By Louis Rene Beres
From the beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump has remained determinedly anti-intellectual. Taken by itself, such a misconceived stance is hardly unprecedented in American politics. What is worrisome is that despite steadily mounting evidence of far-reaching presidential incapacity, millions of fellow citizens remain unwilling to challenge such a willful posture of anti-reason.
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Trump’s core idea of American foreign policy has literally no connection to informed diplomacy or to legal obligation. Refusing, once again, to be tempered by sagacity, his obsequious preference for the approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the data-based conclusions of his own intelligence community reveal a particularly serious form of presidential dereliction.
To the main point, this starkly egregious preference for popularity has recently exposed an all-too-willing degradation of America’s national security.
Nor have matters been helped any by the president’s conspicuous inability to hold his own among other national leaders, or even to substitute some palpably coherent species of thought for his always ready-to-tweet amalgam of suffocating banalities. At the conclusion of their G-20 meeting, Trump and Putin agreed to work together on enhancing U.S. and Russian cybersecurity. On its face, of course, any proposed American agreement for cooperation on cyberdefense with precisely the same adversary responsible for recent cyberattacks on the United States is more than bitterly ironic.
It is either preposterous, or very darkly suspicious. Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.”
For Trump, let us be candid: Intellectual impoverishment has now been elevated to high art. Without any subtlety, it is being worn boastfully by this accidental president – its utterly unapologetic champion – as an enviable badge of honor.
For Trump, observations on personal meetings or planned policies have generally been restricted to such vacant verbal spasms as “amazing,” “fantastic,” “incredible” and “beautiful.” Apropos of these severely limiting forms of description, the legendary wall, we were told (remember “the wall,” the physical barrier that would make America great again, and that Mexico was plainly anxious to fund?) will have “a beautiful door.”
Does anyone even know what this means? Shouldn’t someone – anyone – have already asked this elementary question?
There is much more. Assorted matters of international law, many of them overlapping or intersecting, must also be noted. Faced with a president whose very highest notion of correct reasoning is the argumentum ad baculum – that is, an overtly aggressive and presumptively illegitimate reliance upon personal defamation, shallow threats and persistent intimidation – the American people should already understand the consequences of such a cultivated disregard for international law. These results will prove irremediably harmful for the United States.
International law, Trump has yet to understand or observe, is an integral part of the law of the United States. In essence, this vital incorporation is codified at Article 6 of the Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”), and also at several corresponding U.S. Supreme Court decisions (principally, the Paquete Habana, 1900).
In the fashioning of national policies, evidence of intellect should never be cause for embarrassment. Always, at least in still-civilized nations, learning deserves its proper place. Significantly, the very tangible nexus between national and international law can be extrapolated from certain basic writings of the Founding Fathers, who were, for the most part, capable thinkers themselves, and who plainly read difficult and enduring writings of jurists and political philosophers.
Does anyone seriously believe that Trump ever reads anything of importance, let alone write? Can anyone attest that he ever reads anything at all? Could he conceivably compose, in an entire lifetime, what Thomas Jefferson (without any benefit of electricity, air conditioning or computers) was able to produce on a single hot weekend in July? Has anyone ever perused a single paragraph of legible compositional thought by Donald Trump?
Virtually every American already knows the answer to these questions, even his most refractory supporters, but only a tiny fraction are apt to find this response perplexing or disturbing. The reason is simple, but also structural. Significantly, the Trump presidency’s obvious disdain for intellect did not arise in any sort of historical or demographic vacuum. It was made possible, instead, by an underlying and longstanding cultural loathing of serious education.
There is more. The anti-reason problem in America is not just about a stubbornly obsessive national preoccupation with consumption and conformance. Karl Jaspers, the important 20th-century German philosopher who had tried to understand and explain an unintelligible buffoon’s curious rise to power in 1933, observed correctly in his 1952 “Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time”: “There is something inside all of us that yearns not for reason, but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought, but for the whisperings of the irrational.” In part, at least, this indecipherable “something” now permits a manifestly incapable and compromised American president to create incalculable harms.
