Published On: Tue, Apr 10th, 2018

“in PRAISE of FOLLY”: The Trump Presidency in Wider Cultural Context

The American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson had called wisely upon the nation to embrace "plain living and high thinking." For President Trump, the preferred mantra might now just as well be the exact opposite.

Erasmus in 1523, by Hans Holbein-Louvre

By Louis René Beres, special to Jewish Business News

In 1509, Desiderius Erasmus, the famed Renaissance humanist, published In Praise of Folly. Here, the narrator, dressed as a court jester, argues that she is humankind’s greatest benefactor. Nursed, acknowledges Folly, by Drunkenness and Ignorance, her very closest followers include Self-Love, Pleasure, Flattery, and Sound Sleep. Later, however, in Chapter 31, the long parade of blemished souls upon whom she gleefully confers special “benefits” shifts dramatically, from the once alluring, young, and “hot-blooded,” to the old, pitiful, and grotesque.

Over time, there is more to learn. As all remaining illusions are mercilessly stripped away by Erasmus, Folly continues to offer unreservedly high praise for Ignorance and Lunacy. Ultimately, as her satiric banter turns to “acid,” Folly concisely sums up her contrived frivolity with an approving citation to the ironic (and iconic) words of Sophocles: “Ignorance always provides the happiest life.”

Today, the Trump presidency is plainly symptomatic of just such a recalcitrant Folly. At its core however, the truest cause of America’s perilous leadership affliction lies less in the personal debilities of a conspicuously unsuitable president than in the surrounding political culture – that is, in the larger society that had somehow “allowed” such a vacant and crude candidacy to be taken seriously in the first place. In essence, the all-too-palpable decline of the American presidency reflects an electorate that stubbornly refuses to think.

Stripped to its bare rudiments of meaning, and understood in terms of the philosopher Nietzsche’s still-valid general observation, America’s now potentially existential “Trump problem” can be illuminated by a classic aphorism from Zarathustra: “When the throne sits on mud,” warns Zarathustra, “mud sits upon the throne.”

In reality, of course, it’s not just about Donald Trump. Today, no U.S. president could seriously hope to make America great again (whatever that might mean). Ultimately, as Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, had understood earlier, every society must more-or-less reflect the sum total of its individual “souls” seeking some form of “redemption.”

As for present-day American society, this measureless total points less to any recoverable “greatness,” than to further visceral imitation, limitlessly blind submission, and a truly desperate abhorrence of meaningful thought.

In President Donald Trump’s America, the life of the mind is already becoming an even shorter book. More than anything else, even in the vaunted universities, Americans increasingly loathe any tiny hint of intellect, and, just as resolutely, all imaginable forms of intelligent entertainment.

More than anything, too-many Americans now prefer the phrase, “I follow,” to a once-still commendable, “I think.”

 

In Praise of Folly

More than anything, let us be candid, too-many in Trump’s America most dearly love to yell in an obliging chorus. It scarcely matters that this preposterous dialectic is generally devoid of any ascertainable fact, reason, or logic. Until now, at least, all that has ever really mattered is that such a grotesque colloquy could permit a gratefully rancorous chorus to chant in ominous unison: “Trump, Trump, Trump.”

“I’ll make America great again!” At best, and on every imaginable level of discernment, this vacant pledge remains the resuscitated and thinly refashioned slogan of 1933 German National Socialism. Plainly, such a potentially murderous claim can never signify anything of foreseeable national improvement. It is, rather, the easily recognizable omen of a still-plausible national declension.

No American society nurtured by any authentic considerations of learning could ever consider such a glibly illiterate promise to reveal more than humiliating self-parody.

Nonetheless, President Donald Trump has his own very special heroes. In addition to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, who still openly celebrates ongoing crimes against humanity in Syria and elsewhere, Trump has praised former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for his “effective treatment” of “terrorists,” mass murderer Muamar Khadafy, for having kept Libya “well-ordered,” and Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte for “cracking down” on illegal drugs. In this most revealing pantheon of personal preferences, Mr. Trump, inter alia, has been proudly specific. For example, he has at times expressly advocated torture, and also killing the families of alleged terrorists.

