Published On: Tue, Apr 14th, 2020

A Once Unimaginable Scenario: The President as Monster

President Thomas Jefferson, chief architect of the Declaration of Independence: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” President Donald Trump “learning only in his own flesh.”

Trump by Geralt / Pixabay

Prof. Louis René Beres

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”-William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

For Americans, the incumbent Trump[1] presidency has become existentially worrisome. To be sure, it remains conspicuously inept and dysfunctional, but by now it has also become intensely foreboding. Today, rife with willfully corrosive behaviors, Donald Trump is very literally pushing the margins of national survival.

At its core, the existential Trump problem must be faced holistically. It is not purposeful to continue blithely with business as usual, with the delusion that this president’s analytic and moral shortcomings are in any way remediable. As corollary, it’s no longer defensible to suggest that Donald Trump could somehow be rendered “manageable” if only he would stop tweeting or substitute science-based threat assessments for his narrowly gratuitous rancor. Unmistakably, the “Trump Problem” is much bigger than any superficial crisis of genteel manners or refined policy protocols.

Truth is exculpatory. Donald Trump is who he is, period. His darkly pernicious condition is not subject to any feasible mitigation or improvement. Not at all.

“The mass-man,” as we were warned earlier by Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1930)  “has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.”

This is how Trump “learns.” When asked on April 10 2020 how he would create metrics for determining when the country could be safely “opened up again,” he pointed to his head, and said: “This is my only metric.” Always, his crudely primal method of understanding  represents a seat-of-the-pants reasoning, worthless calculations produced by raw instinct and revealed with demeaning frivolity.

When meeting in Singapore with Kim Jung Un in 2018, Trump dismissed all of the usual leadership obligations to study and prepare. Instead, he emphasized, again and again, offhandedly: “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s all about attitude.”[2]

There is more. At authentically formal levels, this president is not really a proper example of Ortega’s “mass man.”  How could he be? He is, after all, the president. And by definition, the American president is always exceptional.

Nonetheless, though president, Donald Trump remains the dissembling puppeteer of an historically recurrent “plague,” not a biological pestilence, as we are experiencing at the present moment, but one similarly catastrophic. Basically, this insidious plague is an orchestrated Goebbels-style campaign of anti-reason and deliberate falsehood, a cowardly effort supported and sustained by legions of utterly shameless administration sycophants.[3] Although most Americans might resist  any too-candid comparisons of Trump leadership characteristics with examples from the Third Reich, there are still (regrettably,  of course) certain plausible and incontestable points of commonality.

Tangible consequences appear. The overwhelmingly nefarious implications of this monstrous overlap ought not be swept under the rug. Instead, they warrant very careful and correspondingly serious examination.

“Intellect rots the brain,” shrieked Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels at a Nuremberg rally in 1935. “I love the poorly educated” intoned Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign for the presidency. Inter alia, what these assertions have in common is an utterly inexcusable disdain for science and serious education. Derivatively, they also point to a mutually deformed and twisted national ideal, one that favors viscerally mindless public obedience to allegedly democratic governance.

In world politics, both near and far, none of this is entirely unprecedented. Obviously, we have seen monstrous “puppet masters” before. But in the United States, we are presently witnessing an especially virulent rebirth of historically lethal bewitchments. Moreover, we are observing and suffering in real time.

Most ominously, no matter how compelling and expansive the evidence of Trump’s myriad derelictions should become, millions of his dedicated adherents will remain steadfastly loyal to the master. In essence, faith, not facts, are what matter most to these  casually self-destructive Trump adherents. For them, without any apology or obeisance  to Jeffersonian democracy (because these adherents are generally unacquainted with any verifiable history), the phrase “I believe” is all that counts.

For them, the phrase “I think” is unknown or distinctly subordinate.

For the self-parodying Trump faithful caught up in endlessly empty or contrived antimonies, the Cartesian “cogito” might just as well have never been uttered.[4]

Back in the eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson, chief architect of the Declaration of Independence and a future American president, exclaimed with unhesitating erudition: “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” US President Donald Trump, “learning only in his own flesh,” has effectively sworn an oath of “eternal support” for such insufferable tyranny. Earlier, he had returned from his Singapore summit with Kim Jung Un, declaring that the calculable risks of a bilateral nuclear war had been removed because he and Kim “fell in love.” Today, he offers daily independent assessments (grievously inexpert, by definition) of assorted drug efficacies against the Corona virus.

Simultaneously, he responds to authoritative science-based prescriptions with either capricious doubt or an open indifference.

For the United States, these loudly incoherent stream-of-consciousness excursions into gibberish are more than merely humiliating. At a time of palpable biological “plague,” such presidential declensions are starkly and immediately life-threatening. Jurisprudentially, they come very close to being genocide-like crimes.[5]

How pitifully inadequate are America’s political processes and institutions in dealing with this president’s willfully chaotic instincts.[6] Still, almost an entire country now displays a near infinite forbearance for Trump’s hugely inane and perilous commentaries. The resultant withering of a declining nation’s heart and mind point unerringly to once-unimaginable existential threats. While various mega-death scenarios of relentless pandemic are currently the most far reaching and credible, the more “normal” dangers of nuclear war and terrorism have not magically disappeared. Indeed, in the expected worst case narratives, war, terror and pandemic could occur more-or-less simultaneously, and with harshly interactive results that are not simply intersectional, but also multi-layered and synergistic.

There is more. In any scenario of overwhelmingly destructive synergy, the whole of any potential catastrophe would necessarily be greater than the sum of its constituent parts.

In this sobering connection, we may usefully recall Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s seemingly obvious but enduringly insightful remark: “The worst does sometimes happen.”

