“To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.”-Plato, The Republic
Though derelictions of an unprecedented sort, even the most evident shortcomings of Donald J. Trump’s presidency are essentially just “shadows.” To more fully understand what has brought the United States to such a once-unimaginable national declension, we must first learn to look beyond these reflections. As long as we remain focused on mere reflections of what is important, we will ensure only persistent governmental debility.
What then? Among other things, we would need to concede American democracy to the perpetual sovereignty of unqualified persons. In consequence of such plainly intolerable concessions, there could emerge no meaningful solutions to what most imperils the United States. What might then be said about American “greatness?”
For the United States, such deeply ironic surrenders should never need to be considered.
At some point, this pathological sort of surrender or debility could include not “just” nuances of national deformation, but also de facto “blueprints” for a nation’s collective disappearance.
There are better ways for a country to proceed. Americans ought not passively accept such immobilizing forms of bewilderment. This era remains, after all, the Nuclear Age. It continues to be a time for prudence and abundant caution, not visceral or reflexive response.
To better understand certain still-threatening American defilements – an obviously primary obligation for all US citizens – analysts must begin at the beginning. Recognizably, this battered country’s authentic problems are not narrowly partisan or exclusively political. No national government – no President, no Congress, no hyper-adrenalized promises of “change” from one side or another – can expect to halt the insidious trajectories of our staggering decline.
Wherever one looks, the Trump presidency has spawned a lethal assault on an already-fragile nation – a dissembling presidency that absolutely has to be removed by the country’s electorate – but even this grotesque leadership assault represents little more than a “shadow.”
Both literally and metaphorically, the United States is now caught up in a titanic struggle between life and death, between health and disease. In order to suitably “cure” the nation, not just of Covid19 but also of conspicuously corollary debilities of unqualified national governance, Americans must first correctly identify the pertinent “disease process.” Otherwise, at best, we might manage to excise certain visible pathologies, but still leave all underlying, systemic and metastasizing national “malignancies” fully intact.
By definition, that would represent a meaningless or “pyrrhic victory” for a nation at existential risk.
Always, as with identifying plausible solutions to the Corona Virus assault, pertinent analyses must be appropriately (1) systematic and (2) dialectical. Hard questions must be raised. For one, how did Americans ever manage to get to this bitterly rancorous and disjointed national place? In time, will the long-term anarchy of inter-state relations be transformed into an even less sustainable chaos?
Relevant explanations – though not genuine long-term solutions – are still substantially unhidden.
Somehow, driven by egocentric considerations of taxation, commerce and a barbarous presidential ethos of self-promotion, our American system of governance has managed to create a uniquely toxic amalgam. From this palpably poisonous fusion of plutocracy and mob rule, virtually any conceivable destructions could still be born and multiplied. As we have so unhappily been witnessing, this expanding wreckage has recently been enlarged.
Where are we now? It is September 2020, and several alarming portents ought not be too-casually disregarded or thoughtlessly shrugged off. Currently, China, being diminished in increments by Donald J. Trump’s gratuitous insults and threats, is beginning to talk openly about selling off its approximately one trillion dollars of American debt (US Treasuries). During this same early September period, Trump has described US military veterans as “losers” and “suckers” (a perverse recapitulation of his prior disparaging references to American prisoner of war Senator John McCain as “no hero”); appointed a new postmaster-general in order to destroy mail-sorting equipment and slow-down the mails; and imposed bizarre sanctions on the International Criminal Court (a frontal attack upon international law in general).
There is still more. One again, this president has stood uncritically on the side of Vladimir Putin, this time regarding the latest Russian poisoning of dissidents. Trump also appointed a new and manipulable Covid19 advisor to assure America’s further subordination of science to politics, and has pushed ahead with an utterly incoherent and treasury-busting military parody known formally as “Space Force.” Similarly incomprehensible was Trump’s previous withdrawal of the United States from the World Health Organization in the midst of pandemic.
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.”
If these “crazy” infringements were not enough to satisfyingly worsen life in the US and also throughout the world, Donald J. Trump’s reliably obsequious attorney general stated shamelessly during a major television interview that he “could not really be sure” that voting twice is illegal. Said William Barr, America’s senior legal officer, “It depends upon the state.” Can this conceivably be a serious official response?
Credo quia absurdum.
