Prof. Louis René Beres
“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.”-Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952)
In the closing days of the Third Reich, when still-surviving Germans finally realized that they had been following a murderous charlatan, it was way too late for any redemptive turnaround. But why had they been so wittingly deceived in the first place? After all, prima facie, the Fuehrer’s starkly limited education and wholesale incapacity to reason had been evident from the start. Had the German people somehow been influenced by a subconscious preference for “whisperings of the irrational,” that is, for the always-pleasing simplifications of “mystery” over any “penetrating clear thought?” And if so, were these nefarious influences more than narrowly or peculiarly German defects? Were they determinably generic for all peoples and thus effectively timeless?
Today there arise various other good reasons for analytic perplexity. These questions become even more bewildering when one considers that many true believers of the Fuehrer were conspicuously well-educated and also well acquainted with established “textbook” requirements of logic and modern science. In the end, of course, there are many additional, varied and predictable answers to factor in – including cowardice, fear and presumed self-interest – but most broadly coherent explanations must still correctly center on a populist loathing of complex explanations and a national surrender to “mass.”
Sometimes this source of surrender (“mass” is the term of preference embraced by Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung) has been called “herd” (Friedrich Nietzsche); “horde” (Sigmund Freud) or “crowd” (Soren Kierkegaard), but all of these terms have essentially the same referents and reveal virtually identical significations. Above all, the discernible common meaning is that an easy to accept “groupthink” makes annoyingly difficult individual thinking unnecessary, and thereby renders feelings of individual responsibility moot or beside the point.
Now we may detect all this once again in Donald Trump’s increasingly deformed and weakened United States. In this determinedly unreasoning president’s vision of resurrected American “greatness,” more conscious citizen thought is presumed to be not just extraneous, but also harmful. “I love the poorly educated” were the exact words Trump used during the 2016 campaign. Not to be ignored, these words were a near-exact replication of Joseph Goebbels’ favored National Socialist sentiment, one most famously expressed at the 1934 Nuremberg rally (“Intellect rots the brain.”). Though admittedly painful to accept, Mr. Trump’s current “know nothing” vision endangers present-day Americans just as plainly and existentially as earlier Nazi deformations had corrupted Europe.
While Germany ended with an incomparably grotesque Gotterdammerung in the spring of 1945 – an apocalyptic consummation driving both Hitler and Goebbels (with Goebbels’ entire family) to commit ritual suicide in the Fuhrenbunker – Americans now face a “twilight of the Gods” of their own making: at least hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 fatalities.
In fairness, US President Trump did not cause this plague of virulent disease pandemic. Nonetheless, his endlessly injurious manipulations of “mass” have repeatedly undermined myriad and indispensable contributions of science. To wit, in the year 2020, tangible portions of the “civilized” United States began to accept medical advice from Donald Trump that fully contradicted well-established medical orthodoxy, including promoting alleged medications that have subsequently proved useless at best or pernicious at worst. At the same time, authoritative, well-respected and capable professional scientists have been fired to make way for the next viscerally compliant batch of Trump sycophants and presidential lap dogs.
If these unprecedented affirmations of anti-Reason were not sufficiently endangering, they have been reinforced by a shameless battery of propagandistic deflections. As just one egregious example, in the middle of May 2020, Trump held a news conference to announce his successful “launch” of America’s “Space Force” and to laud its “super-duper missile.” One needn’t be a deep thinker to recognize the utter irrelevance of any such crude military initiative to US security, or the obvious public relations intent of announcing such a program at this perilous time; that is, as a convenient distractionfrom a rapidly expanding disease plague, one taking cynical advantage of ordinary Americans’ usual and well intentioned patriotism.
Let us be even more precise. The United States is not becoming Nazi Germany. That’s not the problem. But this assessment ought not to become a simple “all or nothing” comparison. Then, as now, an irreversible social and economic decline arrived more-or-less indecipherably, effectively in generally hard-to-fathom increments. While there are abundantly vital differences between then and now, between the Third Reich and Trump’s America, there are also several very disturbing forms of close resemblance. If we should wittingly choose to ignore these forms, we would also risk ending up in irremediably perilous national circumstances.
Or to continue with a useful metaphor, we would risk heading for our own separate and collective versions of the Fűherbunker.
