Prof. Louis René Beres
“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, as to be hated needs but to be seen; Yet, seen too often, familiar with her face, we first endure, then pity, then embrace.”-Alexander Pope, Essay on Man
Background to the Trump horror: America’s heritage of anti-reason
Even in retrospect, the Trump presidency remains redolent with wrongdoing and defilement. Though thousands of needless American deaths represent the most conspicuous cost of this sordid presidency, the US also suffered coinciding geopolitical losses in North Korea, China, India, Russia, Iran and elsewhere. These preventable deaths and geopolitical losses were generally predictable, the expected result of a society that assiduously discourages independent citizen thought. In essence, long before the pandemic of Covid19, there already existed a corrosive American “plague” of doctrinal anti-reason.
There is more. During the acrimonious Trump Era, anti-intellectual sentiments were routinely elevated to the status of ideology. Worse, these barbarous sentiments were no longer expressed sotto voce, cautiously, in the Congress or in the White House. Instead, they became the celebrated underpinnings of unprecedented Constitutional crises and variously retrograde declarations of “America First.”
“Intellect rots the brain,” shrieked Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels at a Nuremberg rally in 1935. “I love the poorly educated” yelled Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign for the presidency. Inter alia, what these grim assertions had in common was an ultimately lethal disdain for science and education. Derivatively, they pointed to a continuously deformed and twisted national ideal, one that called for mindless public obeisance to democratic Constitutional governance. As US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley recently pointed out, the January 6 2021 insurrection was nothing less than Donald J. Trump’s “Reichstag moment.”
That was really saying a great deal.
In world politics, both domestically and internationally, Trump Era intellectual decline was not unique. Americans have seen indigenously spawned monsters before. But in the Trump years, we the people witnessed a virulent rebirth of catastrophic political bewitchments. Most ominously, no matter how compelling and expansive the evidence of Trump’s multiple derelictions became, millions of his dedicated adherents remained steadfastly loyal to his manipulations, to unreason. This assessment remains true even now, even after the crude and murderous coup attempt at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Lest we forget, the event represented an American president’s engineered insurrection against his own government. “Credo quia absurdum,” said the ancient philosopher Tertullian: “I believe because it is absurd.”
Trump-world derelictions go much deeper than simple day-to-day infringements. Briefly, we are all still afflicted and/or affected. Even today, faith, not facts, is what matter most to dedicated cadres of robotic Trump adherents. For them, and without any apologies to Jeffersonian democracy (because these adherents generally know nothing of US history), the perilous phrase “I believe” is de rigeur. For such viscerally compliant persons, the dialectically reciprocal phrase “I think” remains unknown or reassuringly subordinate.
For the self-parodying Trump faithful caught up in empty or invented antimonies, the Cartesian “cogito” was too taxing. For this “herd” (Nietzsche); “crowd” (Kierkegaard); or “mass” (Jung) – these useful terms are easily inter-changeable here – an imperative to think meaningfully might just as well never have been raised. The basic reason behind such willful abandonment of “mind” is captured with clarity by 20th century German philosopher Karl Jaspers in his Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952): “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 intellectual argument and who hold unshakably fast to the Absurd as an unassailable presupposition….”
“The Absurd.” Jaspers is still well worth reading. In this regard, the enticingly simplifying gibberish of QAnon and QAnon-type “explanations” should come immediately to mind. Could any contemporary “ideology” be more patently preposterous? The question is moot, of course, because this ideology literally worships The Absurd. Could anything prove more humiliating for Americans who still like to insistently presume themselves “great again?”
A legacy undermined: Trump’s repudiation of America’s intellectual origins
Some things have changed. Back in the eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson, chief architect of the Declaration of Independence and future American president, exclaimed with unhesitating candor: “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Later, US President Donald Trump, who learned only “in his own flesh” (a clarifying phrase offered by Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Revolt of the Masses, 1930) expressed an oath of support for just such an insufferable tyranny. Early in his steeply-corrupted presidency, Trump returned from the Singapore summit with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un declaring that any calculable risks of a bilateral nuclear war had just then been removed. This argument, vacant prima facie, rested upon the inane observation that he and Kim had “fallen in love.” Subsequently, Trump offered grievously inexpert daily assessments of assorted drug efficacies against the Corona virus. At the same time, he responded to authoritative science-based prescriptions with capricious doubt or absurdly brazen indifference.
