“Whoever can conquer the street will one day conquer the state, for every form of power politics and any dictatorship-run state has its roots in the street.” – Joseph Goebbels, Third Reich Minister of Propaganda
“I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump. I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point and then it would be very bad, very bad.” – US President Donald J. Trump
Though seemingly unimaginable in our American democratic society, US President Donald J. Trump continues to dangle implicit threats of violence before his “base.” Currently, this authoritarian tactic is most dangerously evident in Trump’s calls for the “liberation” of selected states (all with Democrat governors) together with explicit praise of “our great Second Amendment.” Such worrisome calls ought not come as a complete surprise.
Back in 2016, and with considerably less subtlety, this president told a wildly cheering rally crowd he’d like to personally assault protesters using direct physical attack. “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,” he said tantalizingly. Then, as an apparent afterthought, but more likely as a carefully rehearsed dog whistle, he became more grotesquely specific: “I’d really like to punch him in the face,” were his less than statesmanlike or law-abiding words.
There is pertinent background here. All of Donald Trump’s ongoing statements about latent violence and American politics have a distressing historical resonance. In essence, these unpresidential statements are plainly reminiscent of Third Reich propagandist Joseph Goebbels and his abundantly “revealed faith” in “the street.” The most tangible difference between Goebbels and Trump, and still a plausibly residual source of reassurance for millions of very worried Americans, is the absence of any Sturmabteilung-type elements in Trump’s official retinue.
In Nazi Germany, the SA, until later replaced by Heinrich Himmler’s SS, were the first dedicated street fighting cadres. Today, to be sure, Trump would eagerly welcome entire legions of such barbarous elements into his own political ranks, but he has not yet figured out how to accomplish this with sufficiently acceptable levels of lawfulness and respectability. If, however, going forward, he should somehow solve this narrowly tactical quandary, virtually any new presidential derelictions would be possible.
In this connection, Americans should bear in mind that this president is already replacing competent physicians and scientists in the federal government with marginally schooled political cronies. At this time of Covid-19, such replacements are effectively murderous, even potentially genocidal. They also play havoc with pre-existing legal and statutory safeguards designed to prevent arbitrary or manipulative presidential firings and appointments.
Could a markedly expanding species of presidential wrongdoing soon come to pass? Thankfully, we’re not at the corrosive street-fighting level just yet, and presumptively, never will be. Still, though such especially fearful prospects remain more-or-less improbable, they are not entirely out of the question. More exactly, we still have no clear picture of the potentially chaotic impact of Covid-19 upon our leaders and populations.
There is more. Should Donald Trump be re-elected, far-right ultra-nationalist groups will likely explode and thrive, all with this dissembling president’s unhidden blessings. Should they resort sometime to virulent forms of domestic terrorism, these anti-science and anti-democracy bands could seriously undermine various basic institutions of the American Republic. In the best case scenario, they would still fail to coalesce into a menacing paramilitary force, but this is no longer a world in which “best case” is either inevitable or even plausible. Moreover, with the expected blessings of second-term President Trump, such refractory elements could still wreak havoc upon the United States in other insidious forms.
In whatever form it takes, the stealthily whispered white nationalist threat of mob violence and political disruption is already palpable and real. For now, at least in the Trump White House and among various Trump supporters nationwide, those who would threaten such bitter violence are still viewed by this president as “very fine people.” What should this undoubtedly bizarre assessment tell us?
To answer, there are deeply underlying issues here. The mass – that is, virtually any viscerally compliant human group – abhors even the tiniest hints of intellectual exertion or complexity. This stupefying abhorrence is as easily recognizable in Donald Trump’s declining presidency as it was back in 1933. “Intellect rots the mind,” observed Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s faithful Minister of Propaganda. “I love the poorly educated,” chanted President Trump in 2016, not with any impressively refined irony, but with devastating candor and breathtakingly venal sincerity.
Among his dedicated followers, Trump’s incessant plea for ignoring history and learning is cheered wildly. Always. Though still one step away from an actual book burning (a favored tactic of the “original” deceiver back in 1930s Weimar Germany), this humiliating plea is now revived almost daily in the American White House and at literally every level of Trump presidential appointment.
