Louis René Beres
“All people…who dare not defend themselves when they know they are in the right, who submit to punishment not because of what they have done but because of who they are, are already dead by their own decision; and whether or not they survive physically depends on chance. If circumstances are not favorable, they end up in gas chambers.” – Bruno Bettelheim, Freud’s Vienna and Other Essays
When they are understood in terms of nations rather than individuals, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s law-based ideas about submission to punishment need not only be about “gas chambers.” Nor must they necessarily center on various specifically-related crimes against humanity or the egregious crime of genocide. Indeed, as is all-too evident in the United States today, they could sometimes be about a national leader who may lack discernibly murderous intentions, but is nonetheless morally bankrupt, inept, and/or intellectually unfit.
From the converging standpoints of law and politics, Donald Trump’s presidential debilities are far more serious than singular policy missteps or unfortunate errors in judgment. This president is much more worrisome than one who was “merely” misdirected or ill-advised. In essence, Trump has been nurturing and sustaining a continuous legal crisis, not just as some transient inconvenience, but as an eleventh-hour “emergency” of world order. An obvious component of such unprecedented declension is this president’s grievous assault on law, justice, and human rights.
There is a noteworthy corollary. Donald Trump takes responsibility for literally none of the extraordinary tragedies happening on his “punishing” watch, including the high death toll exacted by COVID-19. Repeatedly, we hear from this president, certain others must be blamed. Always. Conveniently, the Coronavirus is referenced by Mr. Trump as the “China Virus” or the “Wuhan Virus.” In a press conference at the White House on August 10, the president even cast additional aspersions upon Mexico and Mexicans, blaming that country and its refugees for then surging COVID-19 case numbers in Texas. Medically, of course, there was no justification for such scapegoating.
The scapegoat is hardly a new element in partisan politics or law, but only Donald Trump has so notoriously refined the cowardly practice into Machiavellian high art. One tangible effect of such indecent practice is to ignore otherwise binding legal norms, and inflict unjust punishments upon legally blameless populations.
The Trump presidency is not “merely” unfocused, pedestrian, inelegant, cowardly, and lawless. Conspicuously, it endangers our physical continuance as a people and as a nation. From the beginning, Americans had ample good reason to worry about endowing a blatantly anti-intellectual and lawless American president with nuclear weapons authority. Today, as the entire world exists and coexists under devastating microbial assault, we also need to concern ourselves with the pertinent causal pathology and the de facto punishments.
There is still more to relevant law and justice. Some truths are not only conspicuous, but unassailable. In this regard, America’s present-day viral plague can never be suitably countered by Donald Trump’s shallow reasoning, his empty witticisms, his gratuitously belligerent rhetoric, or his shameless deflections. This particular truth lies beyond question.
This dissembling US president’s negative personal qualities have already cost the lives of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands who might otherwise have been saved by a more intelligent, analytic, and law-abiding national leadership. Accordingly, one must now think here of an American tragedy that resembles an authentic genocide, not in intent, but in many of its verifiable effects. For most Americans, such thinking will hardly be comforting or reassuring, but expressly “Trumpian” twists of law ought not so easily be allowed to pass citizen muster.
Let us be candid as well as an analytic. What particular “insights” should we ever have expected from a president who claims that the increasing number of plague victims is caused by increased testing, and that “less than 1%” of afflicted Americans will display any palpable symptoms of disease? By this president’s “logic,” if we simply stopped taking the pulse of hospital patients there would be zero deaths. In some delusional circles, it could even seem that Donald J. Trump had somehow acquired the greatest form of power on planet earth.
This is the always incomparable power of immortality.
Is such a distressing situation conceivably tolerable for a once-great nation? Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.”
Truth is exculpatory. The Coronavirus horror will not simply “disappear” on its own, “miraculously,” as has so often been claimed by US President Donald Trump. This disease will never yield to a clownish impresario’s tawdry and transparent sleight of hand. Instead, unassailably, and even under the most imaginably optimistic assumptions, the ongoing global microbial assault will submit only to a properly calculated fusion of science, medicine, and law.
In this matter, however, US President Donald J. Trump hasn’t even a clue.
Questions will arise. How did we ever get to such an abhorrent national place? What is the core American malady leading to dangerous and extra-legal presidential decision-making? If Donald Trump is “merely” a symptom of some wider disorder, then what is this country’s most genuinely underlying pathology? The correct answer has much to do with understanding not only the multiple perils of a pandemic, but also the more-or-less tacit war threats emanating from North Korea, China, or Russia.
Significantly, a proper answer here is logically prior to uncovering any viable solutions to America’s still-growing existential threats.
