For an afflicted American nation, it never seems to end. On June 1, 2020, President Donald J. Trump once again openly defiled US Constitutional protections of free speech and assembly, on this occasion by gratuitously violent treatment of law-abiding civilian demonstrators. A week later, and with no discernible regrets, Trump was boisterously defending the Buffalo New York police officers who had so plainly used unreasonable force against an elderly civil rights protestor. Here, Trump alleged, ex nihilo and, as usual, without any tangible evidence, that the collapsed and bleeding 75 year old peace activist was actually a clandestine “Antifa provocateur.”
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.” All this dissembling was merely the iceberg tip of incessant presidential wrongdoing. It was just the latest law-damaging installment of an American “bad dream.”
How did we ever get to such a dark point in US legal order and jurisprudence, one that increasingly looks irremediable? To begin, this is precisely the question that now needs to be asked, audibly and forthrightly. Some years back, American theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich made this same essential point in more broadly generic terms: “Man cannot receive an answer to a question,” explained Tillich, “he has not yet asked.”
That was back in the 1960s. In the very first year of that memorable decade, I was still in high school. That year, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States. Immediately, and with evident vigor (or “vigah,” in the new president’s own clipped Boston accent), JFK challenged an eager generation of young Americans to think beyond the narrow parameters of personal self-interest.
Those were different times, one wherein American hope had not yet become a legitimate source of parody.
Then, lest we forget, “we” (America’s young people) were newly animated by certain innovative visions and programs. Tangibly, the Alliance for Progress and Peace Corps spring quickly to mind. All had in common a notably worthwhile commitment to the idea of greater justice under law, both nationally and internationally.
But that was then. Today, there’s simply no getting around the discouraging fact of a strikingly different American politics and society. What benefits can this country’s youth possibly discover in their current president’s “bitterly cold” visions of combative rancor and endless conflict? The plausible answer, however it might be nuanced, is hardly inspirational.
Still, let us always be fair. Donald Trump is not personally responsible for the Covid-19 plague. Yet, his patently incoherent response to the pandemic has wittingly brought us a collective sickness “at heart.” Unassailably, Trump’s flailing and corollary failing represent the “logical extension” of his pre-existing orientations to law and public policy. In essence, these reductio ad absurdum orientations emphasize anything but gainful and law-enforcing forms of cooperation. They call instead for perpetually belligerent national struggles, ones based very tenuously on “everyone for himself” philosophies at absolutely all identifiable levels and rather infamously upon “attitude, not preparation.”
Intellectually, at least, none of this is hard to decipher. Rather than encourage the American people to embrace affirmatively broad expressions of legal cooperation and collaboration – nationally and internationally – Donald Trump has discovered his optimal vision of “law and order” in “beautiful” barrier walls of steel slats with sharpened spikes (“the wall”) and (did we really hear him correctly?) in metaphoric oceans of commercial disinfectant (COVID-19). As so often confirmed by this corrosive Trumpian aesthetic, “We the People” have been regressing more and more as a civilized nation, on multiple and variously intersecting legal fronts.
There is more. This progressively grievous declension has proceeded from what were once-dignified and still-purposeful American leadership patterns to the outermost limits of societal degradation. How can we have allowed this to happen? What comes next?
Today, for a nation suffering almost incalculably under President Donald Trump’s continuously self-inventing system of law, it’s no longer about harboring any hopes for an improved global future, but instead about passively or grudgingly accepting a determinably grim future, one of sorrowful human interaction at literally every social or demographic level.
“The times they are a changin’” sang Bob Dylan back in the 60s, but these refractory and infinitely degrading Trump-era transformations are hardly what my own generation’s chief troubadour originally had in mind.
Now, especially in matters of law, pragmatic remedies are increasingly difficult to decipher. This should not be a surprise. After all, the underlying and overwhelming problem of surmounting Trump-era degradations is many-sided and intersectional. In certain instances, the intersecting factors are more than merely additive. Here, they are synergistic.
Hence, “whole” factor law-centered outcomes are sometimes even more destructive than the simple sum of pertinent “parts.”
There is more to be clarified. Assuredly, the indispensable task of remediation is not about finding any perverse “beauty” in medieval parapets erected on national borders, or in shiny barriers of human impalement installed as security “refinements.” Just as obvious, and without any hint of embarrassment, the Trump presidency is waging a relentless and thoroughly irrational war against intellect. Though not widely understood, this primal “war” on Mind lies at the heart of all Trump-era policy derelictions and defilements.
