By Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton)
Special to Jewish Business News
“You ever notice they always call the other side `the elite.’ The elite! Why are they elite? I have a much better apartment than they do. I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president and they didn’t.“
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President Donald Trump speaking at his Duluth (MN) rally, June 20, 2018
“Devoid of imagination, as the Philistine always is, he lives in a certain trivial province of experience, as to how things go, what is possible, what usually occurs….Philistinism thinks it is in control of possibility….it carries possibility around like a prisoner in the cage of the probable, and shows it off.”
Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death (1849)
Even now, many Americans are able to regard Donald Trump as a fully capable or even exemplary president. This seemingly unshakeable preference could have nothing to do with any commendable job performance. It can be explained only by considering the wider society from which this unsuitable president was extracted.
Prima facie, this suggested consideration is very badly needed; indeed, it could reveal a great deal of current and future importance. At a minimum, it could better illuminate America’s now glaringly disjointed and rancorous national “culture,” one generally devoid of any discernible intellectual imagination or enviable moral courage. Also evident, at least prospectively, would be a distracted nation that has come to abhor any once still-lingering scraps of genuine learning.
Plausibly, such a grievously lamentable observation could pertain as meaningfully to certain Americans of wealth and privilege as to more numerous ordinary Americans who possess little or no formal education.
It was for just such a strange juxtaposition of privilege with philistinism that the nineteenth-century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, coined a very specific word, one he foresaw would eventually become more generic and simultaneously more universal. This specially-coined German word was Bildungsphilister, or, expressed in its correct English translation, “educated Philistine.” Now, surely, it could apply instructively to the United States.
A further clarification. Bildungsphilister is a term that could shed needed light upon Donald Trump’s continuing support among many among the presumptively well-educated. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had commented on several occasions, “I love the poorly-educated.” Still, significant numbers of professionals also wound up favoring this markedly unsteady candidate from the insubstantial worlds of commerce and marketing.
Core questions arise: How has the United States actually managed to arrive at such a fearful and dismal place in its history? This is a distinctly reasonable question, especially as the Trump presidency is quickly and unambiguously transforming our rapidly-declining and self-poisoning country into the withering corpse of a once-great nation.
It’s time for absolute candor. Incontestably, our largely self-trivializing society knows very little of any serious consequence. Much more ominously, and closely mirroring its non-reading president, this heterodox assemblage of workers, professionals and Bildungsphilster wants to know as little as possible of any substance. Significantly, more than any other conspicuous or inconspicuous debility, this overriding national wish “not to know” could incrementally bring America back not to any so-called “greatness,” but rather to ubiquitously explosive and broadly lethal hatreds.
In any final tally of America’s probable future, such a hideously virulent regression would likely combine rampant domestic instability with variegated expressions of international war. These days, of course, such expressions could be more-or-less “hybridized,” and thereby also involve conflicts with assorted sub-state or terrorist actors, and ancillary or primary use of nuclear and/or biological weapons.
For the most part, the crucial “facts” here are easy to recognize. Even before the ongoing Trump-accelerated declension, Americans had become shamelessly proud of their historical and cultural illiteracy. This was true even at those relatively auspicious moments when technical opportunities for learning and awareness were still expanding.
Once upon a time, when at least some Americans still sought to consult serious books and real ideas (not just recurrently empty-witticisms about guns, mass killing and a Constitutional Second Amendment never actually read or examined), Ralph Waldo Emerson called upon his fellow citizens to embrace “plain living and high thinking.” Now, this always-sensible plea for enhanced personal and social equilibrium has been expressly cast aside. Now, there is no longer even any pretense of a vibrant “life of the mind” within these bitterly fractionated United States.
But don’t we still have aptly famous universities? Yes, but even in these universities, the same core sentiments abound. Here, nary a scintilla of true intellectual ambition is easily detectable, unless, of course, one first discloses an openly entrepreneurial goal, one identified with recognizable commercial profit. Yes, of course, in the universities, at least when intellect can somehow be fused with readily accessible opportunities for cash, “education” can still be found.
We must begin at the beginning. America’s starkly demeaning hierarchy of educational values has not been fashioned in any cultural vacuum. Moreover, it remains strongly reinforced by the country’s utterly unrelieved barrage of crude and voyeuristic entertainments, much of which still center on sadism, torture, murder and a banal discourse of monosyllabic grunts and dreary profanity. Is it really any wonder, in such a deeply besotted and craven society, that a president who disdains literature, history and art can enthusiastically punctuate his every stream-of-conscious flow of clichés and platitudes with the following philistine query:
“Who knows; I don’t know. Do you know what the hell is going on here.”
Plato once had vastly higher expectations for his proposed “philosopher-king.” Still, even if we no longer seriously expect a philosopher-king in the White House, ought we not still be entitled to a man or woman who manages somehow to both read and think?
In the beginning, America’s Founding Fathers were well-acquainted with the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, notably with his classic Leviathan. Following the most easily recognizable passage, the “state of nature” (a condition effectively favored by Donald Trump, who assuredly has never heard of Hobbes) is a condition wherein “…the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This state of nature, further explained Hobbes, is a uniquely frightful condition, one wherein “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.”
