Right Wing Watch poses this puzzler:
On Sunday, far-right radio host Alex Jones praised Donald Trump for his “idiot savant regular people skills”...Jones adds that as a result, the President "knows how to read people, and to have megalevel charisma in person."
Can that be so? I was curious.
An expert in the field, Derald Treffert, detailed the manifestations of the syndrome in a 2009 article:
Considering all the abilities in the human repertoire, it is interesting that savant skills generally narrow to five general categories: music, usually performance, most often piano, with perfect pitch, although composing in the absence of performing has been reported as has been playing multiple instruments (as many as 22); art, usually drawing, painting or sculpting; calendar calculating (curiously an obscure skill in most persons); mathematics, including lightning calculating or the ability to compute prime numbers, for example, in the absence of other simple arithmetic abilities; and mechanical or spatial skills, including the capacity to measure distances precisely without benefit of instruments, the ability to construct complex models or structures with painstaking accuracy or the mastery of map making and direction finding.
Other skills have been reported less often, including: prodigious language (poly-glot) facility; unusual sensory discrimination in smell, touch or vision including synaesthesia; perfect appreciation of passing time without benefit of a clock; and outstanding knowledge in specific fields such as neurophysiology, statistics or navigation. In Rimland's (1978) sample of 543 children with special skills, musical ability was the most frequently reported skill followed by memory, art, pseudo-verbal abilities, mathematics, maps and directions, coordination, calendar calculating and extrasensory perception. Hyperlexia, which is distinguished by precocity rather than age-independent level of skill, has also been frequently reported in autism (Grigorenko et al. 2002).
Generally, a single special skill exists but, in some instances, several skills exist simultaneously. Rimland & Fein (1988) noted that the incidence of multiple skills appeared to be higher in savants with autism than in savants with other developmental disabilities. Whatever the special skill, it is always associated with prodigious memory. Some observers list memory as a separate special skill; however, prodigious memory is an ability all savants possess cutting across all of the skill areas as a shared, integral part of the syndrome itself. Several investigators have shown that memory alone cannot fully account for savant abilities, particularly calendar calculating and musical skills (Nettlebeck & Young 1999; Hermelin 2001). Formal testing for eidetic imagery shows that phenomenon to be present in some, but certainly not all, savants and when present it may exist more as a marker of brain damage than being central to savant abilities (Bender et al. 1968; Giray & Barclay 1977).
The most common are splinter skills, which include obsessive preoccupation with, and memorization of, music and sports trivia, license plate numbers, maps, historical facts or obscure items such as vacuum cleaner motor sounds, for example. Talented savants are those cognitively impaired persons in whom the musical, artistic or other special abilities are more prominent and highly honed, usually within an area of single expertise and are very conspicuous when viewed in contrast to overall disability. Prodigious savant is a term reserved for those extraordinarily rare individuals for whom the special skill is so outstanding that it would be spectacular even if it were to occur in a non-impaired person. There are, from my experience, probably fewer than 100 known prodigious savants living worldwide at the present time who would meet that very high threshold of savant ability.
Whatever the special abilities, a remarkable memory of a unique and uniform type welds the condition together. Terms such as automatic, mechanical, concrete and habit-like have been applied to this extraordinary memory. Down (1887) used the term ‘verbal adhesion’; Critchley (1979) used the term ‘exultation of memory’ or ‘memory without reckoning’; Tredgold (1914) used the term ‘automatic’; and Barr (1898) characterized his patient with prodigious memory as ‘an exaggerated form of habit’. Such unconscious memory suggests what Mishkin et al. (1984) referred to as non-conscious ‘habit’ formation rather than a ‘semantic’ memory system. They proposed two different neural circuits for these two different types of memory: a higher level corticolimbic circuit for semantic memory and a lower level cortico-striatal circuit for the more primitive habit memory, which is sometimes referred to as procedural or implicit memory. Savant memory is characteristically very deep, but exceedingly narrow, within the confines of the accompanying special skill.Can people skills fall into the narrow range savants' abilities? Certainly, the literature of two centuries makes evident any manifestation is possible. But the fact the syndrome can arise congenitally and from external causes suggests its origins lie in the comparative plasticity of individual brains.
In the President*s case, arguing he has superhuman people skills that loom even larger amid a barren landscape of intellectual deficits seems a stretch. For one thing, "people skills" are not a clinically definable, isolable set of skills. One definition may vary widefy from another. A Forbes article, example, cited twenty specific elements.
A different source took a more broad-brush approach that boiled down the Forbes twenty:
Good people skills are an asset in nearly every line of work. In general, good people skills are defined as the ability to listen, to communicate and to relate to others on a personal or professional level. Good people skills also extend to include problem-solving abilities, empathy for others and a willingness to work together toward the common good.Perhaps, still, Jones is onto something. Of the elements in this short descriptor, the only one the President manifests is the ability "to communucate and to relate to others on a personal or professional level," though on a good day that is, at best, hit-and-miss.
Do the President*s epic people skills translate, then, into "mega-level charisma"? Forbes says there are five elements to that: be self-confident, tell great stories, use good bodyspeak; make the conversation about others (before you hit the buzzer, remember: the President is all over riling other people up, channeling their prejudices and fears, and telling them he will fix those and protect them given enough power and adoration), and be a good listener.
Charisma is an elusive quality. I found, for example, the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey had it by the carload in person. He could electrify a room, and to meet him was to feel you were the only person he knew on the planet. On TV, he came across as a gabbling old maid.
It's easy to diss the Pres as lacking charisma, or people skills, or intelligence, if the ways he exhibits them don't hit your- or my- buttons. Hitler was wildly charismatic and widely reviled, just by different people.
In this instance, it's also easy to dismiss Alex Jones as a halfwit.
But he may be on to something here. Its worth a thought.