Louis René Beres
Since the Kavanaugh hearings and controversy, President Trump has lectured his rally audiences about dangers of mob rule. Ironically, from the standpoint of the Founding Fathers and their fears about “The People,” these Trump rally audiences constitute the best example of a mob.
The president and his supporters were largely correct that Judge Kavanaugh had been treated shabbily and without proper regard for due process. Still, this ought not obscure or justify Trump’s visceral affections for a mob of his own.
The Founding Fathers’ original meaning of “The American People” was conspicuously negative. In essence, at least for the Founding Fathers, the American People were a mob, almost by definition.For Edmund Randolph, the evils from which the new country was suffering originated in the “turbulence and follies of democracy.” Elbridge Gerry spoke of democracy as “the worst of all political evils,” and Roger Sherman hoped that “the people… have as little to do as may be about the government.”
Hamilton, the subject of today’s most popular musical on Broadway, charged that the “turbulent and changing” masses “seldom judge or determine right,” and very fervently sought a suitably “permanent” authority to “check the imprudence of democracy.”
For Hamilton, the American people represented not only a mob, but also a “great beast.”
In similar language, George Washington urged the convention delegates not to produce any document solely “to please the people.”
For America’s founders, virtually any ‘faction” of the public mass was potentially an unseemly mob.
Said the young Governeur Morris, in a quote that speaks volumes about the origins of our vaunted American democracy: “The mob begin to think and reason, poor reptiles . . . They bask in the sun, and ere noon they will bite, depend on it.”
The founding fathers were largely correct in their popular reservations, but probably for the wrong reasons. Contrary to much earlier founders’ expectations, We the people have displayed a more-or-less consistent capacity for deference to “lawful authority.” Still, we have also demonstrated a persistent unwillingness to care for ourselves as authentic individuals, that is, as persons of some serious intellectual predilections.
It is finally time for more genuine candor. Today, an unthinking mob does defile any alleged American “greatness.” It is not the same mob once feared by Hamilton, Washington and Morris, but it remains a dangerous mob nonetheless, and reveals itself most plainly at the American president’s so-called “rallies.”
In Donald Trump’s “rallying” America, we have gone from bad to worse. Now the reassuring goal for millions has become painfully mob-oriented. This demeaning goal is a presidential dispensation to chant pure nonsense, endlessly, ritualistically, and in hideously familiar anti-democratic commands. “Lock her up! Lock her up!” “Build the wall! Build the wall!” Together with such rhythmic primal chanting (one may also recall the marooned English schoolboys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies), all that can ever really matter here is to belong.
At its core, the underlying American malady is not difficult to diagnose. The “American People” so cravenly praised by obtuse politicians of both the left and the right has little recognizable genuineness to commend itself. In so many obvious respects, it fulfills early Roman appraisals of the so-called plebs; that is, of an intellectually unambitious mob, one wishing to learn only what is “practical,” a commoditized citizenry roughly equivalent to the ancient Greek hoi polloi, a usefully malleable and undifferentiated mass that deliriously celebrates the full sovereignty of unqualified persons.
A stark summation of these appraisals was already familiar to America’s founders, primarily by way of Livy: “Nothing is so valueless,” said Livy, “as the minds of the multitude.”
Now, recalling the ancient Latin author, America’s core enemy is still an insistent intellectual docility, a mindlessly uninquiring national spirit that not only knows nothing of truth, but wants to know nothing of truth.
If there should ever be any serious doubts about such a far-reaching indictment, one need only look at the citizens who chant so enthusiastically and collectively at Trump’s unerringly vacant rallies.
If Donald Trump were to begin his next rally with the statement, “The moon has turned to green cheese, and criminals from other galaxies are scouring the American landscape,” his “insights” would still elicit cascading waves of applause and vigorous howls of synchronized approval.
What should this tell us?
The “American People” now have one overriding obligation; that is, to disprove both Alexander Hamilton and Donald Trump by somehow embracing a new national political ethos, one inspired not by any perpetual fear of severance from the submissive American mob, but by a far more intentional cultivation of personal intellect and public responsibility. This indispensable embrace will take time –arguably, perhaps, even more time than is still available – but there is quite literally no alternative.
For the present moment, however, we ought at least acknowledge the significant irony of a rally-centered American president who dares to criticize mob rule.
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 (Princeton); 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.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear
This article was first published in The Hill