A Triumphant Incoherence: President Trump’s Convulsive War on Government and Law
A Triumphant Incoherence: President Trump’s Convulsive War on Government and Law

“The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”

Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971)

Yet again, assessments of national security threats to the United States thoroughly contradict US President Trump’s own off-the-cuff appraisals. This time it is about satellite images confirming that North Korea is rapidly moving ahead with its ballistic missile program at sixteen hidden bases. An article in The New York Times by David E. Sanger and William J. Broad explains that these unacknowledged bases “contradict Mr. Trump’s assertion that his landmark diplomacy is leading to the elimination of a nuclear and missile program that the North had warned could devastate the United States.”

This new report by distinguished American journalists is merely the latest and potentially most egregious example of an American president systematically disregarding his own capable intelligence community merely to curry favor with his political base. Of course, there will be meaningful consequences of such presidential dereliction for principal US allies in the region, most obviously South Korea and Japan.

Somehow, for the current American president, policy-making amid chaos (or by chaos) has fully become the new normal. Rejecting all the usual standards of science, reason, and a measured philosophical spirit, Donald Trump has embraced a posture of deliberate incoherence. As a result, virtually all issues of US government and law are now just another inane pretext for presidential convulsions.

Credo quia absurdum or, I believe because it is absurd, said the ancient philosophers. “Reason,” warns the philosopher Karl Jaspers, “is confronted again and again with the fact of a mass of believers who have lost all ability to listen, who can absorb no logical argument, and who hold unshakably fast to the Absurd….” Very systematically, this president avoids knowledge-based judgments. Rather than think seriously about stunningly complex issues, he erupts. On even the most urgent existential matters of US national security, Mr. Trump remains prepared to sacrifice the long-term well-being of an entire nation for his personal enhancement.

What Mr. Trump has so evidently done wrong concerning North Korean nuclearization is just the tip of his dereliction iceberg. Very recently, the president declared his inclination to unilaterally abrogate this country’s legal obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This abrogation will impair our codified promises at both international and domestic legal levels. Before this latest proposed abrogation, Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). That decision was made after UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency claimed Tehran had been meticulously respecting the deal.

There are still further examples of President Trump acting in unsupportable opposition to America’s legal and moral obligations. These include his proposed treatment of Central American refugees at the US border (including demonization of the now famous “caravan”); his incomprehensible threats to cut funding to US victims of both hurricanes and terrible fires in the midst of their sufferings; his de facto complicity with Saudi Arabia in Riyadh’s bombing of vulnerable civilian populations in Yemen; similar complicity with Russia regarding regime-inflicted war crimes in Syria; US withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord; consistently baseless voter fraud claims; persistent and unrequited obeisance to Russia’s Vladimir Putin; and very limp reactions to the Saudi murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. These are just some examples.

Refusing to base his foreign policy judgments on gathered intelligence or prepared proposals, President Trump undermines his core Constitutional obligations. Ironically, Donald Trump is keenly fond of chastising others about purported legal obligations:  “This is a nation of laws….,” he has warned on several occasions. But Mr. Trump himself has simply chosen to look the other way.

International law remains an integral part of the law of the United States, and can’t be overlooked by any president or by his defenders. Most obviously and unassailably, critically vital incorporations of international law are expressly codified at Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”) and also at several corresponding U.S. Supreme Court decisions (principally, the 1900 Paquete Habana, and Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic, 1981).

Article 6 of the US Constitution clarifies that “…all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land….” In this connection, the United States is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which contains (at Article 33) the basic principle of non-refoulement:  “No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

The absence of reason behind Trump’s assertions might never become a conscious cause for presidential embarrassment. As cameras pan around the audience at Mr. Trump’s fearfully adrenalized rallies, it’s hard to imagine even a scintilla of crowd interest in law, logic or just plain lucidity. In the fashion of other bedazzled (or bewitched) audiences in earlier 20th century European history, this is not a crowd that wants its “great leader” to be impressively learned or law-minded. Credo quia absurdum.

In all his flagrant violations of the US and international law, Mr. Trump himself is not the real or genuinely underlying “pathology.” Rather, his law and the government-violating presidency is merely the most visible symptom of a much more widespread and deeply systemic disorder. Recalling the German philosopher Karl Jaspers’ generic warning drawn from the Third Reich: The really basic “illness” here is a starkly anti-intellectual American society that frowns upon any ascertainable hints of independent thought.

Even in Donald Trump’s increasingly deformed universe, the law follows “mass.” “The crowd,” observed the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” Always, Mr. Trump’s obedient minions obligingly insist upon chanting in chorus. The hideously dark tenor of any such ritualistic chanting should sound more than vaguely familiar in modern European history.

“Intellect rots the brain,” cautioned Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels at the 1935 Nuremberg rallies. “I love the poorly educated,” offered candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential campaign. Inevitably, Mr. Trump’s supporters, yearn openly for the tangible warmth of belonging, of being part of a shrill and shrieking crowd, and of enjoying the false pleasures of simplistic explanations. Complexity is always especially difficult and daunting for those who would unhesitatingly reject intelligence and intellect in virtually any form.

Sophocles called a king who would place his own personal popularity ahead of national well-being “despicable.” He lamented (together with his fellow Greek playwrights, Aeschylus and Euripides) that a corrupted national leadership must necessarily engender a more widely corrupted commonwealth. When Theban King Oedipus finally discovers his own terrible “flaw,” the Chorus recognizes fully unavoidable connections to the debilitating famine and disorder then prevailing throughout Thebes. Today, when an American president remains doggedly focused on his presumed personal popularity and not on his core legal obligations concerning government, law, and national security, we face similarly perilous connections.

To really understand these vitriolic connections, and then to effectively counter the corollary presidential assaults on government and law, we will first have to reject any sleight-of-hand explanations originating in the Trump White House. Such choreographed political wizardry can only masquerade as truth.

Louis René Beres, Ph.D., Princeton, a frequent contributor to JURIST and Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of twelve major books and several hundred articles dealing with international relations, international law and political philosophy. Professor Beres’ most recent writings can be found at US News & World Report; Yale Global Online; Daily Princetonian; Harvard National Security Journal; International Security (Harvard); The Atlantic; World Politics (Princeton); Oxford University Press Blog; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Israel Defense; The Jerusalem Post; The National Interest; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); and the Strategy Bridge.


Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, A Triumphant Incoherence: President Trump’s Convulsive War on Government and Law, JURIST – Academic Commentary, November 18, 2018, http://jurist.org/forum/2018/11/Beres-triumphant-incoherece-trump’s-war-on-government/

This article was prepared for publication by Jess Lasky, an Associate Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org


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