Published On: Mon, Jan 4th, 2021

Looking Back: The Trump Presidency as Triumph of Absurdity

Prof. Louis René Beres

Hamm: “What time is it”?

Clov: “The same as usual.”

Samuel  Beckett, Endgame

Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher. “I believe because it is absurd.” Are there any rational explanations for enduring four dissembling years of lethal Trump horror?  Though pertinent explanations are ipso facto rational, what about the object of these required answers – that is, a far-reaching national surrender to wholly irrational governance?

               It’s time for candor. Even on a planet so wittingly disordered, so seemingly resigned to self-destruction, the Trump years have been uniquely corrosive and dangerously incoherent. In essence, where so much has been preposterous on its face, these once unimaginable times have signaled a genuine victory for absurdity. What else can one reasonably say after an American president makes repeated medical claims that contradict his own scientific advisors; asserts that Joe Biden, then his rival, “hates and wants to hurt God…;” recommends injecting household disinfectants as therapeutic or prophylactic agents for Covid19 infection; insists that children are “almost immune” to Coronavirus; and maintains that “only 1%” of those infected” suffer palpable harms?

               Credo quia absurdum.

               Approaching the end of his presidency – in late December 2020 – Donald J. Trump was cited for being “the most admired man in America. This was at exactly the same moment that Covid19 deaths had reached a grievous record and when the federal government openly abdicated its core responsibilities for rational vaccine distribution. It was also at the precise moment of Trump-Pence celebrations of “US Space Force,” a caricatural creation that siphoned off billions of desperately-needed health dollars to fund military operations that were quite literally inconceivable.

               There are egregious particulars to note. Any viable democracy demands carefully refined efforts of “mind.” This means, in turn, variously careful applications of analytic scrutiny and disciplined “thought.” Anything less substantial could leave the United States unprepared for a paralyzing “second wave” of leadership abdications.  

               Let us not be unwary. America could not tolerate any Trump-like presidential encore. Without systemic remediation, the United States could sometime make itself existentially vulnerable again, either incrementally, or all at once.  

               Next time such vulnerability could extend to assorted nuclear harms.  And these harms could intersect or overlap with the ravaging damages of pandemic disease. Indeed, it is not beyond plausible probability that such intersections or overlaps would be authentically synergistic.

               By definition, if synergistic, the “whole” of any prospectively negative effects would exceed the sum of its constituent “parts.”

               What then?

               What now?

               First, Americans need to learn more systematically and insightfully from the many Trump-created declensions.  This means an overarching imperative to discover the origins of this country’s near-fatal leadership plague . This ought not be a query of geography, but rather one of mindset or ideology. In this indispensable inquiry, history, science and law must be restored to an appropriate pride of place.    It must be understood that such a manifestly unfit American president did not emerge ex nihilo, in a vacuum, from nothing.

               Donald Trump was the more-or-less predictable outgrowth of an American polity and society nurtured by “bread and circus,” the result of an amusement-based commonwealth that too often loathes serious thought. Tens of millions of Americans were comfortable voting for a president who openly and habitually undermined “due processes of law,” who allowed an unprecedented mass dying and who never read anything, ever

               The ironies are conspicuous. Any true democracy requires, inter alia and at a minimum, a decent respect for literacy. But no such basic regard obtains in these unhappy United States, not even today. Instead, nurtured by a consistently callous indifference to wisdom, Americans have generally resisted the strenuousness of honest intellectual effort or analytic thought. 

               The basic problem is not just that tens of millions of citizens know so very little of truth. It is that they want to know so very little. For ascertaining truth, there is “simply” too little will. 

               When they voted for Donald J. Trump, these American s wittingly endorsed a candidate for whom truth was not “merely” anathema. In this president’s inverted world, authentic truth is quite literally “against the faith.” Over the past four years, it has effectively been transformed for millions into a distinct form of “impiety.”

               Questions must be answered. How did we ever arrive at such a dark space of governmental contrivance and anti-Reason? Who is America’s real “enemy?”

               To reply, the discernible core adversary of any dignified American polity is never any one particular ideology or another. It is neither “left-wing radicals” nor “right-wing extremists.” It is, instead, a sustained collective citizen antipathy to Reason and Virtue. Naturally, Americans can’t usually be expected to recognize the philosophic (Platonic-Socratic ) origins of these coinciding objectives, but they can at least make an effort to learn about underlying ideas.