For the United States, these incoherent stream-of-consciousness excursions into gibberish were more than merely dissembling. At a time of palpable biological “plague,” these presidential declensions were sorely tangible and immediately life-threatening. Jurisprudentially, they came perilously close to becoming genocide-like crimes.
A key observation dawns. How pitifully inadequate were America’s political processes and institutions in dealing with this president’s rancorous instincts. For a time, almost an entire country displayed near-infinite forbearance for Trump’s hugely nonsensical commentaries. The resultant withering of an already-declining nation’s heart and mind pointed to once-unimaginable existential threats.
They pointed directly and unambiguously.
While various mega-death scenarios of relentless disease pandemic expressed the most far reaching and credible dangers, the more “normal” portents of nuclear war and terrorism did not miraculously disappear. In certain worst case narratives that could still be fathomed, war, terror and pandemic would occur more-or-less simultaneously, and with harshly interactive results that were not simply “intersectional” but also multi-layered and synergistic.
There is more. In any scenario of overwhelmingly destructive synergy, the whole of a potential catastrophe would necessarily be greater than the sum of its parts. In this aptly sobering connection, Americans may usefully recall Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s seemingly obvious but still insightful observation: “The worst does sometimes happen.”
Are the stubbornly dedicated minions of Trump sycophants mainly scoundrels or fools? And which answer would be more ominous for the United States? About this particular question, Jose Ortega y’Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) cites generically to the writer Anatole France: “There is no way of dislodging the fool from his folly…. The fool is a fool for life…he is much worse than the knave. The knave (scoundrel) does take a rest sometimes; the fool never.”
At best, and let us now be generous in spirit, there was nothing intentionally murderous or genocidal about Donald Trump’s policies, whether foreign or domestic. Nonetheless, plainly detectable in his crude governance was a far-reaching indifference to basic human rights and welfare. Spawned by an all-too evident absence of empathy or compassion, this American president gave new and portentous meaning to the common notion that pain is incommunicable. “All men have my blood and I have all men’s,” wrote American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance,” but such cosmopolitan sentiment was alien and incomprehensible to Donald J. Trump.
As with any challenging matters of intellectual judgment, this former president’s near-total lack of empathic feelings revealed frightful levels of personal emptiness. More precisely, they revealed an American leader of breathtaking vapidity, one who quite consciously constructed his venal presidency upon the stupefying sovereignty of unqualified persons. This was the literal opposite of Thomas Jefferson’s celebrated democratic vision.
Citizen obligations to truth
Where do Americans go from this once foreseeable and once preventable point in national political life? Whatever else we might conclude, Donald J. Trump was no psychiatric enigma. Rather, he displayed numerous and incontrovertible clinical derangements from the start. But rather than continue to approach these liabilities as if they were specifically important in their singularity, we Americans must understand that there can never exist a feasible political “fix” for concatenations of monstrous presidential behavior.
No doubt, Trump and his diehard supporters still believe that he did what he did with purity of heart. Similarly felt convictions were readily detectable among the 1930s managers of German propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Should we therefore “give a pass” to the Third Reich’s Nazi Party? In reply, if anyone wants to more fully understand the Trump phenomenon, it would be best to listen to his speeches and ideas in the “original German.”
Irony can be instructive. Still, there is more. In America today there is still too much “noise.” Among those many citizens who so strenuously loathe all refined intellect and ascertainable truth, this is largely the undimmed background noise of an insidious political impresario.
Trump’s continuously bewitched proselytes make their hideous sounds with open enthusiasm. They do this because it allows them to see themselves as privileged members of a very worthy “crowd.” Reciprocally and consistently, their out-of-power but still-disjointed leader makes complementary dissembling noises. He has, after all, been selected “for life” to direct this hideous “crowd.”
Have any of these proselytes read the United States Constitution? Have any ever heard about US common law and Blackstone’s Commentaries? The US legal system begins with Blackstone. Did Trump’s senior Justice Department officials even know that much?
