Prof. Louis René Beres
“The mass man has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.”
Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (1930
Though officially a pathology of the past, the toxic effects of Donald Trump’s grim presidency will resonate for years. To explain this lamentable durability, history deserves pride of place. But how, precisely, should we proceed with such necessary background?
What were the discernible origins of this American declension, a barbarous retrogression capped by attempted insurrection; a fall so steep it was long unimaginable in the United States?
This is a complex and disconcerting query, one Americans ought not sweep casually under the rug. Donald Trump’s grotesque authoritarianism did not arise mysteriously, spontaneously, out of nowhere, without history, ex nihilo. On the contrary, it was the evident and even predictable result of a society too-frequently bereft of reason-based decision-making. In essence, the thoroughly beaten-down America that suffered a presidentially-incited insurrection on January 6, 2021 was a nation afflicted.
Even now, even after suffering Mr. Trump’s most sorely palpable and continuously lethal derelictions, America remains, as a society, widely averse to serious learning or intellectual obligation. Unsurprisingly, it is a “horde” directed nation, one susceptible to utterly deranged conspiracy theories and vulnerable to assorted violence-oriented antipathies of the “mass.”
Conceptual Background of the Trump Horror
“The mass,” said 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, “crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select.” Embracing Trump, and in a plausibly fatal deference to Ortega’s “crushing” force, the intellectually un-ambitious American not only agreed to wallow lazily in nonsensical political and cultural phrases of a glaringly naked emperor, he/she also accepted a shallow national ethos of personal intellectual surrender.
Queries continue. How shall such incomprehensible behaviors be explained most sensibly and gainfully? At one level, at least, the answer is obvious. Under Donald Trump, America was no longer a society sincerely wanting to value knowledge, education or learning. For four dissembling years, led by a retrograde man of commerce who never read books – indeed, who very proudly and conspicuously read nothing – America became a quintessential “know nothing” country. This meant, inter alia, a nation that wittingly and shamelessly spurns intellect and truth.
For variously intersecting reasons, the docile Trump minions had sought desperately to keep themselves “anesthetized.” This sordid search outlasted the Trump presidency. It continues to this day.
There is more. In their active form of complicity with individual and collective self-destruction, surrendering Americans were not passive victims. Rather, they insistently held themselves captive by harboring a lengthening string of false presidential reassurances and by clinging to endlessly mindless Trump simplifications of multi-sided problems.
There were generic antecedents. In her magisterial two-volume work, The Life of the Mind (1971), political philosopher Hannah Arendt already highlighted the “manifest shallowness” of historical evil-doers. In so doing, she hypothesized that the most critically underlying causes of pertinent harms were neither evil motives nor common stupidity. Instead, she concluded, controversially but convincingly, that the root problem is a literal thoughtlessness, a more-or-less verifiable human condition that makes any unsuspecting individual subject to the presumed “wisdom” of clichés, stock phrases and narrowly contrived codes of political expression.
Who are these individuals? There are, of course, many who will be “susceptible.” Always. This does notmean only those men or women who lack a decently respectable formal education. Significantly, in Donald Trump’s fragmenting America, just as it was earlier, in the Third Reich, well-educated and affluent persons joined forces with ritualistic gun worshippers and vulgar street fighters. The unseemly alliance had a purpose. It was created as a tactical measure, to meet certain overlapping objectives.
In the end, as we may learn from both history and logic, each faction would suffer grievously alongside the general citizenry.
In the future, a similar sort of loss could be existential and irremediable.
The Literal Absence of Thought
For Hannah Arendt, the core problem was always a tangible absence of thinking. In her own learned and lucid assessment, menacing evil is not necessarily calculable according to some specific purpose or ideology. For the philosopher, it is deceptively commonplace and plausibly predictable. Evil, as we may learn from Arendt, is “banal.”