About Syria after the latest chemical attacks, certain corollary question should now be brought to the surface. Does President Trump even know that the law of war (aka the law of armed conflict), comprised of codified and customary norms designed to protect all noncombatants from deliberate harms, is prima facie the law of the United States? Could Mr. Trump ever hope to understand Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, the “Supremacy Clause,” or the several related U.S. Supreme Court decisions (especially The Paquete Habana, 1900 and Tel Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic, 1984 ) that unambiguously reinforce and widen Article 6 incorporations?

Opposing Russian-supported war crimes in Syria is not merely a matter of selective presidential whim or caprice. It’s the law. International law is an integral part of the law of the United States. It’s written in the Constitution, and in several authoritative judgments of the country’s highest court. One can’t disavow international law without simultaneously rejecting U.S. law.

Now, in Trump’s America – even when the administration is being widely challenged on multiple dimensions of policy malfeasance – the U.S. public inhabits a society so numbingly false that even its melancholy has become contrived. Wallowing in the dim twilight of near-irresistible conformance, Trump’s stubborn loyalists cheerfully display an infinite forbearance for shallow thinking, and, at the same time, a literally endless affection for starkly belligerent and degrading amusements.

An American “life of the mind?” Where is classic American theatre in the 21st century? Who is even left to read real literature? To answer, one need only look at what fellow passengers are reading on airplanes, trains, or cruise ships these days. Is it any wonder that an inherently ridiculous candidate like Donald Trump could somehow have actually gained the presidency?

A few years ago, I visited Fanning Island, in the faraway Republic of Kiribati. Although the people who came out to meet us were astoundingly poor, and without any modern conveniences (including electricity or indoor plumbing), they seemed genuinely better off and more content than the millions of disaffected Americans who are now struggling to stay alive amid far more impressively modern social media and technologies. To be sure, Mr. Trump has sought to capitalize on this disaffection, but neither his concocted diagnoses nor his prescribed therapies, can ever make any conceivable sense.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson had called wisely upon the nation to embrace “plain living and high thinking.” For President Trump, the preferred mantra might now just as well be the exact opposite.

“Plain living and high thinking?” Such an imperative is certainly not in this president’s fragile architecture of American greatness. Instead, in this not so sturdy construction, citizen aspirations would be driven by what Thorsten Veblen (The Theory of the Leisure Class) had imaginatively called “pecuniary envy.”

More commonly, Americans are now more apt to describe this “envy” as “conspicuous consumption.”

The American citizenry can be lonely in the world, or lonely for the world. Somehow, however, the country’s insistently crass culture has managed to produce both. Before a more sustainable America could ever be born from such a bifurcated loneliness, someone other than a lascivious presidential gravedigger would first need to wield the forceps.

This is not an inspiring expectation. Nonetheless, truth is always exculpatory. And truth alone can save our imperiled citizenry from the retrograde and manifestly lethal “insights” of President Trump.

Ironically, Americans inhabit one society that could have been different, perhaps even exemplary. Once, America possessed a unique potential to nurture individuals to become more than a docile mass, more than an obedient herd, more than a cowardly crowd that yearns, above all, to chant together. Then, Emerson had optimistically described Americans as an enviable people, spurred on most famously by “self-reliance.”

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” exulted the most purely American poet, Walt Whitman, but, today, an American Self remains under multi-pronged assault by a repressively vast mediocrity.

To restore Americans, as a nation, to long-term health and prosperity, and to ward off any such morbid supplication, the citizenry must first learn to look far beyond its futile obsession with public amusements and simplistic explanations. Only when such a required swerve of consciousness has become an irreversible gesture could the United States even hope to deflect the prospectively lethal embrace of grimly determined presidential “Folly.”

Louis René Beres is professor emeritus of political science at  Purdue University. Beres is the author of twelve books including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield. His lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism, and international law.

 

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