               In its basic contours, this craven American antipathy to Reason and Virtue is universal. It is rooted less in any specific time or place than in a ubiquitously human horror of exercising disciplined thought. At the same time, this species of universality in no way diminishes anti-Reason’s durable harms to the United States. For Americans just newly emerging from the bruising darkness of Donald J. Trump’s crude authoritarianism, the first order of business – the very first societal “repairs” – must be undertaken at home.

                “The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth,” clarified 20th-century German philosopher Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952). It is this identical demeaning spirit that continues to dominate the present-day United States. Although we can take some palpable comfort from the electoral defeat of Donald J. Trump, it is still worth noting that pundit and academic post-mortems of this disgraced American presidency focus on narrowly technical electoral explanations and on identifiable defects or derelictions of the losing candidate.

               Nowhere, it is safe to predict, will capable analysts or thinkers seek to find coherent explanations in appropriately broader considerations of context.

                It is finally time to ask: Wherein lie the pertinent roots of America’s antipathy to intellect and serious learning? A generic but pertinent answer is supplied not by political and social scientists, but by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In his classic Notes from Underground (1864), the great Russian  writer compares the attractions of “reason” and “desire,” concluding that the latter –  “the manifestation of life itself” – has the upper hand.

               Always.

               There are significant variations from country to country, and from time to time, but history reveals that anti-Reason political leaders are always aspiring somewhere “in the wings.” Here, often  diligently, they prepare to pounce against whatever might support the less immediately gratifying claims of intellect or “mind.” Or against whomever. 

               This insight ought not appear new to us. We should have learned all this from the historic end of Weimar Germany and Nazi Germany. We should also have learn this lesson from the incrementally calamitous Trump years here in the United States. Though America’s four-year subjection to falsehood and doctrinal anti-Reason has not been genocidal (the jurisprudential crime of genocide expressly includes criminal intent, or mens rea), the animating sentiments of the Trump White House have been furiously opposed to universal human rights and fundamental human freedoms. 

               Perversely, it was Donald J. Trump’s unabashed disregard for justness and fairness that became its singular and signature mantra. But why receive such wide and enthusiastic support from so many millions of Americans? In this regard, even the final election vote count is hardly comforting or reassuring. Even now, tens of millions of citizens remain deeply sympathetic to a president who could never decipher the most elementary social problems, figure out basic elements of climate science and disease, or deliver even the most minimally coherent logical argument.

               This has been a president, lest we forget, who opined that individual injections of bleach could be an effective way of defeating the Coronavirus.

               There is much more. In the United States, prima facie, presidential elections represent an immutable fixture of democracy. Nonetheless, though necessary, they are also insufficient in dealing with this suffering country’s most seriously underlying challenges. To deal satisfactorily with the Corona Virus pandemic (our current worldwide “plague”) and with the corresponding global chaos, America will first have to “fix the microcosm.”

               Always, every advancement in society and law must begin with the individual human being. “Ultimately,” summarizes 20th-century Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957),” everything depends on the quality of the individual.”

               “Intellect rots the mind,” warned Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels at the Nuremberg rallies of 1935. “I love the poorly educated” said candidate Donald J. Trump in 2016. This comparison or commonality need not suggest that the Trump administration was in any way intentionally murderous, but only that both regimes had received their “primal” nurturance from the darkly-poisonous font of anti-Reason.

               Among other things, Trump rallies, in the fashion of their more seemingly sinister Nazi antecedents, represented incoherent gatherings of the faithful, replete with ritualistic phrases of banalities, of gibberish, chanted in loud and atavistic chorus.

               During the glaringly rancorous Trump Era, there obtained in the United States not even a pretense  of  intellectual integrity or “Mind.” Both thinking and dignity have been strikingly out of political fashion. Let us cut to the chase. In the most cantankerous public realms defined by the White House, truth has never been regarded as worthwhile or advantageous.

                For this now outgoing president who learned a great deal from de facto mentor Joseph Goebbels, truth was just a regrettable liability.

               Quo Vadis? Where do we go from here? Though not generally understood, looking behind the news is everyone’s first obligation of good citizenship. Only here, in the background, in areas not immediately obvious and not being dissected on television or online, can we still discover the meaningfully permanent truths of American political life.

               Additional core questions must be answered. Americans should more sincerely inquire: “How can a US president have so willfully ignored and accepted his Russian counterpart as “puppet master?” Even in the wholesale absence of  Emersonian “high thinking” within the Trump White House, it should have become perfectly obvious that one superpower president became the all-too-submissive marionette of the other. Functioning within a balance of power or Westphalian international system, this eccentric sort of  US geopolitical subordination put the entire American nation in existential jeopardy. 