There is more. Fundamentally, the “mass man” or “mass woman” (a Jungian term that closely resembles Hannah Arendt’s evildoer) who cheers wildly in rancorous presidential crowds, and who chants whatever the articulated gibberish of the particular horde, prefers whatever is easiest to memorize. This means favoring a constant flow of empty witticisms over any meaningful insights of logic or science. Living in a commerce-driven society that has been drifting ever further from any still-residual “life of the mind,” this susceptible American became the perfect “recruit” for Trumpian dissemblance or conversion.
There is more. It was in stubborn defiance of meaningful thought that such persons mounted their twisted attack on the Capitol of the United States. The ironies are unassailable; they are also worrisome in the longer term.
This “obedient” citizen, often like his unregenerate representatives in the Congress, has no use for study, evidence or critical thinking of any kind. And why should he/she? Der Fuhrer, the nation was promised, would do each person’s “thinking” for him.
Could anything have been more “convenient?”
With Arendt and Jung, the core culprit of anti-Reason is fully unmasked. This “banal” malefactor is the once-still-individual human being who ceases to be an individual, the one who wittingly becomes the reliable enemy of intellect and the correlative ally of thoughtlessness. Following such antecedent triumphs of anti-Reason here in the United States, it becomes more easy to understand the hideous rise and seeming political survival of former American President Donald J. Trump.
Most ominously in all of this American decline is that Reason remains widely out of fashion. No matter how compelling and expansive the evidence of Trump’s myriad derelictions became, millions of dedicated or “base” adherents stayed steadfastly loyal to Der Fűhrer. Faith, not facts, are what matter most to these willfully self-destructive Trump adherents. For them, the familiar Third Reich phrase “I believe” is all that counts. For these dutiful hordes, “I think” remains wholly unknown or distinctly subordinate.
Back in the eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson, chief architect of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and a future American president, exclaimed with an 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,” swore an oath of “eternal support” for such an insufferable tyranny. Earlier, he had returned from his June 12, 2018 Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un declaring that the calculable risks of a bilateral nuclear war had now been removed. This was because he and Kim had fallen “in love.” Later, on a different subject, Trump offered his own personal assessments of assorted drug efficacies against the Corona virus.
Simultaneously, Trump responded to authoritative science-based prescriptions – the ones to which Americans actually ought to have been listening all along – with glib dismissals, capricious denials or a recognizably open unconcern.
For the United States, Trump’s stream-of-consciousness excursions into gibberish and incoherence represented far more than just a national embarrassment. At a time of palpable biological “plague,” such presidential declensions became insistently and immediately life-threatening. In law, they came very close to becoming genocide-like crimes.
In essence, America’s political processes and institutions were pitifully inadequate in dealing with this former president’s most chaotic instincts. Still, till the end, a large portion of this afflicted nation continued to display near-infinite forbearance for Trump’s inane and potentially tragic commentaries. This forbearance endured even after the Trump-inspired assault on America’s Capitol. The resultant withering of a declining nation’s heart and mind pointed unerringly to existential threats. While various mega-death scenarios of relentless pandemic were the most plainly far reaching and immediately credible hazards, the more “normal” dangers of war and terrorism had not simultaneously disappeared. Today, these dangers persist. They are more urgent than ever before.
Now, in the United States, a new president is left to pick up the pieces, a task including repairs to a Trump-fractured corpus of foreign and strategic policies.
An Unphilosophic Spirit
America’s most insidious enemy during the suffocating Trump Era should now be easier to recognize and uncover. This foe is an unphilosophical national spirit that knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth. Then facing unprecedented and overlapping crises of health, economics and law, sizable elements of “We the People” felt at their best when they could chant anesthetizing Trump-inspired gibberish in mesmerizing chorus. “We’re number one; we’re number one, “these Americans shouted out reflexively, even as their country’s capacity to project global power withered minute by minute, and even as the already ominous separations of rich and poor had come to mimic (and sometimes exceed) what is discoverable in the most grievously downtrodden nations on earth.
