Donald Trump and Beautiful Experiences

Like most Americans, Howard Gardner has been following the engrossing and controversial 2016 presidential primary season in the United States. In the blog post below, Gardner comments on what he believes can help explain the appeal of Donald Trump for so many voters. Using the lens of the virtues of truth, beauty, and goodness, Trump is not true or good, but he does create experiences that his supporters find beautiful.


Like many other observers—indeed, like almost everyone I know!—I’ve been trying to account for the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s popularity. By popularity, I don’t just mean the number of votes he is likely to muster. While personally I cannot abide watching him, individuals whom I respect and even love can’t seem to get enough of him. How to account for this attraction, unprecedented in my experience? After ruminating for some time, I think I’ve found the answer—and it lurks in my own work, as an educator, on the purposes of education.

For some time, I’ve argued that the purpose of education is to nurture the appreciation of the true, the beautiful, and the good. Nothing very original here; in fact, the motto of my high school was “Verum, Pulchrum, Bonum.” On no account does Trump qualify as a truth-teller or truth seeker. He leads every measure of “pants-on-fire”—the schoolyard taunt of one who never provides evidence for his outlandish claims, who does not care whether his statements are true.

As for goodness, Trump also falls well short. A good worker should be ethical in all facets of her profession; a good citizen should take into account the welfare of all in his community. From all that has been reported, Trump receives low scores on both counts. As to whether Trump is a good person—a good friend, a good neighbor, a good husband and father—I’ll claim “not enough data.”

Which leaves the judgment of beauty. One achievement (positive or negative) of recent times is that we no longer accept canonical definitions of what is beautiful; many scholars do not even sanction use of the word “beautiful.” After all, we value the artwork of Willem DeKooning (or street art) or the music of Arnold Schoenberg (or hip-hop or rap). Having pondered the evolution of taste—in art, music, literature, nature, food—I’ve come up with a quite different perspective. As I define it, a beautiful experience fits three criteria: it is initially interesting; it is memorable in form; and it invites and encourages re-visiting and re-experiencing.

Could this concept explain The Appeal of The Donald? I think it does.

To begin, even I would concede that Trump is interesting—he captures attention. He does so with his distinctive hair, his overly rotund physique, and his raspy voice.

As for memorable form, again Trump passes the test. We don’t just remember the content of his message. We remember the way that he presents, interacts with his audience, holds up his hands, comments and ripostes off the cuff, and struts and frets on stage.

Which brings me to the last criterion—the impulse to revisit. Here is where the world sharply divides. Many people, including me, find Trump repulsive; we don’t want to ever see or hear him again. This characterization applies to many awe-ful events: we may notice them, we may find them memorable, but few of us want to revisit the concomitant pain, suffering, and destruction. No Holocaust photos or movies, please.

But with respect to individuals of my acquaintance, quite a few cannot get enough of Trump. Something, anything, or many things about his presentation are sufficiently attractive, compelling, and indeed awe-some that these persons find themselves returning again and again to the places where his image and his message can be found. And while some who are attracted to his persona would die before they would vote for him, many cherish these “beautiful experiences” so much that they hope to repeat them over four or even eight years.

To quote another Latin phrase, “De gustibus non disputandum” (“One cannot quarrel with taste”). It is possible, however, to outgrow one’s taste—as we do with so many food and movies that we once savored—and to cultivate a more sophisticated one. I wish that we had on the political stage more individuals whose attractiveness is accompanied by a more constructive set of messages.