               Donald  Trump’s “America First” was merely the newest iteration of a long-failed world political system of belligerent power management. The “balance-of-power” has never actually been more than a facile metaphor. Despite its name, it has never had anything to do with ensuring or ascertaining equilibrium. As such, balance has always been subjective, a matter of assorted individual perceptions.  There is more. Adversarial states in this zero-sum “Westphalian” dynamic can never be sufficiently confident that strategic circumstances are suitably “balanced.” In consequence, each side to any contest or competition must perpetually fear that it will somehow be left behind, thus creating ever wider and even cascading patterns of national insecurity and collective disequilibrium.

               There remain still more serious questions to answer. As a nation, when shall Americans finally agree to bear truthful and informed witness on Constitutional governance? Can there remain any doubt that there is much more to these founding principles than robotic recitals of alleged Second Amendment rights?  Surely this country must be about much more than just the right to bear arms, especially when this right is defined in ways that would have been starkly incomprehensible to the Founding Fathers.

               To wit, can anyone reasonably argue that the original intended rights of gun ownership should now extend to automatic weapons?

               Cultural context remains vital, even determinative, to explaining Donald J. Trump’s ascent to the presidency. Trump did not arise ex nihilo. What went so terribly wrong with American  “high thinking?” How, more precisely, did we allow a once-promising and still-rising nation to slide uncontrollably toward collective national misfortune?  

               We have seen that in the unsteady nuclear age, such misfortune could sometime have included catastrophic human wars. With such dreaded inclusion, we the people might sometime have needed to witness an unprecedented fusion. This fearful coming-together could have been an explosive alloy of banality and apocalypse. 

               It would not have been a tolerable fusion.

               In the profane melodrama and farce directed by US President Donald J. Trump, we Americans were not authentically tragic figures. At no time have we been just the passive victims of a disjointed and contrived presidency. As long as we refused to speak out at less delicate levels of truth-telling – and this refusal meant much more than showing up to vote in 2020 – we fully “deserved” our consequent losses.

               Amid such consequential “theatrical” matters, we Americans may have much less to learn from Plato, Aristotle or Shakespeare than from 20th-century psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Even a cursory glance at these two seminal thinkers from Vienna and Zurich should remind us of ever-present human dangers posed by “horde” or “mass.”Freud and Jung were both strongly influenced by the Danish Existentialist thinker Soren Kierkegaard (who personally preferred the term “crowd” to “horde” or “mass”) and by German-Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

                Without guile, Nietzsche had spoken woefully (and prophetically) of the “herd.”

               Whatever term we might now decide to favor, one key point should remain unassailable and constant: When an entire nation and society abandon the most basic obligations of critical thinking and “reason” (again, this observation about “reason” should bring us back to the German post-War philosopher, Karl Jaspers , we should expect accelerating deformity and eventual tyranny.  Nietzsche, in his masterpiece Zarathustra, was even more specific. “Do not seek the higher-man in the marketplace,” the philosopher- prophet had warned presciently.

               In the United States, we failed to listen. Donald J. Trump’s wholly mundane and manipulative skill sets were acquired in the market-based worlds of real-estate bargaining, casino gambling and “branding.” Plainly, they did not “carry over” to intersecting intricacies of high-politics and diplomacy. Basing his foreign policies on an explicit rejection of intellect   – a rejection continuously affirmed by his various appointments of ill-equipped family members and others to senior posts –  we have been left with a tortured world of disappearing friends and still-multiplying foes.

               Now, perhaps, with a promisingly sane new president elected, American national leadership can begin to offer more than clichés, empty-witticisms or delusionary “deals.” Trump’s assorted trade wars, like his disjointed approach to pandemic disease (“Operation Warp Speed”) became a gargantuan net-negative for the United States. But what is most important now, after so much damage has already been inflicted and suiffered, is that we avoid similar presidential failings going forward.

               In the end, every society represents the sum total of its individual souls seeking some sort or other of “redemption.” This overriding search is never properly scientific – after all, there can be no discernible or tangible referent for a human “soul” – but some important answers may still lie outside mainstream scientific investigations. These  “subjective” answers ought not be disregarded. At times, at least, they should be consciously sought and meticulously studied.