“USA; USA” – the amplified cry of a people who confused gibberish with true patriotism.
Most alarmingly, among manifold catastrophic American declensions, the Trump-wounded American nation allowed itself to be led by a visibly ignorant pied piper, by a would-be emperor who was “naked” from the start and who finally managed to bring the United States to fearful levels of suffering. In this connection, the Corona Virus pandemic was not of his own personal making, but this relentless plague became infinitely more injurious under President Donald J. Trump’s unsteady dictatorial hand.
Nonetheless, even now, the champions of anti-Reason in America still rise to defend their Fuhrer, sometimes on the basis of vague and easily-discredited conspiracy theories. Trump did not create this growing plague, we are reminded by these champions. He was, rather, just another victim of unavoidable biological circumstance. So why keep “picking on” this innocent and brilliant man (“a very stable genius”)? Instead, let us stand loyally by his enduringly sagacious counsel.
Recalling philosopher Hannah Arendt, such determinedly twisted loyalties and explanations stem originally from massive citizen thoughtlessness. Though Donald Trump was not responsible for the original biological menace of “plague,” he still willingly weakened the American nation’s most utterly indispensable medical and scientific defenses. It is worth mentioning too, on this particular count, that meaningful national defense must always entail far more than just large-scale weapons systems and infrastructures.
Looking ahead, for example, this country has far more to gain from a coherent and science-based antivirus policy than from a patently preposterous “Space Force.”
Earlier, Thomas Jefferson, Chief architect of the Declaration of Independence, observed the imperative congruence of viable national democracy with wisdom, learning and virtue. Today, however, many still revere a former president whose proud refrain during the 2016 election process was “I love the poorly educated.” Among other humiliating derelictions, this perverse refrain represented a palpable echo of Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ 1935 Nuremberg rally comment: “Intellect rots the brain.”
A National Antipathy to Serious Thought
Americans remain polarized not only by race, ethnicity and class, but also by inclination or disinclination to serious thought. For most of this dreary and unhappy country, any inclination toward a “life of the mind” is still anathema. In irrefutable evidence of this preference, trivial or debasing entertainments remain America’s only expected compensation for enduring a shallow national life of tedious obligation, financial exhaustion, ill-protected health and premature death. This sizable portion of the populace, kept “safely” distant from authentic personal growth by almost every imaginable engineered obstacle, desperately seeks residual compensations. For the most part, these are revealed in abundantly silly slogans, promises of status-bearing affiliations, or other manifestly deranging promises of Trump Era political chicanery.
Even at this “post Trump” eleventh hour, Americans must learn to understand that no nation can be “first” that does not first hold each individual “soul” sacred. At one time in our collective history, shortly after American Transcendental philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a spirit of personal accomplishment actually earned high marks. Then, young people especially, strove to rise interestingly, not as the embarrassingly obedient servants of destructive personal power and raw commerce, but as the proud owners of a unique and personal Self.
Alas, today this Self “lives” together with increasingly unbearable material and biological ties. Whether individual Americans would prefer to become more secular or more reverent, to grant government more authority over their lives, or less, a willing submission to multitudes remains this nation’s most unifying national “religion.” Regarding the pied piper in the Trump White House, many Americans came to accept even the most patently preposterous presidential claims of enhanced national security.
This from a president who was himself the conspicuously servile marionette of his Russian counterpart.
This from an American president who came to resemble The Manchurian Candidate on stilts and steroids.
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher: “I believe because it is absurd.”
Upon returning to Washington DC after the June 2018 Singapore Summit, President Trump made the following statement: “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” Prima facie, it was a ridiculous assertion, one so blatantly foolish that it ought to have raised incontestable “red flags” wherever there still remained some residual scintilla of human Reason.
