JURIST Guest Columnist Louis René Beres, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Purdue, discusses the challenges of the Trump presidency and its infringements on both US and International law. . . .
“At the beginning of the pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric….It is only in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth, to silence.”
– Albert Camus, The Plague
Trump presidential debilities are more serious than simple policy missteps or errors. This administration is far more worrisome than one merely misdirected or problematic. In essence, it has nurtured and sustained a genuinely existential crisis, not just a crisis of meaning, but also one of collective survival. An especially evident component of this literally unprecedented crisis is this president’s grievous assaults on law and justice.
All things considered, the Trump presidency is not “merely” ridden with expansive nepotism and corruption (son-in-law Jared Kushner is not America’s most obvious best choice for solving the Middle East and Corona virus crises simultaneously). It now endangers our actual physical continuance as a people and as a nation. From the beginning, of course, we had ample good cause to worry about making this anti-intellectual president the ultimate custodian of American nuclear weapons authority. Now we need also concern ourselves with biology in its most destructive pathogenic manifestations; that is, with a present day plague that can never be countered by Donald Trump’s shallow reasoning, empty witticisms or gratuitously belligerent rhetoric.
The corona virus horror will not disappear “miraculously,” as was once claimed by Mr. Trump. It will never yield to any clownish impresario’s conspicuously tawdry and transparent sleight of hand. Rather, under the most optimistic assumptions, it will submit only to an optimal fusion of science, medicine and law. Whether this indispensable fusion can even be identified in time still remains an open question. “The worst,” says Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “does sometimes happen.”
America needs to stay focused on what is truly important. Apropos of this obligation, there is no longer any point to identifying this disjointed president’s multiple errors and derelictions just one at a time or serially. The underlying problem here is utterly holistic. Donald Trump’s analytic and moral shortcomings are integral to the man; they are not in any way remediable. Far-reaching and once-unimaginable, these debilities are a fait accompli; they must be dealt with accordingly.
“The mass-man,” as we were earlier warned by 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.”
This is exactly how President Trump “learns.” When asked on April 10, 2020 how he would create metrics for determining when the country could be safely “opened up again,” he pointed to his head, and exclaimed: “This is my only metric.” Always, this crudely primal method of understanding represents his seat-of-the-pants reasoning, inane calculations exercised by raw instinct and then revealed with a demeaning frivolity.
When meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong-Un in 2018, Trump dismissed all usual presidential leadership obligations to study and prepare. Instead, he emphasized, again and again, offhandedly: “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s all about attitude.”
Indifferent to law at every level, domestic and international, Donald Trump remains the uncontested champion of contrived anti-reason and deliberate falsehood. Though most Americans might fairly resist any too-candid comparisons of Trump’s leadership characteristics with available examples from the Third Reich, there are certain markedly plausible points of commonality. They ought not be dismissed out of hand.
“Intellect rots the brain,” shrieked Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels at a Nuremberg rally in 1935. “I love the poorly educated” intoned Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign for the presidency. Inter alia, what these assertions have in common is a potentially tragic disdain for science and education. They also point to a mutually deformed and twisted national ideal, one that favors viscerally mindless public obedience to anti-legal commands from the White House. An obvious example is this president’s conspicuous manipulation of his Attorney General and Department of Justice for narrow political benefit.
To be sure, the robotic Trump minions are generally undisturbed by their master’s open indifference to law and justice. For them, documented facts and/or pertinent statutes are banal matters of unconcern. For these citizens, the obedient phrase “I believe” is all that counts. For them, the more nuanced “I think” is either completely unknown or intentionally subordinate.
For the self-parodying faithful caught up in rancorous Trump deflections from genuine issues, independent thought is always anathema. For them, the Cartesian “cogito” might just as well never have been fashioned.
“Learning only in his own flesh…,” US President Donald Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his glaring antipathy for history, learning law and logic. Earlier, he returned from his Singapore summit with Kim Jong-Un declaring that the calculable risks of a bilateral nuclear war had suddenly been removed because he and Kim “had fallen in love.” Today, he offers wholly unqualified estimations of assorted drug efficacies against the Corona virus. Simultaneously, he responds to science-based prescriptions with wholly unwarranted expressions of casual doubt or quirky indifference.
For the United States, these incoherent and stream-of-consciousness excursions into gibberish by an American president are far more than simply humiliating. Now, at a fearful time of palpable biological “plague,” these unhidden declensions are immediately life-threatening. Jurisprudentially, they come verifiably close to being genocide-like crimes.
