It turns out there’s science to support the idea that those who supported and/or continue to support Donald Trump likely possess substantially lower intellectual capacity than those who don’t.
Southern Illinois Professor of Sociology Darren Sherkat used a 10-point vocabulary exam to evaluate the cognitive and political decision-making skills of white Trump supporters.
While controlling for education, gender, geography, income, age, and more, Sherkat found that almost 73 percent of people who didn’t get any of the questions right would vote for Trump, compared to 35 percent of people who got all ten questions right. Fifty-one percent of those who got an average score would vote for Trump.
“While non-college whites certainly turned out more heavily for Trump, the smart ones did not,” Sherkat wrote in a guest essay for the blog Down With Tyranny. “Only 38 percent of those with perfect scores are expected to go for Trump, and only 46 percent of non-college graduates who scored a standard deviation above the mean. The same is true for college graduates – low cognition college graduates were more likely to vote for Trump.”
Other research from Sherkat explains that there is a difference between education level and “cognitive sophistication,” and it is the latter that more greatly affects our political leanings.
“Low levels of cognitive sophistication may lead people to embrace simple cognitive shortcuts, like stereotypes and prejudices that were amplified by the Trump campaign,” Sherkat wrote in a 2021 article for Social Science Quarterly. “Additionally, the simple linguistic style presented by Trump may have appealed to voters with limited education and cognitive sophistication.”
Sherkat added that the Trump campaign may have appealed to people “with low cognitive sophistication and a preference for low-effort information processing” because “Trump’s speeches were given at a much lower reading level” than other candidates.
At the same time, he said a preference for Trump does not necessarily equal a vote for him, as those with college degrees are still more likely to actually vote.
“While much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric and orientation may have resonated with the poorly educated and cognitively unsophisticated, those overlapping groups are less likely to register to vote or to turn out in an election,” he said.
Sherkat also found that fundamentalist Christians and “those who embrace identifications with sectarian Protestant denominations” were more likely to have voted for Trump in 2016.
He told Salon that cognitive sophistication is not only about education level, but education quality and content, and that “generations of white Christian Americans” have been taught “a radically skewed version of American and world history” that encourage “a continued segregated society. ”
“White fundamentalist Christians distrust mainstream social institutions like education and print media, and they actively seek to eliminate public education and to provide alternative sources of information,” Sherkat explained.
“As a result, people who identify with and participate in white Christian denominations and who subscribe to fundamentalist beliefs have substantial intellectual deficits that make them easy marks for a wide variety of schemes — from financial fraud to conspiracy theories.”
Sherkat’s diagnosis of Trump supporters is serious. He emphasized that their low intellectual capacity doesn’t mean they can’t have a vast influence on the future of this country.
He espoused the dangers of over a million children being homeschooled every year by uneducated, white fundamentalist parents in a society where “spouting off obvious untruths is no longer a mark of shame.”
“We seem to have a stable set of about 30 percent of Americans, 35 percent of white Americans, who are oblivious to political realities and incapable and unwilling to come to terms with any of our key social problems. The increasing control over public education by right-wing fanatics is entrenching ignorance and intellectual laziness in future generations. It does not bode well for the future of American democracy.”