A thoughtful answer is discoverable. At the most fundamental levels of national despair, politics, government and law have become largely epiphenomenal, reflective, a mirror image of the relevant human microcosm. Presently, in America’s Trump-degraded landscape of clichéd wisdom, orchestrated violence, and proliferating self-delusion, there remains, at the bottom, a metastasizing sickness of “soul.” Ironically, America’s growing national debility of surrender to crowds lurks openly and undisguised. It is most readily detectable in Donald Trump’s proudly flaunted base hatreds, not only of immigrants and various presumptively inferior “others” (e.g., Mexicans, Iranians, Asians), but also of intellect, individualism and any real expressions of legal erudition or learning.
“Alas,” observed T.S. Eliot, in a still-unheeded warning, “Our dried voices, when we whisper together, are quiet and meaningless.”
In candor, at the very deepest ascertainable levels of analysis, American politics, government, and law remain detached from intellectual understanding. Correspondingly, this battered and bewildered nation’s ever-expanding ocean of personal addictions, too vast for remediation by any normal reformist policy strategies, is already deep enough to drown entire libraries of science and once-sacred poetry. For the moment, this “ocean” is being exploited and exacerbated by a persistently rancorous US president, by a Donald J. Trump who knows “in his own flesh” that no current or still-imaginable national horror could possibly have been his own fault.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Even in the Trump-battered United States, there must remain some residual place for law and truth. In an earlier and foundational American national history, both liberals and conservatives read Lucretius, Cicero, Grotius, Vattel, Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and (later) Blackstone. Excluding the eighteenth-century English jurist, whose refined legal thoughts were soon to become the starting point of all American jurisprudence (a fact still basically unknown to educated Americans, including the lawyers) Thomas Jefferson read them all.
What does US President Donald Trump read or write?
Prima facie, this is a silly question.
This is a president, after all, who defines US law without any recourse or reference to tangible statutes, cases, documents, or international law. In the fashion of every “mass man,” a term we have already seen defined by Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’ Gasset in his 1930 classic, The Revolt of the Masses, Trump defines only “in his own flesh.” Where a once-great nation’s president exemplifies Ortega’s “mass man,” it is inevitably the barbarian, not the scholar, who will be giving the orders.
Apropos of another indication of Ortega’s relevance to our current biologically-defined circumstances – plague-like conditions wherein large numbers of Americans decry science and medicine in an openly calculated preference for ignorance – the Spanish philosopher clarifies further: “It’s not that the vulgar believes itself to be superexcellent and not vulgar, but rather that the vulgar proclaim and impose the rights of vulgarity or vulgarity itself as a right.”
What sort of a proclamation is this?
We have already seen what can happen in barbaric circumstances by remembering the philosophies of German National Socialism in the 1930s and 1940s. These philosophies, too, were avowedly anti-intellectual and anti-science. “Intellect rots the brain” said Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1934. “I love the poorly educated” said US presidential candidate Donald Trump back in 2016.
There is more. Bragged Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1934: “Whoever can conquer the street will one day conquer the state.” Later, in 2019, Donald Trump echoed this same law-undermining sentiment: “I have the support of the street, of the police, of the military, the support of 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.”
In a similar vein, during a 2016 rally in Las Vegas, Trump told a wildly cheering crowd “I love the old days, you know what they used to do to guys like that when they’re in a place like this, they’d be carried out on a stretcher,” Then, identifying a specific target person in the audience, Trump added: “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
This from a US president who has sworn to uphold the law in all of its authoritative expressions, not to punish innocent populations.
Looking to preserve law at both national and international levels, Americans will need to stay focused on what is truly important. About this perpetually primary obligation, there is no longer any point to identifying this defiling president’s multiple errors and derelictions one at a time, or even serially, as if, somehow, they could remain subject to purposeful revision. However, it is more precisely defined, the problem facing us today as an imperiled nation is “organic” or holistic. It’s not mysterious. Donald Trump’s analytic, moral, and legal shortcomings are integral to Trump the man. They are not in any way subject to correction.
They are irremediable.
“The mass-man has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.” Yet, this is how President Trump “learns.” This is exactly how he “learns.” It is the only way that he “learns.”
In any such setting, valid considerations of law will always be secondary.
On April 10 2020, Trump was asked how he plans to create suitable metrics for determining when the country could be “opened up again.” In reply, grinning with apparent stupefaction, he pointed to his head and exclaimed (without hesitation): “This is my only metric.” This crudely primal method of understanding, this most crudely primal method of learning, represents Donald Trump’s seat-of-the-pants reasoning. Prima facie, it is a method of inane and randomly jumbled calculations, one animated solely by raw instinct, and one then revealed with a demeaning or leering frivolity.
“I don’t think, therefore I am.” This parody of the classic assertion by French philosopher René Descartes may best explain the raison d’être of America’s current president. A problem, at least in narrowly literary terms, is that parody can lead to farce, and farce then yield to tragedy (mass dying). To recall the introductory words (above epigraph) of Bruno Bettelheim, by submitting itself to the “punishment” of a mass-man president, America risks being turned into “stone.”