The crowd is “untruth” wrote 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard; no crowd could be more untrue than the one comprised of continuously retrograde Trump followers. Anticipating what has now come to pass in the United States, nineteenth century American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (Life Without Principle) lamented prophetically: “…we do not worship truth, but reflections of truth; because we are warped and narrowed by an exclusive devotion to trade and commerce …which are means, not ends.” From Plato to Emerson, Americans have readily available templates for a more thoughtful and decent society, but it is first up to them to seize such templates. Significantly, with any such essential “seizure,” political action would still be reflective, secondary and epiphenomenal.
True change will have to be intrapersonal.
In July 1776, over one short Philadelphia weekend of dreadful heat and no modern conveniences, a then-future American president composed more infinitely valuable prose than former president Donald J. Trump (with all modern conveniences at his disposal) could produce in several contiguous lifetimes. Naturally, Thomas Jefferson did not arrive at his presidency with a well-honed expertise in “branding,” but with a dedication to Reason, to the antecedent understanding that an American brand” should be based upon authentic qualities of accomplishment. Promisingly, such traits would be inherently “true,” both honorable and valuable.
“One must never seek the higher man,” warns philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in Zarathustra, “at the marketplace.” Years ago, America still stood for something more than mastering raw commerce. Years ago, our national debates did not yet center on mass killing and a presumed right to arm citizens with military-style assault weapons. It may well be that this country has never been ready to welcome Plato’s “Philosopher King,” but there were at least certain times in our national past that philosophical debates sounded more like a university seminar than a self-defense course on tactical weapons.
We Americans generally remember our earlier presidents not for their transient commercial successes in the frenetic marketplace of tangible goods – products to be bought and sold – but for their auspicious presence in a marketplace of ideas. For these still-enviable presidents, it was always more important to build a leadership legacy upon wisdom and learning than on accumulated symbols of personal wealth. Can anyone imagine Abraham Lincoln or even Dwight D. Eisenhower residing at faux habitats like Mar a Lago?
Microcosm, macrocosm and “soul”: an indissoluble American connection
The full horror of the Trump presidency – a horror still energetically accepted by millions – began with the intellectually unambitious American citizen, with the self-flawed “microcosm.” Our American electorate, the macrocosm, can never rise any higher than the amalgamated capacities of its separate members. As Friedrich Nietzsche could have predicted from his vital reasoning in Zarathustra, the whole of the American polity is potentially more despoiled than the mere aggregate sum of its “parts.”
Ultimately, for better or for worse, every democracy must come to represent the sum total of its constituent “souls,” that is, a composite of those hopeful citizens who still seek some sort or other of personal “redemption.” In our deeply fractionated American republic, however, We the people – more and more desperate for a seemingly last chance to “fit in” and to “get ahead” – inhabit a vast and ever-growing wasteland of lost human opportunity. Within this desiccated society of vulgar and abysmal entertainments, of political leaders with nary a scintilla of courage or personal integrity, millions of “hollow” men and women remain chained to exhausting cycles of meaningless work.
There are manifold ironies here. While generally unrecognized, such de facto American servitude is sometimes felt by the very rich as well as by the very poor. This paradoxical “artifact” of American privilege is based upon entire lifetimes spent in grimly sterile forms of endlessly unsatisfying accumulation. To be sure, we are essentially taught to revere billionaires more than thinkers, but it has now proven to be an incomparably murderous instruction.
Now, America’s most spirited national debates continue to be about guns and killing, not about history, literature, music, art, philosophy, or beauty. Within this vast and predatory nether world, huge segments of cheerless populations drown themselves in vast oceans of alcohol and drugs. Whether incrementally or suddenly, this intractable submersion is already deep enough to swallow up entire centuries of national achievement and entire millennia of a once-sacred poetry. Today, the number of American suicides or self-murders is virtually too high to actually calculate.
At its core, America’s “opiate addiction problem” is not about drugsRather, prima facie, it is the evident symptom of rampant individual unhappiness and intractable social despair. A tangible residue of this refractory problem can be found scattered as “medical” litter on America’s beaches and playgrounds. In the end, this toxic litter instructs as a squalid metaphor of a much larger social disintegration. In short, this graphic metaphor references a society that during the trump years became even more complicit in its own continuous demise.