At best, there is nothing expressly murderous or genocidal in Donald Trump’s policies, whether foreign and domestic, but, unambiguously, there is always a far-reaching indifference to basic human welfare and well-being. Spawned by a very evident absence of ordinary compassion, this president gives new and portentous meaning to the core idea that pain is ultimately incommunicable from any one human being to another. “All men have my blood and I have all men’s,” wrote American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance,”[7] but this cosmopolitan sentiment is altogether alien and incomprehensible to Donald Trump. As with other challenging matters of intellectual judgment, this president’s near-total lack of empathic feelings reveals a stunningly frightful level of personal emptiness.

That is, they  reveal a grotesque American leader of breathtaking vapidity.

Where do we go from this unbearable point? Whatever else we might conclude, Donald Trump displays numerous and incontrovertible clinical derangements. Nonetheless, rather than continue to approach them as if they were somehow singularly meaningful and correspondingly remediable, Americans must finally understand  that (1)  there exists no feasible “fix” for any such complex concatenations of monstrous behavior, and (2)  the danger posed by this president is substantively overwhelming and “imminent in point of time.”[8]

Though Trump believes that all that he does is undertaken with absolute purity of heart, similarly felt convictions were easily detectable among the 1930s managers of Third Reich propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

Let us be candid. In America today, there is too much “noise.” Among those many citizens who so strenuously loathe refined intellect and serious thought, it is primarily a rancorous noise made on behalf of a destructive political impresario.[9] Moreover, these bewitched proselytes make their unreasoning noise with  enthusiasm because they see themselves welcomed as privileged members of a plainly valued “crowd.” Reciprocally and consistently, their disjointed leader makes a complementary set of dissembling  noises because he has been allowed to direct this unthinking crowd.

There are urgent lessons to be learned. For all Americans , the most ruinous evasion of all will be to seek comfort and succor in this most primordial form of political coming-together; that is, to seek to escape moral judgment as private citizens. This search won’t work. “In eternity,” reminds the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “each shall render account as an individual.“[10]

At least there will be this residual sort of “last judgment.”

The poet Yeats’ “rough beast” portends a monster, and monster is the only correct term of judgment for an American president who encourages manifold egregious crimes against the United States and other nations.[11] Even without mens rea, or what the jurists would call “criminal intent,”[12] Trump’s vaguely casual unconcern for science-based judgments on disease, law[13] and war could result in the death of millions. In effect, such presidential unconcern exhibits a uniquely hideous species of “vice,” a species so inherently riveting that it defies any more “measured,” “balanced,” or “objective” sorts of description.

Summing up our declining circumstances, an overriding general obligation arises. We must insistently inquire as follows: What precisely has been happening? For a meaningful answer, we may consult Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man:” “Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, As to be hated needs but to be seen; Yet, seen too often, familiar with her face, We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

Had he lived in the first quarter of the 21st century, the classical poet might have added “…then decline irretrievably.”

What then? Exeunt Omnes?  Hopefully, it’s a question that will never actually have to be raised. Still, any hope that is unsupported by both intellect and virtue is never a viable rescue strategy.

Never.

One culminating imperative. Now is our final opportunity to identify this defiling president by his correct name. He is a monster.


[1] Although decidedly unacademic and uncommonly harsh, the term “monster” here is appropriate and necessary. The beginning of wisdom,” counseled Confucius, “is to call things by their correct name.”

[2] See President Donald Trump’s quoted statement on June 11, 2018.

[3] Today this campaign is most nefarious (and quite literally murderous) with regard to endless presidential lies on corona virus matters. With his persistently disingenuous claims about US progress against the spreading disease and corresponding testing, Trump has underscored that for the tyrant, truth is whatever seems convenient and self-serving. For this presidential monster, truth is always anathema, never exculpatory. For Trump, it is the “truth” of Joseph Goebbels, one which values presumed propagandistic benefit over the flesh-and-blood lives of citizens.

[4] Cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.” The exact reference here is to the “universal doubt” encouraged by René Descartes, Discourse on Method (1637).

[5] Professor Beres is the author of several major books and many law journal articles on genocide-like crimes. See, for example, Louis René Beres, “Genocide and Genocide-Like Crimes,” in  M. Cherif Bassiouni., ed., International Criminal Law: Crimes (New York, Transnational Publishers, 1986), pp. 271-279.

[6] Most egregious here are recent federal government (FEMA) seizures of medical ventilators for preferable shipment to pro-Trump governors.

[7] We may think also of the corresponding Talmudic observation: “The earth from which the first man was made was gathered in all the four corners of the world.”

[8] In jurisprudence, this phrase appears as the solitary permissible justification for national acts of “anticipatory self-defense.” This principle of customary jurisprudence has its modern origins in the so-called Caroline Case, which concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this landmark case, even the serious threat of an armed attack can sometimes be taken as sufficient justification for defensive military action. In more narrowly technical jurisprudence, the criterion of permissibility revolves around a danger presumed to be “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment or deliberation.” Of course, during the first third of the nineteenth century, there could have been no conceivable thought of forestalling a nuclear aggression.

[9] In a wholly negative assessment, Twentieth century German writer Thomas Mann would have called Trump a “magician.” See for example, his classic novella on the rise of Nazism, “Mario and the Magician.”

[10] The Kierkegaardian concept of “crowd” is roughly analogous to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “herd,” psychologist Car G. Jung’s “mass,” or Sigmund Freud’s “horde.”

[11] Regarding US legal obligations toward other nations, see for example, by Louis René Beres Yale Global and Jusrist 

[12] Professor Louis René Beres  is the author of many law journal articles at Harvard National Security JournalYale Global Online, Oxford University Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); World Politics (Princeton) and Jurist.

[13] One must remember here that pertinent obligations of international law are also generally obligations of US law. In the precise words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).Moreover, the specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

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 Modern Diplomacy

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