In other words, said Hobbes, but with an obvious sense of revulsion, it is a condition of anarchy.
In anarchy, of course, “might makes right.”
For President Trump, at least by extrapolation, going back to “nature” could represent a cheerfully positive development. More precisely, it would likely enhance a large and acceptable part of “making America great again.” And if this retrograde position were not portentous enough, Mr. Trump had earlier encouraged certain allied countries to acquire their own nuclear weapons (e.g., Japan and South Korea), a singularly mindless preference that already signaled his deeply confused desire to reinsert manifestly corrosive forms of “natural selection” into world politics.
This backward-looking reassertion was favored to occur not only within the United States, but also internationally. Reciprocally, Trump’s recent “agreement” at the Singapore summit will assuredly leave Kim Jung Un and North Korea on an undiminished trajectory of nuclear weapons development. For Kim, very obviously, “denuclearization” can never mean any verifiable removal of North Korean nuclear arms, but only a cosmetic willingness to end no-longer-necessary national nuclear tests.
In the end, America’s presidential selections are being shaped by fundamentally basic cultural disfigurements. Accordingly, many of this country’s cumulative political ambitions remain bound up with steeply embarrassing simplifications, and with resoundingly stupefying slogans. The elaborately welcomed appearance of Duck Dynasty as a principal speaker before the Republican National Convention was not at all aberrant in his particular universe. Instead, it was fully consistent with Donald Trump’s own proud personal aversion to culture, intellect and learning.
Can anyone seriously maintain or argue that President Trump ever reads a single work of literature, history or philosophy? Ever?
Ralph Waldo Emerson and the other American Transcendentalists would wince. Our earliest presidents, after all, were individuals of authentically worthwhile accomplishment and original thought, reading and writing insightfully at a time when such challenging excursions into scholarship and contemplation were substantially more difficult to undertake than today. We should be reminded, during the late 18th and nineteenth centuries, the absence not only of computers or typewriters, but also of electric lights, automobiles, air conditioning, and central heating.
In other words, America’s refractory unconcern for real learning and education is not only self-evident, it is also doubly shameful.
Years back, America was still not all about money, about buying, selling, and an abundantly crude commerce. Surely we remember our earlier presidents not for their tangible successes in the profit-oriented marketplace of things to be bought or sold, but rather for their auspicious leadership in a mind-centered marketplace of original ideas. For these presidents, it was presumptively more important to build a legacy upon wisdom and learning than upon transient architectures of conspicuously-placed gold and silver personal objects.
In essence, it all starts with the microcosm. The full horror of the Trump presidency begins with the intellectually unambitious American individual, with the deeply flawed private citizen. Our American electorate, here the pertinent macrocosm, can never rise any higher than the amalgamated capacities of its separate members. “When the throne sits on mud,” cautioned Friedrich Nietzsche, “mud sits on the throne.”
Ultimately, every democracy must represent the sum total of its constituent souls, that is, those still-hopeful citizens who would seek some sort or other of personal “redemption.” In our deeply segmented American republic, however, We the people – more and more desperate for a seemingly last chance to “fit in,” and “get respect” – inhabit a vast and irretrievable wasteland of lost human opportunity. Within this largely desiccated society of cheap and abysmal entertainments, we, the “hollow men” and women are chained to a lifetime of more-or-less exhausting and meaningless work.
Often, oddly enough, this is often as true for the very rich as for the very poor.
And what do we talk about or debate as organized communities? Today, our most spirited national debates are more about guns and random school slaughters than about history, literature, music, art, or beauty. Unsurprisingly, within this vast and predatory nether world, huge segments of our unhappy fellow citizens are busily drowning themselves in vast oceans of alcohol and drugs.
In gaining the presidency, Donald Trump had correctly understood just one thing: “We (Americans) don’t get no satisfaction.” What he did not understand is how to meaningfully and decently compensate for this measureless ocean of unhappiness. Despite his endlessly silly promises, he “alone” can never “fix it.” He can’t even begin to understand what is actually wrong and needs to be fixed.
There can be very little doubt that – as a people – we now unhesitatingly embrace the full range of cultural and intellectual declension. In other words, we go down, in the blithering Trump era, with nary a murmur of detectable resistance or discoverable courage. Above all, perhaps, we continue to think aggressively against history, bombastically, strangely pleased, somehow, that almost no one here ever takes the trouble to read or learn anything of substance.
Even the most affluent Americans sometimes inhabit this loneliest and most illiterate of crowds, living out their persistently anesthetized lives at hotels and airports, pushed forward not by any suitably lofty goals or satisfactions, but by the distinctly pale fulfillments of stronger coffee, freely-flowing alcohol, myriad opiates, rooms full of exercise equipment, and a steadily expanding account of frequent flier miles.
