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Fearful Continuities From Goebbels to Trump

Louis René Beres, Special to Jewish Business News

Intellect rots the brain.”

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Joseph Goebbels, Third Reich Minister of Propaganda

I love the poorly educated

Donald J. Trump, Candidate for President of the United States

One should hesitate to make any such fearful comparisons, but if truth be told, the anti-intellectual ethos still animating US President Donald Trump and his followers displays a sobering provenance.

Even in American politics, truth still has its commendable place. More generally, in both science and jurisprudence, truth is exculpatory. Today, if historical truth is to be accepted as authentic and not subjected to narrowly self-serving revisions, there can be no persuasive rejection of even such an ominous commonality.

Plainly, the unwavering path from “Intellect rots the brain” to “I love the poorly educated” is not very tortuous and is not really difficult to traverse.

Truth is exculpatory. What is, is. Whether we like it or not, history cannot be selectively discounted or modified for momentary convenience. Always, the most urgent and honest task for scholars and citizens is not to erase or re-write dreadful histories, but to learn from them.

For present-day United States, there is much to learn from even the darkest episodes of twentieth century history. Ipso facto, certain potentially helpful comparisons would be fully justifiable. Accordingly, in both more-or-less glaring examples of anti-Reason, the Third Reich and the Trump Administration, the alleged “enemy of the people” is not any tangible embodiment of supposed “contamination” (e.g., “The Jews,” “The Communists,” “The Press,” “The Invasive Caravans,” etc.), but rather a knowledge-based society driven by Reason and insistent upon Science.

On this particular allegation, incontestable evidence abounds. To wit, the fervidly anti-intellectual Trump presidency has proudly constructed itself upon a collapsing heap of shallow thinking, barren clichés and thoroughly empty witticisms. Endlessly, and without any discernible exceptions, it rapidly spews forth a visceral and generalized hatred of all serious calculations and a correspondingly generic intolerance of both verifiable facts and dialectical thinking.[1]

Once again, recalling an earlier and once-civilized nation subjected to propagandistic manipulations, ordinary citizens of an “advanced society” find themselves trapped – that is, tangled up between assorted interstices of government-driven falsehoods. Living in the broadly incoherent “Trump Era,” vast legions of Americans who would gratefully welcome subject simplifications from their president are yet again accepting injurious devaluations of learning and education..[2] More than anything else, these demeaning examples of utterly blind acceptance herald a blustering ethos of authoritarian capitulations, a compliant mindset which not only knows nothing of truth, but more insidiously wants to know nothing of truth.

There is more. A carefully cultivated and unquestioning obedience to caricatural Trump mantras is now being directed toward a corrosive national politics, a philistine process of anti-thought that brooks no interference from intellect, history, law or ethics. In this shamelessly rueful connection, Americans might productively bring to mind an earlier “prophecy” of William Butler Yeats: “There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warned the great Irish poet, “and the best of us live by candle light.”

Soon, observing the steady unraveling of this country’s “separation of powers” – an irreducible bedrock of American constitutional government – we might think of this as a classical poetic expectation coming to a real-world “fruition.” To be sure, it’s not the sort of prophetic fulfillment that should elicit any meaningful national pride. After all, in an American republic that routinely loathes virtually any manifestations of difficult thought, and that dares not even expect its president to read a single serious book, no leeway is being granted by the White House to support scientific doubt or evaluative thought.

None at all.

There is little mystery about what is happening. Trump government policies of anti-Reason are openly based upon meticulously synchronized repetitions of chanted gibberish, drawn either from the feeble judgments of effectively-illiterate hangers-on or from various pre-learning ideologies based upon doctrinaire historical illiteracy.

 Feb 24, 2016, Donald Trump speaks to his supporters after winning the Nevada Republican caucuses.

It’s not mysterious. By definition, these “humble” or “prosaic” ideologies do not stem from erudition or learning of any sort. Rather, they are disjointed assertions, hanging loosely together, and then haphazardly presented to “The American People” by dictat or by fiat. Significantly, no logically expressed connections are ever established between Trump argument premises and Trump government conclusions. Now, to make a long story short, and without incurring any significant political costs, Trump-world prescriptions are purposely detached from any tangible sources of intellectual assessment.

Among those millions of patriotic Americans who still stand firm for Mr. Trump, most seemingly regard such conspicuous detachment as a distinct political asset.

Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.” Donald Trump desperately wants his chanting followers to gratefully acknowledge his “sensitive side.” Always, he energetically reminds his screaming rally supporters, there is more than mere policy improvement in his favored remedies. Most blatantly, in this regard, is his wall with the “beautiful door” and with “beautiful” metal spikes designed for refugee punishment. Recently this president crowed without embarrassment that he plans to build “a beautiful wall of steel, not concrete.” On this righteously gleaming barrier, Mr. Trump continued, the tech-heavy parapets will be “beautiful” to behold.

“Steel,” we were being assured, “will make us strong.”