The list of such worrisome derelictions and defilements includes strategically barren Trump plans for a “US Space Force,” and also this president’s utterly cynical exploitation of religious faith in the midst of legitimate civilian unrest. Inter alia, Mr. Trump’s Bible photo opportunity at the St. James Church in Washington DC on June 1, 2020 reflects the conspicuous nadir of the American presidency as a law-based institution.
“Intellect rots the mind,” said Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Adolph Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda back in 1935.
“I love the poorly educated,” announced presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016.
“Whoever can dominate the street will one day conquer the state…,” shrieked Goebbels one year earlier.
“The goal is to dominate the street,” echoed Trump on June 1, 2020.
Exactly the same choice of words.
Always, recalling their kindred spirit propagandist from 1930s Germany, Trump rallies are always consciously devoid of any serious legal or ethical content. More than anything else, rally attendees, irrespective of subject, express loathing for any kind of empathy. Chanting their evident hatreds in a steadily reassuring chorus of nonsense, it hardly matters that the rhythmically obedient chants are quite simply incoherent. The only thing that matters here is the disclosure of an expressed “enemy” for “patriotic’ Americans to loathe. What really matters most among the mesmerized and breathtakingly vapid Trump minions is that any complicated issues of law, economics and security can be made abundantly simple for the “Mass.”
Significantly, the fact that these simplifications are almost always falsifications seems very much beside the point.
Nothing can be more pleasing to Mass than a promised political end to citizen bewilderments, even if it must be carried out by wretchedly contrived means of sordid half-truths, demeaning clichés and shamefully empty presidential witticisms. “The mass-man,” we were warned earlier by prescient Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) “has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.” Always, it is only in their “own flesh” that Trump and his still-numerous followers are able to “learn.” By definition, of course, this means a determined rejection of Reason.
There is more. For the loyal but vacant Trump minions, verifiable facts are manifestly irrelevant. For them, science is essentially anathema, correctly secondary to the more palpable conclusions of presidential “charisma.” For them, though unchallengeable videos make perfectly clear that Buffalo civil rights protestor Martin Gugino had been harshly shoved by police and then left unconscious and bleeding. on the ground, has no discernible bearing on what was done wrong. In this connection, moreover, an antecedent legal point has been wholly disregarded by this president and his viscerally-compliant followers: Even if the injured protestor were actually an Antifa supporter, this would in no manner justify any willful violation of his fundamental legal rights as a US citizen.
Still, avid Trump supporters always find something to praise in their “mass man” president. Among his other purported attributes, these supporters are fond of bragging that their spellbinding Führer is commendably willing to “speak his mind” – this is a seemingly big reason behind their undiminished support – but an antecedent question must be advanced as corollary: What does such a willingness really signify where there exists no recognizable mind for Trump to speak?
How, exactly, does a sitting president “speak” from what he doesn’t even have?
Always, at ritually chanting Trump rallies, whether satisfyingly live or (post-COVID-19) virtual, the key to this bumbling American leader’s “success” lies in his carefully scripted simplifications. Why ask adherents to work through complex and daunting analytic problems when it is far easier to “reveal” perfect scapegoats? Americans, it is here alleged, should always be relied upon to “round up the usual suspects.”
To be sure, Casablanca’s Claude Rains (Vichy Police Captain Louis Renault) would be pleased.
These are not the same “times” welcomed lyrically by Bob Dylan years ago. Surrounded by like-minded followers who have forfeited the very last core obligations of independent thought – and who draw audible comfort from variously visceral howls of nationalistic predation (“America First; America First”) – each individual rally member is prepared to feel better able to abandon any residual pangs of personal empathy or responsibility. Amid Donald Trump’s steadily escalating shrieks of execration being hurled against myriad “enemies,” most notably the “fake news,” distinguished universities and diverse refugees from “shithole countries,” this president won’t trouble himself with science, history or verifiable facts of any kind.
Neither, therefore, will his loyal supporters.
Favoring a national ethos of raw emotion and determined anti-Reason, Trump continually tries to force American political and social life to navigate in “bitterly cold” directions. Succinctly, this ethos is animated not to respect for law, but toward bewilderingly triumphant celebrations of absurdity.