-Howard Gardner


7 Comments on “Donald Trump and Beautiful Experiences”

  1. Michelle March 30, 2016 at 9:52 pm #

    The observation that the link to this article has at this time, twenty three hours after its original posting, received 15 likes (I will be adding one now that I have read it.), two comments, one share and no comments here until this moment leads one to ponder the presence of goodness, truth, and beauty in general. The question is raised as to how many people indeed participate in this democratic republic beyond the sound byte/headline/image bombardment phase of reasoning. Hence the comment with regards to the good opinion of our good, truthful and beautiful author, Howard Gardner and the Latin phrase he left us with about the sense or lack of sense of one who argues with taste. One can hardly account for taste when the evidence of its presence is missing. Can one have a taste for and therefore like or dislike the sweet basil and olive oil in a lasagna without taking a bite? On the rectitude of Street Art and Picasso, what percentage of people do you fascinate have ever heard of let alone seen The Barefoot Girl? Does this then minimize or maximize their ability to experience the “Goodness, Truth and Beauty” found in Guernica? Without an art history lesson? It seems clear that Truth, Beauty, and Goodness meet the Riddle of Induction and it’s “good” that someone is interested in finding an absolute predicate to define the how, why, and what of the existence of Donald Trump, but this political season is starting to look like entropy and perhaps the beckoning of a need for change in the system itself. This gentle reader has no desire to provoke the aggressive energy of any crowd and these days it isn’t difficult for a thing like that to happen. Donald Trump uses aggressive energy effectively and not because of his hair, dad bod, or gravely voice and agreed that there is inconclusive data to define goodness or at least those who have the stature and courage to enter that hail storm. Having worked on the corner of 59th Street and Park Avenue across from the “Disney Building” (where at least one Trump had offices) for some time it is believed that one would conclude that some data could be gathered, but to what end? There are no networks interested in filtering the sound bytes/headlines/or images that it would take to topple the giant and no magic beans in sight while there is already a sufficient shake of the money maker selling ads(the captivation factor in that people will look and look again). The man who runs our local video rental/ice cream parlor/post office was recently commenting on the rise of interest in zombie- apocalyptic-super hero-vampire movie and likens it to the the fact that people generally feel disenfranchised as a result of the economically crippling, privacy stripping, and endless war monger-ring first decade of this new century and millennium. The interest in Trump reeks a similar outcry. The Latin phrase that seems suited to the mark here is, a fronte praecipitium a tergo lupi or between a cliff and a wolf.

  2. Margaret May 5, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

    I’ll be brief. First off, I can not help but “shudder” internally anytime when I view Mr. Trump. I have made myself watch him to try to understand his appeal. This phenomena doesn’t seem to have anything to do with intelligence does it? Is this awe-somness with him more like an addiction? Just my observation

    • Tinker June 4, 2016 at 2:40 pm #

      Margaret, it depends on where your intellect is based. If it’s based in “partyism” or rhetoric or rumor, then intellect is not coming into play at all. If the real and huge picture that is occurring to the country is vacant from reasoning of the person being “judged” based on “intelligence” for to omit fact when determining the intelligence of a particular mindset or action is purely futile and ignorant in and of itself and infused with a rather large dose of stupidity. It’s the “arrogance” trait that scares the fed system and the elites…that’s what is needed to stop the destruction of America and someone that knows how to make money in America and not spend it when we don’t have it to begin with and who flushed our money? Every administration since Kennedy minus Reagan, who was bullied into much of his movements and yet after he left office he spoke alot regarding what is truly happening in the center of government in the U.S. !!

  3. Stephen Combs May 23, 2016 at 7:56 pm #

    I was drawn to this fascinating post while researching a related but slightly different topic for a column I am writing this week for my own website and was intrigued by the adjectives you apply to Donald Trump, repulsive being the most accurate for my tastes. The question that led me here is this: While I learned from you about multiple intelligences, do we have multiple stupidities as well? I enjoyed your post very much. Thanks.

  4. Wayne Brown May 29, 2016 at 7:53 pm #

    Hi…Im from New Zealand and have been drawn into this Trumpmania for some time now. “From the Apprentice to the Master” I have been an avid watcher of the broadcast of the Apprentice and marvel at how ruthless Trump has been. Despite the failures of most, someone will succeed and that is what drives them. I like Donald Trump. A politician, maybe not…neither was Ronald Reagan, but a President he may become, not because he has the intelligence, but the desire to give it a go. He has the “smarts” to surround himself with the right people and by doing so has in fact created this phenomena which has captured the world.
    I fell into this as I am studying multi intelligence and how profound a statement as stupid as it may seem, Donald Trump is quite an intelligent person, in his own way, as per multi intelligence offers all of us equal opportunity to express ourselves for the betterment of self, community and country…
    “Go Donald Trump” I, we all wait in eagerness to to see the outcome
    OK…I admit, I dont like his hair style…it irks me to look at him, I dont like his ngarly fake smile, I dont like the way he talks about Mexicans, I am afraid of his approach to war, in fact there is not much I do like about him…but guess what…If it were possible, I would vote for “Trump”


  5. Jerry Pannone June 3, 2016 at 6:11 pm #

    I think “The Donald,” is just the natural evolution in the political arena, of what we have been experiencing in pop culture in general for decades now. Distract the masses with shallow, but glitzy entertainment that seduces and the powers that be can walk away with the cookie jar.

  6. anu bhatia November 28, 2016 at 6:32 pm #

    Hi, Dr. Gardner, I found very useful insights in your analysis of Trump. Thanks. It would be great if you could provide a link so I could share your vision with more people.

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