               In President Donald J. Trump’s deeply fractionated American republic, We the people have cheerlessly inhabited a stultifying “hollow land” of unending submission, crass consumption, dreary profanity and shallow pleasures. Bored by the suffocating banalities of daily life and beaten down by the grinding struggle to stay hopeful amid ever-widening polarities of health and disease, of wealth and poverty, our weary US citizens – people who have had every right to vote,  but not to keep their teeth – grasped anxiously for available lifelines of distraction.

               In 2016, this presumed lifeline was a hideously false prophet of American “greatness.”

               In 2016, legions of Americans unaccustomed to reading anything of consequence were easily taken in by mountains of cheap red hats and by starkly inane political slogans.

               For Donald Trump,  cynical simplifications represented the planned path to electoral victory. Correspondingly, evident anti-Reason became this president’s primary stock in trade. Even more sinister, this nefarious posture quickly became a hideous national “faith.”

               “Intellect rots the mind” said Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1935.

               “I love the poorly educated,” said US Presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016.

               There is not much light between these “faith-based” statements. In principle, at least, these hideous commonalties became de rigueur. Misdirected by incessantly hollow claims of “American Exceptionalism” and “America First,” we somehow managed to forget that world politics is first and foremost a system.  It follows, going forward, that considerations of US security and prosperity be consciously linked to the calculable well-being of other states and other societies.

               In world politics, as in life generally, “We are all in the soup together.” 

               There is more. Until now, we Americans have unceremoniously ignored the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s clear warning from The Phenomenon of Man (1955): “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’ is false and against nature. No element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”

               Any society that makes tax avoidance into a key virtue – even one used as a primary standard of presidential selection – is a society without adequate visions of survival, meaning or virtue.

               In “Trump World” we have been ignoring almost everything of commendable intellectual importance. Should there remain any sincere doubts about this bitter indictment, one need only look at the current state of American higher education. In many ways, this realm is now just another defiled expression of Nietzsche’s (Zarathustra’s) “marketplace.” 

               In Donald Trump’s America, we the people were no longer being shaped by any suitably generalized feelings of reverence or compassion, nor, as has already been demonstrated, by even the tiniest hints of “mind.” Until now, America’s oft-preferred preoccupation, encouraged by the White House and shamelessly unhidden, was a closely- orchestrated indulgence in other people’s lives and (with an even greater enthusiasm) their sufferings. In German, there is even a specially-designated word for this grim pathology of the human spirit.

               It is called schadenfreude, or taking an exquisite pleasure in the misfortunes of others.

               For the most part, this voyeuristic frenzy has been juxtaposed against the comforting myths of American superiority. In the end, however, this particular fiction, more than any other, is apt to produce further collective declension and expanded individual despair. This was the case even when American president Trump chose to wrap himself in the flag, literally, a 2018 Trump embrace of rare and defiling repugnance. Later, on June 1, 2020,  a similarly revolting Trump prop embrace was extended to the Bible, this during a peaceful protest in Washington DC. 

               It’s good to have Nation on your side, Donald J. Trump had figured out, but even better to have God on your side. Never were the bitterly grotesque ironies of Bob Dylan’s brilliant song (“With God on Your Side”) more clearly on display.

               “I belong, therefore I am.”  This is not what philosopher René Descartes had in mind when, in the 17th century, he urged greater thought and expanding doubt. It is also a very sad credo. Unhesitatingly, it shrieks loudly that social acceptance by the mass or herd or crowd is roughly equivalent to physical survival, and that even the most sorely pretended pleasures of inclusion are worth pursuing.

               There is more to explain. A push-button metaphysics of “apps” now reigns supreme in America. This immense attraction of smartphones and correspondingly bewildering social networks stems in large part from a barren society’s machine-like existence. Within this increasingly robotic universe, every hint of human passion must be shunted away from any still-caring human emotions and then re-directed along certain uniform and vicariously satisfying pathways.

               Jurisprudentially, although international law obliges the United States to oppose all crimes of genocide and related crimes against humanity,  and despite the fact that this binding international law is an established part of the law of the United States, Donald J. Trump issued pardons for egregious war crimes. This issuance included the “Blackwater Four,” criminals convicted inter alia of murdering children in Iraq and Afghanistan.

               Under law, these criminals merited the description known as hostes humani generis, or “common enemies of humankind.”

               When this American president first defended Russia’s Vladimir Putin against the advice of America’s intelligence community, we ought already to have known we were in real trouble. Significantly, during his tenure, Donald J. Trump has never backed off this unsupportable priority. Why hasn’t this humiliating sycophancy not been subjected to any serious public scrutiny?