There is more. Left without the will needed to rid itself of a devastating political and legal pathology (i.e., the Trump presidency), an entire nation will render itself vulnerable to grievous and potentially lethal microbial harms. In this respect, at least, a deficient national will to self-protection can sometimes tilt a nation-state toward unwarranted collective punishment and corresponding injustice.
In time, expanding microbial harms (“the plague”) could become effectively genocidal. Plausibly, even in the absence of any wittingly murderous presidential intent, America could soon be forced to watch itself being transformed into a finely lacquered collective corpse.
To avoid such a corrosive transformation, one indispensable strategy must be to firmly prevent Donald J. Trump from spawning or enlarging international nuclear crisis situations. In part, such “preemptive” strategies should involve various pertinent elements of US Constitutional Law, including those that would conceivably apply if (a) this president were to declare a “state of emergency” at the time of the election, or at the end of his designated term; and then (b) claim a “legitimate right” to remain in office. Though patently absurd by any normally reasonable applications of authoritative law, such an egregious claim could still be expected.
It could happen. What then? To avoid further collective punishment, these questions of law will need to be confronted soon and head-on.
Inherently indifferent to law at every level, including international law, Donald J. Trump remains the uncontested champion of determined anti-reason and deliberate falsehood. Though most Americans might fairly resist any too-candid comparisons of Trump’s leadership characteristics with more expressly hideous examples from the Third Reich, there do remain markedly credible points of commonality.
For the sake of honest and purposeful situational analysis, these points ought not be dismissed out of hand.
Truth, in both life and law, is exculpatory.
“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 first campaign for the presidency. Inter alia, what these assertions have in common is a potentially tragic disdain for science, education, and reason. They also point to a mutually deformed and twisted national ideal, one that favors viscerally mindless public obedience to assorted anti-legal commands issuing from the White House. An especially obvious example is this president’s clearly evident manipulations of a servile Attorney General/Department of Justice for political and psychological benefit.
Robotic Trump minions, lapdog and obsequious, remain largely indifferent to law, whatever the evident facts. These “freedom” – seeking citizens (no masks for them) are apparently undisturbed by their master’s casual indifference to science, logic, law, and justice. For these Trump loyalists, closely analogous to other hordes of mass-men and mass-women throughout history, documented wrongdoings and pertinent statutes represent subsidiary obiter dicta, essentially banal matters of secondary concern.
There is more. For the self-parodying “faithful” caught up in rancorous Trump deflections from genuine issues of truth and law, independent thought is anathema. For them, the Cartesian “cogito” (“I think”) might just as well never have been fashioned. For them, “I believe” is the only operative phrase.
“Learning only in his own flesh…,” US President Donald Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his antipathy for history, science, and law of any serious kind. Earlier, when he returned from his Singapore summit with Kim Jung Un, Trump declared that the calculable risks of a bilateral nuclear war had summarily been removed. The special reason he offered was that the two leaders had fallen “in love.” Today, he offers unqualified estimations of assorted drug efficacies against the Coronavirus; millions take these intellectually worthless estimations more seriously than carefully informed reports from the Center for Disease Control.
There is more. Simultaneously, Trump responds to science-based prescriptions with glaringly unwarranted expressions of casual doubt. At best, he sometimes offers Americans a “neutral” stance on science (i.e., one that draws equally upon legitimate scholars and medical quacks).
At best, what we can expect from this president is a dumbfounded indifference.
For the United States, incoherent, stream-of-consciousness excursions into gibberish by an American president are more destructive than simple humiliations. Now, at a palpably fearful time of biological plague, these unhidden declensions are immediately life-threatening. Jurisprudentially, they may represent de facto punishments. In certain circumstances, they may also come close to producing genocide-like crimes.
In American politics, widespread servility obtains, sometimes even among educated and professional populations. This sort of demographic bifurcation is not unprecedented. Beginning even before 1933, the German National Socialist party drew its most enthusiastic adherents and patrons not only from the “vulgar” ranks of Bavarian street fighters (SA, or Sturmabteilung) but also from high born elements of the Prussian aristocracy and the nation’s most distinguished universities. Here, in an earlier society transmuted toward lawlessness and anti-reason, career criminals, refined patricians, and respected university professors found themselves joined on the same side.
In the Third Reich, all were equivalent adherents of a dissembling and murderous legal disorder.
At this stage of law and politics in the United States, a core query cries out for immediate attention, a question that is at the same time an unequivocal assertion: America’s legal processes and institutions are grievously inadequate in dealing with Donald Trump’s willfully incoherent or chaotic instincts. The resultant withering of our declining nation’s heart and mind now point unerringly to once-unimaginable configurations of punishment and existential threat. While various mega-death scenarios of relentless pandemic are currently the most riveting narratives, the more “normal” dangers of nuclear war and terrorism have not magically disappeared.