Simultaneously, of course, by shutting parts of the government for this very grand barrier, he undermines such absolutely critical national security agencies as the FBI, TSA, Air Traffic Controllers, and the US Coast Guard. It would be an ultimate irony of this president’s overriding search for border security if it should actually make much more likely America’s exposure to acts of chemical, biological or nuclear terrorism.

Credo quia absurdum, proclaimed the ancient Latin authors (most notably Tertullian): “I believe because it is absurd.” More precisely, as we are now being asked to accept, nothing could possibly be more securitizing or “beautiful” than the heroic American prospect of impaling entire legions of interlopers from (“shit hole countries”) upon carefully sharpened bits of metal.

This is not only a strange presidential aesthetic, it is downright preposterous at its core.

As a nation, at this late date, mustn’t we seriously inquire: How far have we already fallen?

Precisely how dreadful are the easily determinable continuities with once dominant ways of thinking in Goebbels’ Third Reich?

However “disrespectful,” this is no longer a spurious, unreasonable or disingenuous query.

Not at all.

There is more. Regarding the president’s “beautiful wall,” does anyone have any idea about what this modifying adjective actually means? Is it merely a subtle metaphor (hardly likely from a president who openly abjures letters and learning unless they have something to do with raw commerce), or is it intended in some genuinely decipherable and more literal sense?

If the latter, exactly what sort of “portal” are Americans being asked to support?

In essence, where would Trump’s “beautiful door” expectedly lead?

Credo quia absurdum.

Translated into more contemporary parlance, all of this presidential gibberish is just one way to emphasize that those who take boisterous delight in chanting pure nonsense at Trump rallies are not going to waste time reading, thinking or learning. Instead, and in observably polite obeisance to their commander-in-chief, these exemplary citizens who so dearly love their country will never bother to glance over the US Constitution they so proudly “defend.” Predictably unimpressed by any complicating hints of science or substance, they will offer not so much as a transient glance.

Not at all.

Still, our most truly basic problems of governance are not about Donald Trump per se. Our ultimate national dilemmas go far beyond even this uniquely dangerous American presidency. Even if there were today a more sincerely thoughtful and literate occupant in the White House, no well-intentioned program of progress or reform could compensate for this nation’s deleterious and deeply rooted culture of anti-intellectualism. Even more disturbingly, this undermining ethos shares markedly disturbing commonalities with certain earlier historical periods, most notably those in which literally any traces of human intellect were expected to “rot the mind.”

The fervidly anti-democratic provenance of Trump World cannot be wished away. Until America’s broadly underlying societal inclinations to anti-Reason are more overtly acknowledged and convincingly overcome, our noisy national politics will continue to tinker ineffectively at the outer margins of what is important. In an anarchic and increasingly nuclear world politics, such distracted thought could sometime prove unimaginably lethal. A current example here might convincingly reference President Trump’s upcoming second summit with North Korea.

Ironically, we Americans have long been well prepared for such a belligerent and seat-of-the-pants presidency. Day after day, moment to moment, we lurch helplessly from one political forfeiture to the next, content to wage narrowly partisan culture wars of little or no merit. At the same time, treating virtually all forms of education as narrowly instrumental or vocational (i.e., job preparation), we routinely accept political absurdities as profundities and consult meaningful literatures only under various forms of institutionalized duress (i.e.,, in schools and universities).

There is little real mystery here. How else does a democratic country sustain a president who yearns so openly for barbed wire barriers, and who pledges in earnest that his impermeable medieval parapets will somehow be paid for by the “invaders?” Speaking to one of his base rallies in Montana back in November 2018, Mr. Trump’s precise comment was this: “I noticed all that beautiful barbed wire going up today” – he said referring to US soldiers erecting new fences on the borders – “Barbed wire used properly can be a beautiful sight.”

Credo quia absurdum. There are multiple historical commonalities in this still-growing misfortune. One such anti-democratic commonality is that President Donald Trump’s unhidden contempt for literature and learning ( once called the “Western Canon”) has proven to be a decisive political advantage.

What should this grotesque inversion tell us? The Founding Fathers of the United States – without benefit of electricity, plumbing, air conditioning, central heating or computers – managed not only to read the classics of political philosophy, but even to contribute to such an intellectually demanding genre.

What lies beneath all these myriad contradictions and insufferable ironies? To begin, in these cheerlessly fractionated United States, one where the government itself is partially shut down as part of a presidential protection racket, an authentic American individual has become little more than a beleaguered artifact. More refractory than ever to intellect and mind, our suffocating mass society still has no intention of taking itself seriously.

Intellect, after all, “rots the mind.”

An obliging American “herd” now marches in pathetically deferential lockstep toward still-greater levels of blind imitation and wholesale submission. Among other things, such a badly choreographed procession of surrendering souls can never point to a happy ending.

