Jerk: An annoyingly stupid or foolish person; an unlikable person, especially one who is cruel, rude, or small-minded.
In a recent email exchange with a friend, I referred to Donald Trump as a jerk. My friend (let’s call him Jim) is a staunch Trump supporter. He responded by calling me to task, first by reminding me that ad hominem attacks are unattractive and unpersuasive, and second by suggesting that Trump’s significant philanthropy belies any such description of him.
I was taken aback, not so much by the first rebuke (even if it was a valid observation) as the second. I had always assumed that Trump’s claims of philanthropic zeal were accepted as just so much Trump-like puffing, prompted by his obvious narcissism, and that, in fact, the record, if explored, would reveal that he gives to charities as often as he tells the truth (i.e., rarely and little).
Jim then pointed me to a website that had reportedly studied Trump’s philanthropy. The site (at www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2015/9/29/a-quick-look-at-donald-trumps-philanthropy.html) had been prompted by Trump’s claim that he was an “ardent philanthropist” to study the charitable donations made by the Donald J. Trump Foundation. It first noted that the foundation “doesn’t have much of a web presence,” but then reported that the foundation, which has been around since 1987, donated $913,000 in the year covered by the most recently available tax filing (unspecified on the site, but apparently 2015). The site also stated that in 2012 the foundation donated $1.7 to a variety of organizations, none of which received more than $100,000.
Impressive figures? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. As the site also noted, the donations from Trump’s foundation are “modest” when compared to his $4 billion net worth. (And, of course, the foundation’s assets are not really Trump’s money or part of his net worth, as most of the foundation’s asset valuation is due to donations from other people and entities.) Four billion dollars is a lot of money, but if you do a little basic math, you’ll see that $1.7 million out of $4 billion would equate to $1,700 out of $4 million or $170 out of $400,000. Not so impressive when seen in that light, is it, even assuming the foundation’s funds are Trump’s own assets?
The philanthropy website wasn’t entirely condemnatory of Trump’s meager giving. It first noted that Trump may do much of his giving outside of his formal charitable vehicle, although any such figures are unavailable since Trump won’t release his tax returns. And it noted that the figures from Trump’s foundation could be more impressive in more recent years than those that were available to the website. The site also acknowledged that, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had raised $4.5 million for some two dozen veterans’ groups and was giving $1.1 million of his own funds to the Marine Corps – Law Enforcement Division (although he only did so after reporters called him on his earlier pledge, which he had not to that point honored).
Jim was not persuaded by my math. He pointed out that net worth is not income, and that much net worth (e.g., real property, stocks holdings) may not even produce income, and sizeable portions of one’s net worth can often be leveraged against loans that support ventures intended to produce future income. (In fact, Trump’s prior bankruptcies—he’s had at least four—were probably due to leveraged loans for projects that went poorly.)
Those points are all theoretically valid, but they aren’t known to be so for Trump because he won’t release his tax returns (which would clearly identify his real income and how he was using his assets that comprise his $4 billion net worth – if, indeed, that is his net worth, also unknowable without those tax returns).
Jim and I moved on to other topics without reaching any real agreement on Trump’s philanthropy, let alone whether it refutes my label of him as a jerk. I maintain that it doesn’t, even if his total philanthropy is well in excess of anything noted here.
People, especially the very wealthy among us, can engage in philanthropy for any number of reasons. Truly Christian charity can certainly be a prime motivation, but Donald Trump, despite his assertion that he is a Presbyterian, hardly evinces any suggestion that he is a religious man or that he is driven by spiritual beliefs to help his fellow humans. If Trump has a spiritual orthodoxy, it is probably represented by the televangelist preacher, Pastor Paula White (whom Trump is known to admire). Ms. White espouses the “prosperity gospel” as part of the “health, wealth and prosperity movement.”
The “prosperity gospel” says that God wants people to be rich, and that being wealthy is a sign of God’s blessing on an individual. In other words, the richer you are, the more obvious it is that God loves you, which, if you think about it, would seem to fit the image of a narcissist, but not necessarily of a philanthropist.
In any event, Jim, who is a devout Christian, probably represents the feelings of many true believers who supported Trump’s candidacy and have rejoiced in his two Supreme Court nominees, both of whom appear to be ready to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Jim gives Trump a pass on his sinful conduct from the past. He points out that we are all sinners and that no one (but God) can truly know what is in a person’s heart.
All of which, getting back to the charge of being a jerk that I made, may suggest I owe Jim (and Trump) an apology.
But I’m not about to give one because, alleged philanthropy and spiritual beliefs notwithstanding, a person has to be judged by the actions he or she takes and by the behavior he or she exhibits. And by that measure, Trump, throughout his public life, has shown himself to be “annoyingly stupid” (or “foolish”), “unlikable,” “cruel, rude, and small-minded.”
Let’s take those one at a time.
“Annoyingly stupid” – His supporters defend this charge by saying he is just ignorant, but rampant ignorance when one has access to lots of information eventually has to be just plain stupidity. A classic example of Trump’s “ignorance” occurred when he met the pastors of two Presbyterian churches in New York City. Trump, who, remember, claims to be a Presbyterian himself, referred to them as evangelicals, to which they responded that they were Presbyterians. “Yes, but aren’t you Christians?” the president replied, thereby suggesting that he thought all Christians were evangelicals, assuming he even knew that Presbyterians were Christians.
“Unlikable” – I have yet to meet a Trump supporter who considers him likable from what they see of him in public. (Some people who have met him personally say that he can be charming, and I have no doubt that he can be charming. Adolph Hitler was presumably charming with his intimates. We can certainly assume that Eva Braun thought so). Many of Trump’s supporters claim that they like his outspokenness, but no one has ever told me that they’d like to have a beer with him, which was the classic statement made about George W. Bush, and the reason many voted for him over Al Gore. Trump’s public persona is unappealing to all but the most hopeless sycophants. He demands to be admired incessantly and must be the center of attention or he becomes either bored or boorish. And, of course, he is a pathological liar, which I can’t imagine anyone ever finds likable.
“Cruel” – Zero tolerance that leads to separating children from their parents suffices, but the Muslim travel ban got his administration off to a start that marked it as “cruelly inefficient.”
“Rude” – His supporters claim that he only lashes out when he is attacked, but calling Omarosa a “dog” and claiming that Representative Maxine Waters has “an extraordinarily low IQ” are just plain rude and offensive attacks.
“Small-minded” – When you attack anyone who disagrees with you without regard to the merits of their attack, you are small-minded. When you take the security clearance from a career public servant like John Brennan just because he criticized you, you are small-minded. When you create an enemies-list, you are small-minded at best (and suffering from megalomania at worst). Trump has shown himself to be petty in the extreme. Even his supporters wish he would stop tweeting as often as he does, and most of those tweets are the small-minded attacks of a pathetically small person.
I stand by my statement. Yes, it’s a personal slam to call him a jerk, an ad hominem attack if you will. But it is not based on his policy decisions or on his private life or even on his view of the presidency. It’s based entirely on the person he shows himself to be. And no matter how much of his vast fortune he may be donating to charities or giving to those in need, he still qualifies as a jerk as that word is commonly defined.
If the shoe fits, Donald, you get to wear it.