In both law and life generally, truth is exculpatory. And the truth here is plain: To some at least discernible extent, Trump’s coercive pressures have “succeeded.” Most recently, thousands or perhaps even tens of thousands of self-deluded Americans experimented with injections or ingestions of commercial disinfectants. This irrational experimentation followed immediately upon their revered leader’s announcement that he himself was taking a medically untested anti-malaria drug to fight off the Corona virus.
Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.” Left unrevised, this president’s “success” can lead us further toward uncontrollable plague, incremental chaos and/or catastrophic war. This is not the reasonable remedy of a law-based and science-based nation.
The writer Sinclair Lewis prophesied in his 1936 novel that it can happen here. Left to his own devices, and to the endlessly barren “insights” of his closest personal advisors, President Trump will inexorably prod blind obedience to virulent and empty dogma; that is, to assorted banalities that conveniently masquerade as profundities. In consequence, the United States will suffer the unhappy fate of all determinedly “know-nothing” countries.
Now, let us be candid, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here is disturbingly up-to-date. The novel details the not-so-fanciful story of a populist American politician who rises to the presidency upon a hazy platform of simplistic and fraudulent promises. Following his election, “Buzz” Windrip proceeds to impose authoritarian rule upon the dazed country, complete with his own Praetorian Guard. While most in Trump-era America don’t even want to imagine that such far-reaching infringements are possible in these democratic United States, it also wasn’t supposed to be plausible in Weimar Republic Germany. The German people of the 1930s were in no way collectively deviant, inferior, or unique. Rather, like the people of the United States today, they were, for the most part, perfectly ordinary.
Karl Jaspers, the 20th-century Existentialist philosopher who rigorously examined questions of German guilt after World War II, also studied the deeper and more generic issues involved. In his immensely valuable Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952), Jaspers explains that an authoritarian leadership must ultimately depend upon a docile citizenry (not an “evil” one), a citizenry that willfully seeks the simplest possible answers to inherently complicated problems and that can always reliably blame one or several accessible scapegoats (e.g., the Jews; the Bolsheviks; the Immigrants; the Refugees). Always, in order to operationalize such “purifying” or “cleansing” strategies, the governmental objective must be to organize the faithful, stifle the opposition and preserve “law and order.”
Sound familiar? For this president, the most serious crimes are never ones of regime-supported violence or structural inequality. Rather, they are Lèse-Majesté infractions, or “crimes against the sovereign.” Ironically, of course, the American president is not the Constitutional “sovereign” in the United States. As is expectedly taught to every fifth-grader, that source of ultimate authority is unassailably and immutably “We the People.”
Donald J. Trump’s twisting agenda remains narrowly manipulative and self-serving. More than anything else, the wished-for end of its expanding societal delirium is to prevent and still-thinking Americans from substituting genuine thought for an unhesitating loyalty. For this president, prima facie, there can be no recognizably good reason to doubt Joseph Goebbels grotesque statement that “intellect rots the mind.” The uncontested and also incontestable fact that President Trump reads nothing, absolutely nothing – literally nothing at all – is by no means a serious political liability.
In these United States, not at all.
There is more. For the most part, the Founding Fathers did not really believe in democracy. Most had either expressly or tacitly agreed with Alexander Hamilton that “the people are a great beast.” Thomas Jefferson, arguably the most authentically democratic of the Founders, explicitly regarded “We the People” as “refuse” from which a small number of prospectively gifted individuals could somehow be culled once each year.
Said Jefferson in his Notes on Virginia, contra mob rule, there should be instituted a plan of elementary schooling by which “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.”
“The times they are a changin’,” sang Bob Dylan back in the 1960s, but the foreseeable direction of these changes is now anything but promising. The very last thing we need today is a president whose willfully incoherent policies on public health and legal policy can only confirm the Founding Father’s manifestly worst fears. For an American democracy to change course in any more expectedly positive directions, a far better understanding of this president’s “law and order” posture would be required. In finally acknowledging the indisputable primacy of citizen intellect and legal understanding, we would finally be positioned to realize (1) just how far America has already fallen under President Donald J. Trump; (2) just which calculable declensions may still await us; and (3) just what law-based remedies must still be implemented.
Otherwise, Hamlet’s “bitter cold” could sometime spawn a sickness “at heart,” a genuinely existential infirmity threatening America’s indispensable life as a law-centered nation.
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