There is more. Above all else, the simplification-loving American mass devoted to a presidential Pied Piper yearns to chant in chorus. Surrounded by like-minded followers who have similarly forfeited any once-respectable obligations of independent thought, each grateful member of the Trumpian mass can now “safely” abandon the normally disturbing tugs of individual responsibility. If their strongly favored (in certain cases, even beloved) leader is inherently correct about literally everything because he is “a very stable genius,” why should they bother worrying about anything themselves.
“What me worry?” Better just to chant in a rancorous and incoherent chorus. After all, it has happened before.
More than anything else, an illiterate presidential command to follow blindly is what Trump’s blatant authoritarianism and his partisan encouragement of national disunity are all about.
Why else (at least pre Covid-19) would these viscerally chanting followers sleep on city streets, in the rain, to get “rally” seats and listen to their charmed leader? Because of the expectedly rare or refined intellectual “insights” of a president who “thinks” only via eruptive spasms of dissembling discourse, and who proudly reads nothing? Nothing at all?
Hurling undimmed howls of execration against all of the “usual suspects” – typically, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, scientists who disagree with him or certain other conveniently out-of-favor television star/athlete/movie actor – this president will never trouble himself with annoying intellectual difficulties of challenging thought. Instead, favoring a noisily national ethos of fitful emotion and eruptive rancor, Donald Trump continuously forces American political and social life toward an uncompromising celebration of both violence and anti-reason. Significantly, the end result of such a deeply corrupted presidential ethos is not difficult to imagine.
Inter alia, it would be a world in which literature, culture and education yield to widening shrieks of loathing directed against learning and “intellectuals.” Is it any wonder that Donald Trump’s only invited university commencement addresses are always at one or another of the obliging service academies (where polite applause for the “commander-in-chief” are unswervingly de rigeur)?
Now it is time for genuine candor. A president who so patently abhors science and intellect is ipso facto a champion of unreason. In effect, this uniquely degrading quality has become the widely-approved mantra of a consciously disruptive presidency, a watchword that can only lead the United States toward ever-more painful trajectories of stark personal tragedy and cumulative collective decline.
To be sure, it’s not a comforting mantra.
Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.” Left to his own severely limited intellectual capacities, President Donald Trump will continuously encourage unquestioning public obedience to all his purported “ideologies” of demeaning gibberish and chicanery; that is, obedience to compulsively vague banalities and abundantly empty witticisms. “Trade wars and tariffs are good for us,” intones this president, always with nary a scintilla of well-reasoned explanation. Earlier, the same fully incoherent sentiments were attached to conceivably prospective military conflicts with North Korea (already nuclear) and Iran (almost nuclear).
Credo quia absurdum.
A 1936 novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, details the story of a populist American politician who rises to the presidency upon a hazy platform of crudely simplistic and fraudulent promises. Following his election, “Buzz” Windrip proceeds to impose authoritarian rule upon the dazed country, complete with a new Praetorian Guard. While few in Donald Trump’s America want to imagine that any such infringements are possible here, it remains worth noting that the German masses of the 1930s were not in any tangible way deviant, different, criminal or unique.
Not at all.
Presently, watching distressingly homogeneous Trump minions chant mindlessly about “opening up America,” winning future wars and garnering global “respect,” it would have been quickly evident to Sinclair Lewis that what had earlier transpired among “normal” people in Europe could also emerge among “normal Americans.” Again, though any such precisely replicating emergence is unlikely, it is hardly unimaginable. While reactionary and white supremacist elements in this country are not apt to become crudely transformational – even with a US president tacitly complicit on their side – the social and political effects could still become extensively far-reaching and frightfully malignant.
Karl Jaspers, the 20th-century philosopher who most rigorously examined questions of German guilt after World War II, also studied the deeper and more generic issues involved. In his modern classic, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), Jaspers had already understood that authoritarian leaderships must always depend upon a suitably docile citizenry. This means, inter alia, a body of citizens that deeply loathes mind-challenging problems and routinely seeks the simplest (but not the best) possible answers. As we may readily learn from 20th century history, these represent superficial and skeletal answers that blame one or more of the usual “suspects” and scapegoats for all currently-endured harms.
In the Third Reich, it was principally the Jews and the Bolsheviks.
In Donald Trump’s White House, it is “immigrants” and the “China Virus.”
All such contrived answering has a very specific purpose. This purpose, or critical function of orchestrated scapegoating, is to optimally organize the “faithful;” that is, to stifle any still-inconvenient truths and to provide allegedly needed “protections” from insidious alien forces assembling “at the border.” Always, for President Trump and his chanting minions for “America First,” the enemy is somewhere” at the border.”