In unassailably truthful hypotheses, the expected worst-case scenarios – war, terror, and pandemic – could occur more-or-less simultaneously, perhaps even with harshly interactive results that are not “merely” intersectional, but also synergistic.
This worrisome statement is not subject to legitimate question. It is, rather, true by definition.
There is more. Regarding issues of war and peace, US President Donald Trump should remain continually attentive to considerations of law as well as strategy. More particularly, under authoritative international law, all states are required to judge every use of force twice: once with regard to the underlying right to wage war (jus ad bellum) and once with regard to the means used in conducting an actual war (jus in bello). Following the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the United Nations Charter (1945), there remains no defensible legal right to waging an aggressive war.
The long-standing customary right of post-attack self-defense does remain codified at Article 51 of the UN Charter.
Similarly subject to conformance with jus in bello criteria, certain instances of humanitarian intervention and collective security operations may also be consistent with jus ad bellum standards. The law of war, the rules of jus in bello, comprise: (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules. Codified primarily at the Hague and Geneva Conventions, these rules attempt to bring discrimination, proportionality, and military necessity into all belligerent calculations.
At best, there is nothing expressly murderous or genocidal in Donald Trump’s policies, whether foreign and domestic, but, unambiguously, there is always detectable a far-reaching indifference to basic legal expectations regarding human rights and welfare. “All men have my blood and I have all men’s,” wrote American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance,” but this cosmopolitan sentiment is alien and incomprehensible to Donald J. Trump. Undeniably, as an idea, it is nothing he could ever take seriously or begin to understand.
There is more, 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. Among other things, this absence displays a caricatural American president, a national leader of literally breathtaking vapidity. Yet, recalling philosopher Karl Jaspers’ about any “mass of believers,” Donald J. Trump could be re-elected.
Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.”
Where should still-thoughtful Americans go from this already-unbearable point of political and jurisprudential departure? Whatever else we might conclude, Donald Trump displays numerous and incontrovertible clinical derangements. Still, rather than continue to approach these derangements as if they were somehow singularly meaningful and remediable, all who would still support law, science and reason must finally understand that (a) there exists no feasible “fix” for any such complex concatenations of wrongful presidential behavior, and (b) the danger posed by this president is legally overwhelming and “imminent in point of time.”
Though Donald Trump believes that all he does is undertaken with absolute purity of heart, similarly felt convictions were detectable among the 1930s minions of Third Reich propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
Let us be candid. In America today, there is vastly too much “noise.” Among those too-many citizens who strenuously loathe refined intellect and jurisprudential thought, it is a screaming noise, one made on behalf of a hideously destructive political showman.
There are various serious lessons to be learned. For all Americans, the most ruinous evasion of all would be to seek palpable comfort and succor in some Trumpian form of coming-together; that is, to seek to escape their inevitable moral judgment as human beings and private citizens by hiding in the mass. This search won’t work.
“In eternity,” reminds 19th century Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard, “each shall render account as an individual.”
In the 20th century, Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, building upon the established wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas, sought to continue a long-studied reconciliation of faith and reason. In connection with this spiritual and intellectual leitmotif, he then devoted a great measure of his writings to basic issues of human liberty and to certain corresponding expectations of human freedom. Acknowledging free choice, Maritain stresses the ongoing obligation to make optimal use of this privilege within a proper moral order.
“We are called upon to become in action,” Maritain readers are told in Freedom in the Modern World, “what we are already in the metaphysical order, persons. It is our duty to make ourselves persons by our own efforts, having dominion over our own acts and enjoying a wholeness of existence.”
Where it is understood in specifically political terms, Maritain’s insights bring us full circle, back to Bruno Bettelheim, more precisely to the psychologist’s stark warning (above) about people who wittingly “submit to punishment” by choosing to side with the eternally lethal forces of ignorance and anti-reason. Now, as we approach the 2020 US presidential election, American citizens could benefit from Maritain’s complementary awareness that free choice is always a duty and that refusing to oppose a ferociously corrupted White House is both wrong and unforgivable.
Should this peremptory duty be ignored, for any reason, We the People would then submit to gratuitous presidential “punishment,” and accept, implicitly, an inglorious national fate. It would be a fate, moreover, contrary to the contrived Trump message emblazoned on thousands of cheap red hats, a message altogether lacking in any “greatness.” It would be a fate prepared to turn each and every “mass-man” or “mass-woman” in America into “stone.”
In the end, just as it was in 1930s Germany, those who had till then resisted becoming mass would be swept up into the whirlwind. However unwittingly, they too would suffer the eternally frightful sovereignty of a punishing anti-reason. In these still-avoidable sufferings, law and justice would be the most enduring victim.
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 Jurist