For America in a time of plague, a single core question must consistently remain uppermost, lest we forget how we even got here, to a point where an American president could say without embarrassment and without much public reaction: “During the Revolutionary War in the United States, American military forces took control of all national airports,” or to deal with the Corona virus, we should consider an “internal body cleansing,” perhaps even widespread ingestion of certain household “disinfecting chemicals.” How shall this massively ominous American presidency best be explained? Inter alia, we will need some purposeful answers here before we can be rescued. In part, at least, we can learn from the pre-Nazi German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. This means that some correct answers should be sought in the paradoxical juxtaposition of American privilege with American philistinism.
For such a seemingly self-contradictory fusion, Nietzsche coined an aptly specific term, one that he hoped would eventually become universal.
This creatively elucidating German word was Bildungsphilister. When expressed in its most lucid and coherent English translation, it means “educated Philistine.” To a significant and verifiable extent, this term underscores both the rise of German Nazism in the 1930s and the rise of populist support for then candidate Donald J. Trump in 2016.
Naturally, there is much more. In all linguistically delicate maters, carefully-crafted language and “penetrating clear thought” are required. Accordingly, Bildungsphilister is a word that could shine some additional needed light upon Donald Trump’s uninterrupted support among so many of America’s presumptively well-educated and visibly well-to-do.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had several-times commented: “I love the poorly-educated,” but – in the end – a substantial fraction of his actual voter support arrived from the not-so-poorly-educated. It had been very much the same story back in Germany in 1933. We can ignore this portentous commonality only at our own existential risk.
Always, anti-Reason is an existential threat, but never more menacing than during an active disease pandemic. And always, however we may find it discomfiting, truth is exculpatory. Incontestably, even by definition, uncomfortable truths are upsetting and bewildering, but they remain truths nonetheless. Apropos of this plainly unassailable conclusion, any ascertainable distance between “I love the poorly educated” and “Intellect rots the brain” is not nearly as substantial as might first appear.
In essence, and plausibly also in consequence, they mean exactly the same thing.
There remain markedly meaningful distinctions between German National Socialism and the current US presidential administration, most significantly in leadership intent, but these distinctions generally express more of a difference in magnitude than in pertinent demographic aspects. At one obvious level, a great many American citizens (tens of millions) remain wholly willing to abide a president who not only avoids reading anything, but who announces his indifference to learning with fully limitless pride. For a president who consistently claims that corona virus testing and contact tracing are “overrated,” and who simultaneously announces mindless and incoherent threats of starting a new Cold War with China, “I love the poorly educated” should become an easily recognizable mantra.
We may recall too that for negotiating successfully with North Korea, President Trump had openly advised “attitude, not preparation.”At any normal or Reason-based level of policy assessment, this advice was openly caricatural. But Trump’s once-unimaginable comment was not actually intended as satire. Not at all.
The dissembling policy problem with President Donald Trump is not just a matter of bad manners, occasional foolishness or gratuitous incivility. More than anything else, it is the quality of a far-reaching derangement and incapacity, a particularly lethal fusion that recently led Donald Trump to “punish” the World Health Organization for imaginary wrongdoings, and at the very same moment that such perverse withholding of funds could only further impair critical worldwide Covid19 responses. Now, substantially more “penetrating clear thought” is desperately needed to understand this country’s manifold Trump-era declensions, including its seemingly endless violations of authoritative international law.
Do many (or any) Americans actively object to a president who has never even glanced at the US Constitution, the very same allegedly revered document he so solemnly swore “to uphold, protect and defend?” Is it reasonable or persuasive to “uphold protect and defend” a document that has never even been read? Is it reasonable or persuasive for “We the people….” not to be troubled by such a vast intellectual and ethical disjuncture? How long shall we endure profoundly lawless presidential behaviors concerning almost every manner of public responsibility and public service?
While Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort are rewarded by this president for placing loyalty to “Fűehrer“above justice, tens of millions of poor Americans now being forced to work without proper disease protections can only make desperate personal plans to “sleep in the dust.”
There is more. Key questions about pertinent historical analogies should not be skirted, obfuscated or ridiculed any longer. How, then, has the United States managed to arrive at such a portentous and dismal place in history? What have been the relevant failures (both particular and aggregated) of American education, most notably failures in our once-vaunted universities? It’s an unsettling but sensible two-part question, especially as the Trump presidency assiduously transforms a “merely” self-deceiving country into one that represents a finely-lacquered collective corpse.
Once upon a time in western philosophy (a genre obviously unfamiliar to absolutely anyone in the White House), Plato revealed high leadership expectations for his “philosopher-king.” Yet, even though we should no longer reasonably expect anything like a philosopher-king in the White House, we are still entitled to a man or woman president who reads and thinks seriously.