None of this compliant mass society is difficult to figure out. Plausibly, whatever might ultimately be decided in our adrenalized and disintegrative politics, we Americans will continue to be carried forth not by any commendable nobilities of principle or purpose, but by an altogether predictable eruption of personal and collective rancor. At times, We the people may even wish to slow down a bit and smell the roses, but our sorely compromised and persistently self-degrading country will more likely impose upon its exhausted people the breathless rhythms of a vast and hideously grinding machine.

Unsurprisingly, in a seemingly desacrilizing inversion of Genesis, it could soon seem reasonable that we have been created not Imago Dei, but Imago Machina, in the unspeakable image of a machine.

For now, at least, the most probable end of all this delirium will be to prevent us from remembering who we are and who we might once still have become. Because this likely end will be glaringly unheroic, the pertinent genre of our intellectual understanding will not be tragedy (in literature and myth, true tragedy is always dignified and ennobling), but merely pathos and a derivatively demeaning farce.

None of this expectation was necessarily “meant to be.” None of these faults were in any way written in the cards, in the stars or even in ourselves. Sadly, we Americans inhabit the one society that could actually have been different. Once we even harbored a preciously unique potential to nurture ourselves as individuals, that is, to become much more than a smugly inert Nietzchean or Jungian “herd.” Then, American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson had optimistically described us as a people animated by industry and “self-reliance,” not just a fossilizing mass stymied by capitulation or by some darkly Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.”

Then, optimism still had a defensible intellectual place in America.

Surely, as we the people must eventually acknowledge, there is something more to this rhythmically chanting country than tsunamis of hyper-adrenalized commerce and tidal waves of expansively cheap entertainments: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” rhapsodized that most American poet Walt Whitman, but today, in the relentlessly degrading Trump era, the American Self has become a painfully thin shadow of national potential, a twisting reflection of residual authenticity now under final assault by country-wide tastelessness and by a literally epidemic gluttony.

Earlier, American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson had correctly urged a promising combination of “high thinking and plain living,” but today’s public citizen has altogether little use for the former and very proudly abjures the latter. The result is a continuously screaming society that confuses consumption with success and obesity with satisfaction. In essence, American obesity these days is not the tangible result of too great an appetite for particular foods, but the visibly symptomatic loss of any lingeringly or residual appetites for real life.

In the end, our stubborn inclination to believe that a wider societal and personal redemption must somehow lie in politics remains a potentially fatal disorder. Certain key social and economic issues do need to be addressed by capable governance, but so too must our deeper civilizational problems first be solved as individuals. Should we continue to live in a self-hypnotizing cycle of false expectations, a cycle celebrating only the most vague and atrophied impulses of a primeval herd or mass or crowd instinct, our sole remaining national ambition will be to stay ahead of the incurable.

That would hardly be the proper political ambition of a great nation.

In the end, only a rare few can ever redeem themselves and the wider American nation, but these quiet and self-effacing souls remain hidden in plain sight, even from themselves. One thing is still certain. This is that our sorely needed redemption can never be discovered among those suffocating crowds who now chant to even the most inane and senseless presidential turns of phrase.

Apropos of our current president and his self-vaunting “aesthetics,” there can never be any promising redemption from ritualized political chorus. This is not the dignified commentary of Greek tragedy – which is endowed with insight and clarity – but rather the self-defiling chorus of mindless pathos and political farce.

There can remain only one logical conclusion. A starkly declining civilization inevitably surrenders to its most threatening afflictions, sometimes even without a fight. To restore us to long-term health in America, We the people must first learn to look far beyond our perpetually futile faith in politics. Before this can happen, the gravely docile American citizenry will need to restore refined intellection to its appropriately revered place in American society; correspondingly, it will need to reject any further presidential celebrations of a doctrinal anti-Reason.

Although it may first seem that there is palpably great distance between “intellect rots the brain” and “I love the poorly educated,” they both derive from distressingly similar and expressly disjunctive human orientations. Most tellingly, we may need to be reminded that these prospectively lethal sentiments represent different points of declension along a demonstrably common axis of decline. Indeed, if we are not sufficiently wary of this ominous mutuality, America could end up replicating some of history’s most devastatingly unwelcome chapters.[3]

What really “rots the brain” is not intellect, but its diametrical opposite.

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


[1] The base term, “dialectic” originates from the Greek expression for the art of conversation. A common contemporary meaning is method of seeking truth by correct reasoning. From the standpoint of current Trump-presidency concerns, the following representative operations could be regarded as essential but nonexclusive components: (1)a method of refutation conducted by examining logical consequences; (2) a method of division or repeated logical analysis of genera into species; (3) logical reasoning using premises that are probable or generally accepted; (4) formal logic; and (5) the logical development of thought through thesis and antithesis toward a purposeful synthesis of these opposites.

[2] One should be reminded here of Bertrand Russell’s trenchant observation in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death.”

[3] Recalling Sigmund Freud’s still prescient warning: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.” Incidentally, Freud borrowed freely from the Nietzschean idea of the “herd” to fashion his own references to “horde.”



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