It is small wonder, too, that so many millions cling pitifully to their smart phones and related electronic devices. Filled with the deepening and ultimate horror of having to be left alone with themselves, these virtually connected crowds are visibly frantic to claim membership in the anonymous public mass. Earlier, in the 19th century, Soren Kierkegaard, had foreseen and understood this omnivorous mass, even before social media. “The crowd,” opined the prophetic Danish philosopher accurately, “is untruth.”
“I belong, therefore I am.” This is certainly not what philosopher René Descartes had in mind back in the 17th century when he had urged greater private thought and, as corollary, greater doubt. This is also, inherently, a very sad credo. Without demurring, it positively shrieks that social acceptance is equivalent to one’s own physical survival, and that even the most ostentatiously pretended pleasures of inclusion are clearly worth pursuing.
Should there remain any detectable doubts about this sorely desperate credo, one need only consult the latest suicide statistics for the United States. To reduce these revealing numbers will require far more than shallow and blatantly sterile promises to “make America great again.” It will require a citizenry that wants much more than to chant toxic gibberish in a continuous and lamentable chorus.
There is still more explanation for explaining the Trump presidency. A push-button metaphysics of “apps” reigns supreme in America. At its core, the immense attraction of our infantile social networking stems in part from our machine-like existence. Within this icily robotic universe, every hint of natural human passion must generally be directed along ritualistically uniform pathways.
Woe to any citizen who would even casually dare to stray from this vicarious and closely-confining pathway.
Human beings are obviously the creators of their machines; not their servants. Yet, there does exist today an implicit and grotesque reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate and potentially lethal pantomime between the users and the used. Nowhere is this lethality more evident than among the loyal followers of President Donald Trump. They follow him, however, because the wider American society had first been allowed to become a veritable desert of serious thought and dignified learning.
Adrenalized, our fevered American society is rapidly making a machine out of Man and Woman. Arguably, too, in an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, it may soon be made to seem plausible that we have been created in the image of the machine. Mustn’t we then ask, as residually sober thinkers and Cartesian doubters, “What sort of redemption is this?”
By then, of course, it will already be too late.
For the moment, at least, we Americans remain grinning but hapless captives in a deliriously noisy and airless crowd. Proudly disclaiming any interior life, we proceed tentatively, and in almost every existential sphere, at the lowest possible common denominator. Expressed in even more palpable terms, our human freedom is becoming a contrivance.
This is fertile ground for any American president whose principal commitments are not to reason, intellect, and logic, but rather to rancor, blame, and very systematic forms of deflection.
Though faced with very genuine threats of war, illness, impoverishment, and terror, millions of Americans still prefer to amuse themselves to death, resorting to various forms of morbid excitement, voyeuristic “reality shows,” inedible or openly injurious foods, and the distracting repetitions of a persistently-vacuous political discourse. Not a day goes by that we don’t notice some premonitory sign of impending catastrophe. Still, our numbed country continues to impose upon its exhausted and manipulated people, a shamelessly open devaluation of challenging thought, and a continuously breakneck pace of unrelieved work and emotional submission.
Small wonder that “No Vacancy” signs now hang securely outside our psychiatric hospitals, our childcare centers, and, above all, at our prisons.
Soon, even if we should somehow manage to avoid nuclear war and nuclear terrorism – an avoidance not to be taken for granted in the unraveling Trump Era – the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned. Then, the phantoms of great ships of state, once laden with silver and gold, may no longer lie forgotten. Then, perhaps, we will finally understand that the circumstances that could send the compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Freud and Kafka to join the works of forgotten poets, were neither unique, nor transient.
In all societies, as Emerson and the other American Transcendentalists had already recognized, the scrupulous care of each individual soul is most important. Meaningfully, there can be a “better”American soul, and also a correspondingly improved American politics, but not until we first acknowledge a prior obligation. This is a far-reaching national responsibility to overcome the staggering barriers of crowd culture, and to embrace once again the deeply liberating imperatives of “high thinking.”
At one level of understanding, the Donald Trump presidency is just the most debilitating symptom of a much deeper pathology. The underlying disease is a far-reaching national unwillingness to think seriously. Left unchallenged at this most rudimentary level, such reluctance could transform us into the finely-lacquered corpse of a once-promising American society.
From such a fatal transformation, which could come as an unprecedented explosive “bang” from certain enemy countries, and not just as a whimper, there would emerge no conceivable sources of rescue. None at all.
With luck, the Trump presidency will manage to end without a catastrophic nuclear war, but even that “happy ending” could represent little more than a temporary reprieve. Unless we begin to work hard at changing this society’s much deeper antipathies to intellect and reason, we will recurrently have to face the dreadful kinds of metamorphoses that Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously termed a “sickness unto death.” As Americans, our real work must begin not with politics directly (all politics are epiphenomenal, or merely reflection), but with a more convincingly resolute “fixing” of our own private selves.
Ultimately, it’s finally time to recognize, everything starts with the microcosm.
Ultimately, as Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had earlier warned, philistinism is not in control of possibility.
Instead, it leads directly to despair.
Special to Jewish Business News
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.