We Americans are not likely to recognize, change or remove this “something” in time to suitably protect the country from this president’s myriad derelictions. But we ought still try to understand that Trump himself is not the real “pathology.” This markedly incoherent presidency is merely the most visible and familiar symptom of a far more widespread and deeply systemic disorder.
The true underlying disease here is a corrosive social and educational structure that openly frowns upon and suppresses any residual hint of American independent thought. Within this potentially lethal structure, the individual citizen now counts for nothing, absolutely nothing, literally nothing at all. When viewed against the once hopeful background of America’s founding philosophies – especially natural rights and natural law – the irony of this crude suppression rapidly becomes overwhelming.
“The crowd,” observed the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” Accordingly, Trump’s undaunted minions always insist upon chanting in chorus. For those who have had even a minimal acquaintance with modern history, the hideously dark tenor of any such ritualistic chanting is sorely familiar. Above all, it expresses the readily calculable hallmark of a frightened and lonely people, an anxious population that absolutely craves membership in the “crowd.”
Ultimately, this irrepressible craving points directly toward a diminished national future without redemption. Hungrily, it speeds up the final drowning of American individualism in a squalidly acrid sea of so-called groupthink.
We must now inquire plaintively, audibly, and no longer sotto voce: “Is this still an excusable American presidency, or just a badly choreographed dress rehearsal for ‘Lord of the Flies’?” Before answering, it is surely worth remembering that mortality is our indisputably common lot, and that drowning is always a difficult way to die.
Trump’s remaining supporters (who still number in the several millions) yearn not only for the warmth of “belonging,” but also for reassuringly simplistic explanations. The reasons behind this abundantly strong preference for simplification are unambiguous. Complexity, after all, is difficult and daunting; always, it demands correspondingly painstaking thought.
Why bother to think, when it is much easier to numb our brains with a steady barrage of readily available and grotesquely satisfying cheap entertainments, distractions that may typically include mountains of drugs, or vast oceans of alcohol.
The Founding Fathers did not generally believe in democracy. Most had agreed with Alexander Hamilton’s trenchant observation that “the people are a great beast.” Jefferson, arguably the most democratic of the Founders, had cheerlessly regarded “the people” as “refuse” from which a small number of gifted individuals might be culled once each year.
It has been the principal irony of the 2016 presidential election that “the people” chose that candidate who said proudly, “I love the poorly educated,” and who very inelegantly now seeks to preside over an obligingly docile American “crowd.” Trump did not actually win the popular vote, of course, but the Electoral College system – however much it’s expected workings might have been subverted from abroad – was a creative democratic invention of the Founders. To be sure, the last thing “we the people” needed last year was to elect a president whose promised policies would intentionally confirm the Founding Fathers’ expressly worst fears about an American “mass.”
In the matter of President Donald Trump, the pertinent ironies continue to build inauspiciously, incrementally, one upon the other. Alas, such ironies are now a fixed impediment to American national progress (let alone to American “greatness”); fittingly, it is our reciprocal obligation to stand firmly for science and truth, and against political wizardry or more doctrinal anti-reason. The best current example of this responsibility concerns the Trump administration’s de facto and de jure war on essential environmental protections, and on all corollary rules of civilizational improvement. Another is its unseemly disregard for human rights, in the United States and everywhere else.
Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.” The alternative to acknowledging this unequivocal obligation – especially at a perilous moment when the American president may have to make certain momentous eleventh-hour decisions concerning nuclear weapons and nuclear war – is infinitely intolerable.
It is simply too abhorrent to be taken seriously.
Louis Rene Beres is professor emeritus of political science at Purdue University. Beres’ lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism, and international law. He is the author of several books, including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield.
This article was first published at US News & World Report