A core observation now cries out for attention. How pitifully inadequate are America’s legal processes and institutions in dealing with Donald Trump’s willfully chaotic instincts. The resultant withering of our declining nation’s heart and mind now point unerringly to once-unimaginable existential threats. While the various mega-death scenarios of relentless pandemic are currently most riveting, the more “normal” dangers of nuclear war and terrorism have not magically disappeared. In the expected worst cases, war, terror and pandemic could occur more-or-less simultaneously, and with harshly interactive results that are not simply intersectional, but also synergistic.
There is more. In any scenario of overwhelmingly destructive synergy, the whole of any potential catastrophe would necessarily be greater than the “mere” sum of its constituent parts.
At best, there is nothing expressly murderous or genocidal in Donald Trump’s policies, whether foreign and domestic, but, unambiguously, there is always a far-reaching indifference to basic legal expectations regarding human rights and welfare.. “All men have my blood and I have all men’s,” wrote American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance,” but this cosmopolitan sentiment is plainly alien and incomprehensible to Donald J. Trump. As with other challenging matters of intellectual judgment, this president’s near-total lack of empathic feelings reveals a starkly frightful level of personal emptiness. Among other things, they reveal a literally grotesque American leader of breathtaking vapidity.
Where do Americans go from this already-unbearable point of political and jurisprudential departure? Whatever else we might conclude, Donald Trump displays numerous and incontrovertible derangements. Still, rather than continue to approach them as if they were somehow singularly meaningful and correspondingly remediable, all of us must now finally understand that (1) there exists no feasible “fix” for any such complex concatenations of monstrous presidential behavior, and (2) the danger posed by this president is legally overwhelming and “imminent in point of time.”
Clearly, though Trump believes that all that he does is undertaken with an absolute purity of heart, similarly felt convictions were detectable among the 1930s managers of Third Reich propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
Let us be candid. In America today, there is vastly too much “noise.” Among those many citizens who so strenuously loathe refined intellect and serious jurisprudential thought, it is a rancorous noise made on behalf of a uniquely destructive political showman.
There are serious lessons to be learned. For all Americans, the most ruinous evasion of all will be to seek palpable comfort and succor in this Trumpian form of coming-together; that is, to seek to escape moral judgment as human beings and private citizens. This search won’t work. “In eternity,” reminds the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “each shall render account as an individual.”
At least there will be this residual sort of “last judgment.”
“Monster” is a decent and correct term of judgment for an American president who encourages manifold crimes against the United States and other nations. Even without mens rea, or what the jurists would call “criminal intent,” Trump’s vaguely casual unconcern for science-based judgments on disease, law and war could result in the death of millions. In effect, such presidential unconcern exhibits a uniquely hideous species of “vice,” a species so inherently riveting that it defies any more “measured,” “balanced,” or “objective” sorts of description.
An overriding obligation arises, both legal and intellectual. We must ask promptly: What has been happening? For a tentative answer, we may consult Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man:” “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.”
The current American presidency is assuredly not the first to flout or disregard considerations of law and justice, but it is unequivocally the most egregious. At first, Donald J. Trump was viewed as a merely humorous and eccentric candidate, but certainly not one to be taken too seriously. Over time, however, despite multiple successive infringements of law and justice following his entry into the White House, Trump has revealed that our most unambiguously sacred legal and political institutions are largely impotent in the face of a monstrous fool or would-be tyrant. With this sobering revelation, Americans must now ask of themselves a previously unimaginable question: “Can we even survive a president who places greater value on vainglorious personal attention than on national welfare and national survival?”
The answer is by no means self-evident.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of twelve major books and several hundred articles dealing with world politics and international law. Professor Beres was an original member of the World Order Models Project at Princeton and Yale during the 1960s. In addition to JURIST, some of his pertinent writings can be found at The New York Times; Global-e (University of California, Santa Barbara); The Atlantic; The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Yale Global Online (Yale); Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Daily Princetonian; World Politics (Princeton); International Security (Harvard); The Hill; The National Interest; The Hudson Review; Oxford University Press Blog; Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press) and the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Dr. Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II.
Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, The Trump Presidency: A Breathtaking Assault on Law, Justice and Security, JURIST – Academic Commentary, April 12, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/03/louis-beres-trump-presidency/
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