Build a fence, and all will be good. Period. All thanks to Jared Kushner and fellow “stable genius” Ivanka.
Almost always, for Donald Trump and his True Believers, the “barbarian” is at the border. Unquestionably, such cartographic insight makes for good politics among those still-considerable Trump minions who chant obediently and (as corollary) strive energetically not to think. In recent months, of course, America has been savaged by disease epidemic, and not by several hundred or several thousand indigent immigrants crossing over from Mexico or Guatemala. Ironically, without these scapegoated immigrants in particular, the American food chain would already have suffered more debilitating supply disruptions.
Sometimes the poet can trump the historian and political scientist. Accordingly, Trump’s crude and longstanding authoritarian tactics are elucidated generically by the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy: “What’s going to happen to us without barbarians?” he once queried. “Those people were a kind of solution.”
Today, the foreseeable goal of expanding anti-reason in Washington is to prevent any still-reasoning Americans from substituting residually clear thought for unquestioned loyalty to the One who calculates from “his own flesh.” Again, for this flagrantly unsteady president, there can never be any good reason to doubt the immutably primal “wisdom” of Joseph Goebbels: “Intellect rots the mind.” And said US President Donald Trump as his apt reciprocal, “I love the poorly educated.”
Now, for Donald Trump, it goes without saying that endlessly mindless spasms of loyalty are vastly more important than any still-calculable measures of authentic truth. Why not? “What the mass once learned to believe without reasons,” inquires Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “who could ever overthrow with reasons?”
In serious studies, history still deserves a proper pride of place. Though not widely understood, the Founding Fathers of the United States did not generally believe in democracy. Rather, most unhesitatingly agreed with Alexander Hamilton (recently an improbable Broadway hero) that “the people are a great beast.” Thomas Jefferson, arguably the most democratic of the Founders, characterized “the people” as “refuse” from which a small number of prospectively gifted individuals could somehow be culled once each year. More precisely, wrote Jefferson in his Notes on Virginia, opposing mass rule, there should be instituted a plan of elementary schooling by which “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.”
These were the actual words of America’s third president. It would be a very great irony of US history if the re-election of a quintessential “mass man” in 2020 should lead even more inexorably toward the literal fulfillment of Thomas Jefferson’s worst fears about democracy. Before this could happen, however, what would be required is an American president who continued to hurl belligerent howls of execration toward an adoringly obliging mass. This would mean a president and population who just as stubbornly reject learning and properly analytic reasoning as President Thomas Jefferson had once embraced a higher life of science, culture and sincere erudition.
Even in these imperiled and dissembling United States, hope must still remain on the side of sanity. Accordingly, there still exists more-or-less ample opportunity for the American People to strenuously oppose always-multiplying presidential propositions of sheer nonsense. But before “We the People” can suitably reject any insidious replacements of respectable science with a narrowly populist wizardry, something far more palpably primal will be needed.
This “something more” is courage. Following the US Senate impeachment trial, hideous for its one-party “mass” support of a severely deranged chief executive, courage represents the most glaringly missing element from our American body politic. Further, what we desperately need today is less the traditionally recognizable physical heroism of risking one’s own life for tribe, nation or cause than an integrity-centered personal willingness to stand firm on behalf for meaning, science and truth. Without such required courage, even the most amply gifted scientists and thinkers could sometimes have to surrender their “souls.”
History “knows.” It has happened before. Barbarism can triumph wherever a national leader can say with utter seriousness: “Intellect rots the mind” or “I love the poorly educated.”
In the past, such fateful capitulations were animated by patently hollow policies of flagrant absurdity and dedicated anti-reason. In the future, unless Americans can somehow become substantially more courageous in critical matters of government and politics, these abysmal surrenders could become irreversible and irremediable. Let this be understood: Intellect can never “rot” the mind. It can only enable otherwise indifferent or slavish human beings to take purposeful democratic control of their conspicuously transient lives and always-variable destinies.
The very last thing we ought to welcome in these imperiled United States are further implicit threats of violence from the American president. To best ensure that we won’t have to allow such dire threats with impunity, it will first be necessary to remind Americans that intellect and reason must be more seriously valued in our fragile democracy, and that blindly following the blind piper now in office could end up killing us all. Now, perhaps more than ever, anything is possible.
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