Even in Trump’s grievously demeaned United States, true learning deserves its historic pride of place. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra warns prophetically: “One should never seek the `higher man’ at the marketplace.” But the suffocating worlds of business and commerce were precisely where a proudly “know nothing” segment of American society first championed belligerent impresario Donald J. Trump.
What else could we have possibly expected?
In the United States, a society where almost no one takes erudition seriously, we are all ultimately measured by one singularly atrocious standard. We are what we buy. Accordingly, the tens of millions of Americans being shunted aside by the White House as presumptively extraneous to their political “success” are less highly valued (much less) than those who have managed to attain egoistically the conspicuous rewards of “everyone for himself.”
There is still more, much more. This American president is not “merely” a marginal or misguided figure. Quite literally, he is the diametric opposite of both Plato’s philosopher-king and Nietzsche’s “higher-man.” Unambiguously, and at its moral and analytic core, the Trump administration now exhibits a tortuously wretched inversion of what might once have been ennobling in the United States. Even more worrisome, we Americans are rapidly stumbling backwards, always backwards, during an unprecedented viral pandemic, further and further, visibly, unsteadily, not in any measurably decipherable increments, but in giant or distressing quantum leaps of various self-reinforcing mortal harms.
In essence, these are historically familiar leaps of unforgivable cowardice, especially as evident in certain narrowly-partisan sectors of the Congress and federal government. How else shall we differentiate a now completely submissive attorney general or vice president or secretary of the treasury or secretary of human services or Senate Majority Leader from their manifestly hideous forbears in Munich or Berlin? Are they really all that different? Are they really any more upset by the prospective but possibly preventable deaths of several hundred thousand Americans from Pandemic disease than were Nazi officials Goebbels or Speer about then-suffering German families and workers?
A positive answer here would demand considerable leaps of permissible formal logic.
Among so many palpable deficits, America’s current president still does not begin to understand that US history warrants some serious re-examination. How many Americans have ever paused to remember that the Founding Fathers who framed the second amendment were not expecting or imagining automatic weapons? How many citizens ever bothered to learn that the early American Republic was the religious heir of John Calvin and the philosophical descendant of both John Locke and Thomas Hobbes? How many “successful” US lawyers have even ever heard of William Blackstone, the extraordinary English jurist whose learned Commentaries formed the indispensable common law underpinnings of America’s current legal system?
Literally and comprehensively, Blackstone is the unchallenged foundation of American law and jurisprudence.
Does anyone reasonably believe that Donald Trump has even ever heard of Blackstone? Is there a single Trump lawyer (personal or institutional) who could conceivably know (let alone read) about the seminal Blackstone’s unparalleled juristic contributions? If there were such a person, he would understand, ipso facto, what is so utterly defiled (and defiling) in this president’s Department of Justice.
It is therefore, a silly question.
There is more. Human beings are the creators of their machines, not the other way round. Still, there exists 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 prospective lethality more apparent than among the self-deluded but endlessly loyal supporters of US President Donald Trump. They follow him faithfully only because the wider American society had first been allowed to become an intellectual desert, and because they are most comfortable amid such reassuringly barren wastes.
Soon, we must inquire, will they also, like Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and his entire family, follow him dutifully and unquestionably into the “Fűherbunker?”
In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired tellingly about the “authenticity “of Americans. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked. This US and (earlier) Princeton University president had answered “yes,” but contingently, only if citizens would first refuse to cheer the “herds” or “hordes” or “crowds” of mass society. Otherwise, as Wilson had already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of broken machinery, more hideous even than the biological decomposition of individual disease-ravaged persons.
In every society, as Emerson and other American Transcendentalists had already recognized, the scrupulous care of each individualhuman “soul” is most important. Looking ahead, there can likely still be a “better”American soul (and thereby an improved American politics), but not before we can first acknowledge a prior obligation. This antecedent and unalterable requirement is a far-reaching national responsibility to overcome the barriers of a “know nothing” culture or – remembering German philosopher Karl Jaspers’ apt warning – “whisperings of the irrational.”
Though overwhelmingly lethal all by itself, the current Trump government of anti-Reason is as much a dreadful symptom of much deeper menacing harms. Similar to any other complex matrix of virulent pathologies, the proper ordering of “therapeutics” will ultimately require this government to accomplish more than just a cosmetic excision of visible disease symptoms. In the end, to protect us all from a future that would be finalized in the Fűherbunker, Americans must finally learn to favor Reason and Science over stock phrases, shallow clichés, banal presidential phrases and barbarously empty witticisms.