There is more. Americans face many interrelated obligations. One overarching duty concerns this country’s distressingly proud culture of American illiteracy. Lest such an indictment sound harsh or even silly, one need only be reminded that this US president rose to high office by exclaiming to cheering rally crowds: “I love the poorly educated.”
This 2016 campaign refrain was not just an off-the-cuff spasm of populist sentiment. Rather, it was a carefully fashioned echo of Joseph Goebbels’ 1934 Nuremberg rally shriek: “Intellect rots the brain.” It stands in starkly ironic contrast with the earlier expressed viewpoint of Thomas Jefferson. Said America’s third president: “To penetrate and dissipate the clouds of darkness, the general mind must be strengthened by education.”
Over the years, certain others have understood Jefferson’s wisdom. “The mass man,” says 20th-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset, “learns only in his own flesh.” This is precisely the aspiring demagogue who now sits smugly in the American White House. With such inherently distorted national leadership, the United States can never expect to distinguish correctly between truth and shadows.
None of this is mere hyperbole. After all, we continuously inhabit a feverishly anti-intellectual country, a place of consistent analytic decline, one where exemplary medical science is often anathema, where truth is often given no quarter and where virtually no one pauses to read a serious book. This worrisome demographic includes Donald J. Trump, who not only eschews the instructive written word – especially where it might sometime be elegantly fashioned or science-based – but who also draws vast political support because of his expressed loathing for literature, law and philosophy.
In the United States, this ironic loathing is not veneered or in any manner denied or disguised. Here, instead, a disfiguring American president’s consuming lack of intellectual and historical interests has actually come to represent an enviable political asset. Credo quia absurdum.
Core citizen obligations obtain. Always, We the people must remain determinedly analytic. Derivatively, we should promptly inquire: Is there any graspable evidence to support genuinely existential threats or concerns?
Incontestably, all of us are now under persistent and still-growing microbial assault from Covid19. Still worse, this biological “plague” could sometime intersect with the more “normal” geopolitical hazards of war, terrorism, and/or genocide. In the imaginably worst-case scenarios, this intersection would also be “synergistic;” that is, a fearful coming-together wherein the injurious “whole” would be tangibly greater than the calculable sum of injurious “parts.”
Significantly, credible explanations are unhidden. At the head of America’s government and society now sits a “mass man,” one who openly abhors intellect and simultaneously extracts correlative political benefits. This would not be the case (and also America’s potentially existential curse) if the prevailing modalities of U.S. culture and law were more closely aligned with proper standards of evidence and truth. Now, on any given day, Donald Trump (or his designated lapdog of the moment, e.g., Attorney General William Barr on voting twice, or Vice President Mike Pence, who fawns uncontrollably because he has no apparent license to think) makes statements that are preposterous prima facie.
Back home in Indiana, Mr. Pence could never even have imagined a future in which he would ever be taken seriously.
Credo quia absurdum.
There is more. Although many Americans remain content with strangely still-lingering hopes to grow personal wealth, even the richest among us are deprived. Resigned to either a dreary future of exhausting and unsatisfying work, or to a terminal prospect of war and disease, even the financially most “successful” must now live with variously intersecting kinds of death and despair. Small wonder, then, that “no vacancy” signs hang prominently outside America’s largest prisons and that a progressively immobilizing Opiate Crisis is no longer even news.
In a nation of increasingly institutionalized unhappiness, it is simply the “new normal.”
There is more. For the most part, once flaunted American “truths” are now discoverable only as myth. One prominent example can be found in our massively beleaguered universities.
For more than fifty years – the actual time I have lived in several of our most distinguished national universities – considerations of raw commerce have trumped considerations of pure learning. What is surprising these days is that dishonorable and illegal parental efforts to get their kids into college should even be considered scandalous. What were these coddled young people planning to learn?
No one seems to know, not even the prospective students.
To repair a broken country, candor, and good taste – not just presidential elections – will be indispensable.For a time, We the people have no longer been motivated by any proper considerations of enduring human value. For the most part, we don’t actively seek any equanimity or “balance” as a healing counterpoint to frenetic daily lives. Distressingly, we still search anxiously for “opportunities” to buy into a life of narrow imitation, an inherently unsatisfying existence dedicated to leeringly empty pleasures and steadily-expanding mountains of pain-dulling drugs.
At almost every level, therefore, Americans “freely” choose (like the oft-flaunted “American freedom” not to wear a mask) a life of diaphanous shadows over one of tangible truth.