True meanings of “freedom”
Let us be candid. Americans remain grinning but hapless captives in a deliriously noisy and airless “crowd” or “herd” or “mass.” Stubbornly disclaiming any hints of an interior life, we proceed tentatively and in almost every palpable sphere at the lowest common denominator. When it is expressed in more annoyingly recognizable terms, our vaunted American “freedom” is becoming contrivance. Nothing more.
A simplifying American intellectual context offers a regrettable but ubiquitous “solvent.” This caustic substance dissolves almost everything of analytic consequence. In formal education, the once revered Western Canon of literature and art has already been replaced by more generalized emphases on acquisition and “business.” Apart from their pervasive drunkenness and often tasteless entertainments, once-sacred spaces of American higher education have been transformed into a rusting pipeline, a perpetual conduit to unsatisfying jobs and sterile vocations.
Soon, even if we should somehow manage to avoid nuclear war and nuclear terrorism – an avoidance not to be taken for granted in the still-unraveling post-Trump Era – the swaying of the American ship will become increasingly violent. Then, the phantoms of great ships of state, once laden with silver and gold, may no longer lie forgotten. Then, perhaps, we Americans will finally understand that the circumstances that could send the compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Freud and Kafka to join the works of long forgotten poets were neither unique nor transient.
In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked. This American president had answered “yes,” but only if we first refused to stoop to join the threatening and synthetic “herds” of mass society. Otherwise, as Wilson already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty demise of broken machinery, more hideous even than the unstoppable biological decompositions of each individual person.
In all societies, as Emerson and the other American Transcendentalists also recognized, the scrupulous care of each individual”soul” is most important. There can be a “better”American soul, and also an improved American politics,but not until we are first able to acknowledge a more prior obligation. This is a far-reaching national responsibility to overcome the staggering barriers of a Kierkegaardian “crowd” culture, to embrace once again the liberating imperatives of Emersonian “high thinking.” But there can be no foreseeable end to crowd-induced political surrenders until individuals no longer feel the persistent need to make of themselves a quantité négligeable.
Final citizen obligations: imperatives of serious thought
In the end, Donald Trump’s defiling presidency was “merely” the most debilitating symptom of a much deeper American “pathology.” Today, the underlying American disease remains a far-reaching national unwillingness to think seriously or independently. Ultimately, if it is left suitably unchallenged, such reluctance could transform us into something far worse than anything ever imagined; that is, into the finely-lacquered corpse of a once-ascendant American Civilization.
There are several urgent lessons to be learned. For Americans, the most ruinous evasion of all has been to seek comfort and succor in primordial forms of political attachment, to escape moral judgment as private citizens. This search won’t work. “In eternity,” reminds Soren Kierkegaard, “each shall render account as an individual.“ At least, we are properly warned, there will be this residual sort of “last judgment.”
Looking back, “horror” is the only correct term of judgment for an American presidency that shamelessly encouraged egregious crimes against the United States and against other nations. Even without mens rea or what the jurists would call “criminal intent,” Trump’s visible unconcern for science-based judgments on disease, law, and war almost yielded the death of millions. Inter alia, recalling Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, such presidential unconcern exhibited a uniquely hideous species of “vice,” a species so distressing that it still defies any “measured,” “balanced” or “objective” forms of description.
Looking ahead, to prevent another “monster of so frightful mien,” Americans must finally embrace the faith of Reason, not Trump-like anti-Reason or “reason of unreason.” Following pertinent insights of 20th century Spanish philosopher Ortega y’Gasset Revolt of the Masses (Le Rebelion de las Masas, 1930), America’s “redemption” from egregious governance will never be discoverable in politics. Instead, it will require a nation to acknowledge that intellectual efforts are demanding but indispensable.
Though the Trump “masses” sought to rule American society without any actual capacity to do so, failure to fully reject such presumptuousness could only bring forth another grievous horror. All citizens are certainly entitled to their opinions, but these opinions ought not expect affirmations of correctness based upon assorted wishes and lies. Most pernicious of all would be Trump-style presidential opinions once again based upon appeals to violence, inherently fallacious opinions known to logicians as argumentum ad baculum. Of all such illegitimate opinions, Ortega y’Gasset concludes: “They are in effect nothing more than appetites in words….”
Following the Trump horror, America has had enough of such verbal “appetites.” They are starkly predatory and potentially omnivorous. We can do much better.
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