 In this connection, notes Sigmund Freud: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles art all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”
 Says Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957): “The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.”
 Consider, for example, the stunning Goebbels-Trump commonality concerning approval of street violence. Said the Nazi Propaganda Minister: “Whoever can conquer the street will one day conquer the state, for every form of power politics and any dictatorship-run state has its roots in the street.” Much more recently, and in an almost identical vein, Donald Trump declared: “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump. I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough – until they go to a certain point and then it would be very bad, very bad.” See, by this writer: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/04/louis-beres-trump-violence/#
 The first language of the Swiss-born author, Professor Louis René Beres, was German. This is his own straightforward translation.
 Also appropriate here is the nineteenth century description offered by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death: “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.”
 “I don’t think I have to prepare very much,” said Donald Trump before his Singapore Summit with Kim Jung Un on June 11, 2018, “It’s all about attitude.”
 “The mass-man,” says philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gassett in The Revolt of the Masses (1930), “has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.” This is exactly how President 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 exclaimed: “This is my only metric.” Always, this crudely primal method of understanding represents “in his own flesh” reasoning, his disjointed calculations spawned by raw instinct and revealed with demeaning frivolity.
 In stark contrast, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of WHO, spoke modestly, intelligently and purposefully: “COVID-19 does not discriminate between rich nations and poor, large nations and small. It does not discriminate between nationalities, ethnicities, or ideologies. Neither do we,” he said. “This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat, a dangerous enemy. When we’re divided, the virus exploits the cracks between us.”
 Regarding US President Donald Trump’s persistent and often egregious crimes involving the law of war and the law of human rights (e.g., Syria; Afghanistan; Iraq; Mexican refugees, etc.), criminal responsibility of leaders under international law is not necessarily limited to direct personal action nor is it exculpable by official position. On this peremptory principle of “command responsibility,” or respondeat superior, see: In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1 (1945); The High Command Case (The Trial of Wilhelm von Leeb), 12 Law Reports of Trials Of War Criminals 1 (United Nations War Crimes Commission Comp., 1949); see Parks, Command Responsibility For War Crimes, 62 MIL.L. REV. 1 (1973); O’Brien, The Law Of War, Command Responsibility And Vietnam, 60 GEO. L.J. 605 (1972); U.S. Dept. Of The Army, Army Subject Schedule No. 27 – 1 (Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Hague Convention No. IV of 1907), 10 (1970). The direct individual responsibility of leaders is also unambiguous in view of the London Agreement, which denies defendants the protection of the act of state defense. See AGREEMENT FOR THE PROSECUTION AND PUNISHMENT OF THE MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS OF THE EUROPEAN AXIS, Aug. 8, 1945, 59 Stat. 1544, E.A.S. No. 472, 82 U.N.T.S. 279, art. 7.
 Though wholly disregarded by President Trump, international law is an inherent part of United States law and jurisprudence. In the 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.”
 One should also think here of the country’s indigenous peoples, especially “tribes” such as the Navajo Nation. These vulnerable peoples are suffering disproportionate harms from this pandemic, harms that are effectively considered tolerable or even reasonable by US President Donald Trump.
 In this connection, Americans should also be reminded of the total absence of any cultural life or life of the arts going on in the Trump White House. Together with Trump’s endless attacks on a ‘life of the mind,” this demeaning absence points toward the very worst imaginable case of Nietzsche’s Bildungsphilister or “educated Philistine.” See, by this author, at Yale Global: https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/trumps-america-anti-intellectual-and-proud-it
 “The rich man glories in his riches,” says Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), “because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world….At the thought of this, his heart seems to swell and dilate itself within him, and he is fonder of his wealth, upon this account, than for all the other advantages it procures him.”
 “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself,’” says Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man (1955), “is false and against nature.”
 Significantly, in this connection, Blackstone emphasized the importance of global cooperation between nations: “Each state is expected to aid and enforce the law of nations as part of the common law,” says Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Law of England (1765) “by inflicting an adequate punishment upon the offenses against that universal law.” Similarly, says Emmerich de Vattel, in his prior and classic The Law of Nations (1758), “The first general law, which is to be found in the very end of the society of Nations, is that each Nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of other Nations.”
 Sigmund Freud maintained a general antipathy to all things American. In essence, he most strenuously objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to this country’s “shallow optimism” and to its corollary commitment to a dreadfully crude form of materialism. America, thought Freud, was very “lacking in soul.” See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.
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