Not much mystery here. The relevant numbers are easily available and “beyond any reasonable doubt.” To wit, at each and every moment of the day, millions of America’s more-or-less exhausted citizens consume enough alcohol and drugs to suffocate any still-lingering residues of human wisdom. By itself, and long before Covid19, the Opiate Crisis cost the country several trillion dollars (to apply the narrowly quantifiable metric of money), and still represents wholly unfathomable levels of grievous human suffering.
Americans need to be candid. These are not superficial infirmities. Instead, what we are describing hereare deep, irremediable and inconsolable levels of collective despair.
Truth, not shadow, is exculpatory. Whatever is now being decided in our politics or in our universities, Americans are presently carried forth not by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “high thinking and plain living,” but by profoundly sorrowful eruptions of fear and agitation. At times, we the people may wish to slow down a bit and “smell the roses,” but America’s battered and battering ambiance continues to impose upon its residents the ruthlessly merciless rhythms of a self-propelled machine. Left unchecked, the predictable end of all this delirium will be atrophied governance, advancing disease plagues, and international war.
Donald J. Trump was not foisted upon the United States ex nihilo, out of nothing. He is, in fact, the predictable outcome of society frequently indifferent or refractory to verifiable truth.
Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, we likely even possessed the potential to nurture individuals to become more than unthinking cogs of a compliant crowd, herd, or mass. Emerson, after all, had described Americans as a people guided by industry and “self-reliance.” Now, however, we dutifully prepare to accept almost any conceivable personal infringements in order to avoid thought and cheerlessly “fit in.”
In the end, credulity remains America’s worst enemy. Our still too-willing inclination to believe that personal and societal redemption can lie in politics and elections describes a potentially fatal disorder. Of course, many critical social and economic issues do need to be addressed further by America’s government, but so too must our deeper problems be solved at the individual human level.
In the end, this is the only proper level for undertaking real change and transformation, the only stage that is not merely a reflection or shadow (what the philosophers would call “epiphenomenal”). Already back in the fourth century BCE, Plato set out to explain politics as a reflective and unstable realm of sense and matter, a second-order arena of human action formed by inconsequential half-thoughts and distorted perceptions.
For Plato, in stark contrast to the stable or primary realm of immaterial “Forms” – from which all authentic truth must ultimately be drawn – the political world must be dominated by wizardry, falsehood, and “anti-reason.”
Going forward, whatever our personal political preferences, history, and intellect must be given a renewed pride of place. Too often, we ought to finally know by now, a threatened civilization compromises with its afflictions, cheerlessly, and even while the “herds” (Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud) or “crowds” (Soren Kierkegaard) or “mass” (Carl G. Jung and Jose Ortega y’ Gasset) chant rhythmic nonsense in a fevered unison. To meaningfully restore us as a nation to long-term health and potential (these two objectives must always proceed together), we the people must learn to look behind and even beyond the upcoming November elections.
For now, the shadows are poisons in their own right, but the tangible sources of these poisons must be targeted as well.
Donald J. Trump – despite the obvious perniciousness of his catastrophic presidency – was never this country’s core “disease.” Rather, he has been a pathological reflection, a darkening shadow, or what Plato would have predicted was the inevitable symptom of any society that mistakes transient half-thoughts for genuine understanding. Though the ancient Greek philosopher’s most ambitious remedy – “to make the souls of the citizens better” – is hardly a realistic goal these days, it must remain a manifestly overriding objective of decent human governance.
There is one last but still primary point. In certain all-too-frequent cases, a portion of society does not “mistake transient half-truths for genuine understanding” – that is, confuse shadow for truth – but instead, make such dire substitutions willfully and knowingly. In these always-ominous cases, ones where certain citizens declare themselves to be “conscientiously ignorant,” there can be no calculable benefit to offering mindful clarifications or elucidations of what is real. Here, the only residually rational path to “remediation” is both conspicuous and immutable.
It is to blunt political influence of the self-deluding societal portion as much as practicable, and, simultaneously, to sharpen this influence among those who would still favor Reason over Anti-Reason.
In today’s Trump-defiled United States, this path offers a difficult but navigable route, an indispensable journey from shadows to truth. America can choose to take this correct path, but the decision time still available is not unlimited. Too long conned by a willfully self-serving president, citizens can either rise above the Trump-applauding “mass,” or feebly accept a continuous display of terminal retrogression.
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