But it’s not just America that remains subject to dictates of anti-Reason. Unseemly crowd-like sentiments like those of the Trump-era have a long and diversified planetary history. We are, to be fair, hardly the first people to surrender to crowds. The contemporary crowd-man or woman is, in fact, a primitive and universal being, one who has lazily “slipped back,” in the words of Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, “through the wings, on to the age-old stage of civilization.”
This grotesque stage is not bare like the stages of a farce by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. On the contrary, this stage is littered with the corpses of dead civilizations. What else ought to have been expected of societies governed by the “horde,” the “crowd,” the “mass?”
Indiscriminately, the mass defiles all that is most gracious and promising in any society. Charles Dickens, during his first visit to America, observed portentously back in 1842: “I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country in the failure of its example to the earth.”
To this point, even after the world-defiling Trump-horror, Americans have successfully maintained their core political freedom from traditional forms of political tyranny and oppression. Nonetheless, we have already come to accept in once unimaginable terms the kind of presidential manipulation and bullying that can shred and pull apart even the most well-established constitutions. As corollary, Americans have cravenly surrendered their indispensable liberty to become authentic persons. By openly deploring a life of meaning and sincerity, a stubbornly anti-intellectual nation confused wealth with success. Blurting out rhythmic chants of allegedly patriotic celebration even as their cheerless democracy vanished into meaninglessness, Americans followed pandemic disease toward a potentially irremediable despair.
Whatever its origin, there is an identifiable cause lying behind such feverishly synchronized delirium. In part, at least, Trump- orchestrated babble sought to protect Americans from a terrifying and unbearable loneliness. In the end, however, it proved a contrived and lethal remedy . In the end, it offered just another Final Solution.
The Indispensable “Single One”
With all of our declensions, there remain certain individual American citizens of integrity and courage. Still, the fearlessly resolute individual who would actively seek to escape from the steadily-poisoning “crowd,” the One who opts heroically for disciplined individual thought over effortless conformance, must feel quite deeply alone. “The most radical division,” asserted José Ortega y Gasset in 1930, “is that which splits humanity…. those who make great demands on themselves…and those who demand nothing special of themselves…” In 1965, the Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, offered an almost identical argument. Lamenting, “The emancipated man is yet to emerge,” Heschel then asked each One to inquire:
“What is expected of me? What is demanded of me?”
Why were these same questions so casually pushed aside by servile American supporters of a rancorous president who opposed “emancipation” in any conceivable form?
Always, there are lessons to be learned. It is time for camouflage and concealment in the pitiful American crowd to yield to what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “being-challenged-in-the-world.” Individuals who would dare to read books for more than some transient entertainment, persons who are willing to risk social and material disapproval in exchange for exiting the imprisoning crowd (for “emancipation”), offer America its only real and lasting hope. To be sure, these rare souls can seldom be found in politics, in universities, in corporate boardrooms or almost anywhere (there are some exceptions still) on radio, television or in the movies. Always, their critical inner strength lies not in pompous oratory, catchy crowd phrases, or observably ostentatious accumulations of personal wealth (“Trump. Trump, Trump“), but in the considerably more ample powers of genuineness, thought and Reason.
There is much yet to learn. Even today, hardly a glimmer of intellectual originality animates America’s public discussions of politics and economics. Even now, even after America’s largely self-deceiving citizenry had lost all residual sense of intellectual awe in the world, this national public not only avoids authenticity, it positively loathes it. Indeed, in a nation that has lost all recognizable regard for the Western literary canon, our American crowdsgenerally seek aid, comfort and fraternity in a very strange place.
It is in a conveniently shared public illiteracy.
Inter alia, the classical division of American society into Few and Mass represents a useful separation of those who are imitators from those who could still initiate real understanding. “The mass,” said Jose Ortega y Gasset, “crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select.” Very recently, in foolish and prospectively fatal deference to this Mass, the intellectually un-ambitious American not only wallowed reflexively in nonsensical political and cultural phrases of a demonstrably naked emperor, he or she also applauded a shallow national ethos of personal and collective surrender.