               There is more. When Trump said of North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un “We’re in love,” we ought have then suspected that an American president’s alleged plan for “denuclearization” was hopeless without merit. From the start, the plan lacked any conceivable semblance of analytic foundation.

               There is more pertinent detail for us to consider. Across this Trump- beleaguered land, our once traditionally revered Western Canon of literature and art has increasingly been replaced by more “practical” emphases on job preparation, loyalty-building sports, and “branding.”  For most of America’s young people, even before the pandemic, learning has become an inconvenient and thoroughly burdensome commodity.

               Beware, warns Zarathustra, of seeking virtue, fairness or justice at the marketplace. This is a place only for commerce,  for trading, for buying and selling. It is a venue designed only for “deals.” It is never a proper place for identifying potentially suitable national leaders.

               In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired coyly about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked. This president (a president who actually read and wrote serious books) answered “yes,” but only if we would first refuse to join the misdirecting “herds” of mass society.

               Otherwise, President Wilson had already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty corrosion of broken machinery, more disabling even than the sordid decompositions of an individual human being.

                In all societies, Ralph Waldo Emerson had understood, the care of individual “souls” should be the most insistent national responsibility. Conceivably, there could sometimes emerge a betterAmerican Soul,” but not until we could first agree to shun several inter-penetrating seductions of mass culture. These are rank imitation;  shallow thinking;  organized mediocrity; and manifestly predatory politics focused on ethnicity, gender, race, and class. 

               Any such far-reaching rejection will not be easy. It will take time. It will take vision. 

               Still, newly liberated from the degrading shackles of a Trump presidency, hope may no longer have to sing softly, in a determined undertone, sotto voce. Soon it will be able to re-emerge without excuses, increasingly reasonable and newly purposeful.

                The alternative could be unseemly and injurious. It would be for us not to have learned something useful from the defiling Trump Era; that is, to continuously embrace a rancorous orientation toward intellect and politics. In broad conceptual and generic outline, this orientation was described earlier by Sören Kierkegaard. The 19th-century Danish philosopher invoked what he famously called  “a sickness unto death.”  For the moment, at least, “We the people” have managed to negotiate an eleventh-hour escape from this all-consuming “sickness” – from the enduring horror of Donald J. Trump’s bitter presidency – but there remains one overriding obligation.

                It is to render this essential escape from darkness to enlightenment more conspicuous, more welcome, more durable, and more permanent. The American public’s retreat from Reason did not begin with the bilious Trump presidency, and it will not end abruptly with the presidency of Joe Biden. Nonetheless, we can, as a society, take steps to get beyond the ruthless ignorance of Trump-era governance and acknowledge the singularly incomparable benefits of reasoned thought. With the electoral defeat of Donald J. Trump, Americans have already made a necessary beginning, but that is all that has been accomplished thus far.

               We are still only at “the beginning.”

               In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus inquires: “Does the Absurd dictate death?” Understood in specific context of the recent Trump presidency, the “correct” answer is tangible and also unassailable. At every imaginable assessment of Trump-induced or accelerate harms – e.g., pandemic disease; human rights disregard; nuclear arms proliferation; Realpolitik or global power politics; chaos – the specter of nothingness made itself palpable. With little basis for any disagreement, (1) death remains the glaring prototype of absolutely all injustice; and (2) Trump-generated absurdities produced or actively promoted a terminal outcome.

               At the beginning of a new American presidency, shall we start to imagine some plausible “liberation” from lethal absurdity, or ought we to resignedly accept this death-dictating ethos as irremediably fixed and immutable? The most realistic answer, paradoxically, may come from the absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett, with whose Endgame dialectic this essay first began.

                “What time is it?” queries one character.

               “The same as usual,” responds the other.

               There is no “cure” for absurdity. It is a condition, a predilection, that lies latent in the human species itself, unchanging, most likely forever. It follows that absurdity should be regarded as an immutable “first principle,” an axiom or postulate that must simply be taken as given and from which all policy prescriptions must ultimately be deduced.

               This conclusion need not be interpreted as either a lamentable liability or as an existential threat. It just “sets the stage” for future presidential policy prescriptions based upon truth,  not on contrivance.  Absurdity is neither good nor bad.

                It merely is.

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

Photo: Donald Trump by hoekstrarogier/ Pixabay 

 

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