic elements in his personality, including a penchant for revenge that was apparent even when he was a young adult.
The result is a toxic combination of ignorance. Because it was so hard for him to learn from books—coupled with his unwillingness to listen to people with deep knowledge and alternative perspectives—he nurtured resentment and mistrust. He just doesn’t have what it takes to govern thoughtfully and fairly in a free society. Instead he exhibits a combative complacency, a receptivity to unworkable and dangerous ideas, an admiration of dictators, and an almost savage destructive push that is causing severe ongoing harm to our democracy.
Thanks for reading. If my thoughts help people create and implement strategies for resistance and find ways to legally cut Trump’s term short, I will be grateful to have made a contribution.
Harriet Feinberg, a retired educator, taught English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She edited the English translation of the autobiography of Dutch Jewish feminist and peace advocate Aletta Jacobs and co-edited, with poet Ruth Whitman, a collection of essays by poets-in-the-schools. She holds an Ed.D from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.