“America First,” yes, we were. But only in Covid-19 mortality.
By definition, the Horde, or Mass, or Crowd, can never become Few. Yet, someindividual members can make the very difficult transformation. To begin, those who are already Few must announce and maintain their determined stance, not abstractly, but in tangible reference to dissembling public policies. “One must become accustomed to living on mountains,” says Nietzsche, “to seeing the wretched ephemeral chatter of politics and national egotism beneath one.”
It was Nietzsche, too, who warned presciently in Zarathustra: “Never seek the Higher Man at the marketplace.”
Aware that they may still comprise a vital barrier to America’s spiritual, cultural, intellectual and political disintegration, the Few must always knowingly refuse to chant in chorus. Ultimately, this should remind us all of something very important. It is that individually and collectively, doggedly staying the course of self-actualization and self-renewal – a lonely course of lucid consciousness rather than self-inflicting delusion – is the only honest and purposeful American option
In their endlessly misguided work, Trump Era cheerleaders in all walks of life drew feverishly upon the sovereignty of an unqualified Mass. This Mass depended for its very breath of life on the relentless withering of personal dignity, and on the continuing servitude of independent citizen consciousness. Oddly, “We the people,” frightfully unaware of this dangerous parasitism, were already being passively converted into fuel for the omnivorously murderous machine of Trumpian “democracy.”
This was a pathologic system of governance in which the American citizenry were still generally permitted to speak and interact freely, but which was also a determinedly anti-intellectual plutocracy.
Reason and Anti-Reason
In the early 1950s, Karl Jaspers, well familiar with the seminal earlier writings of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, sought to explain what a dissembling “Crowd” had brought to his native Germany and to Germany’s captive nations. Publishing Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time in 1952, the distinguished thinker explained the formidable difficulties of sustaining Reason among the many who keenly prefer “the fog of the irrational.” Jaspers’ earlier observations about Nazi Germany may apply equally well to explaining Donald Trump’s America:
Reason is confronted again and again with the fact of a mass of believers who have lost all ability to listen, who can absorb no argument, and who hold unshakably fast to the Absurd as an unassailable presupposition.
Here, in essence, Jaspers underscored the “fraudulent freedom of obedience” in any society that might seemingly will itself to be a democracy, but is actually just an oblique celebration of tyranny, the arch-tyranny of anti-Reason. In earlier times, such hideous celebrations were unexceptional or even de rigeur, but they also “set the stage” for what Americans experienced so painfully during “Trump Time.” To some extent, at least, for America to be fully freed from the false promise of obedience will demand that the whole society be placed in status nascens, that is, as if newly born.
When, in 1633, Galileo Galilei kneeled before the Inquisitorial Tribunal of Rome and was forced to renounce the compelling science of Copernicus, he revealed the terrifying vulnerability of Reason to assorted mortal seductions of anti-Reason. This storied renunciation is not “just” history. For Americans, it is also a warning of where such seductions could bring us in the future (a future already imperiled by both epidemic disease and nuclear war) and what must be done to forestall such endings.
Like Max Ernst’s “Horde” or Soren Kierkegaard’s “Crowd,” the Mass is “untruth.” Before this can be expected to change in America, Americans will need more attention to spare for intellect and reasoning. After Trump, there can remain no conceivable excuse for learning by ceaseless imitation or instinct, that is, by relying upon the visceral resources of our “own flesh.”
For Americans to finally accept the manifold responsibilities of serious thought is anterior to any serious enhancements of citizenship. An American is what he or she wills himself/herself to be. Always, this core goal must be to resemble Kierkegaard’s “Single One.” We ought never will ourselves to once again become captive in the Danish philosopher’s “primeval forest of evasion,” that is, to lose ourselves in the Crowd.
Next time, for the United States, and even without evident insurrection, any corresponding national costs could prove terminal.
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