Louis René Beres, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Purdue, recounts the grave mistakes made by Donald Trump during his tenure, and analyses how they can be resolved going forward in order to reinstate American self-respect...
“ANTIFA SCUM ran for the hills today when they tried attacking the people at the Trump Rally, because those people aggressively fought back…..DC Police, get going — do your job and don’t hold back!!!” – US President Donald Trump, November 14, 2020
“Whoever can dominate 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, Party Rally at Nuremberg, 1934
“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 very bad.” – Donald Trump, March 15, 2019
In the fashion of his de facto mentor in 1930s Germany, Donald J. Trump remains gleefully a man of the street. This fearful resemblance is many-sided, and exists at different intersecting levels. Like Hitler, Goebbels and Goering, American President Trump thrives amid chaos, violence and general lawlessness. As an evident corollary, he remains stubbornly crude and disingenuous in his every gesture.
Some of this President’s derelictions are more egregious than others. The worst, by far, is his orchestrated disinformation campaign against accepted medical science. Also unsettling and injurious is his steadfast insistence upon a “rigged election.” Though not supported by a scintilla of tangible evidence, Donald J. Trump’s incessant claims of voter fraud simultaneously undermine US dignity and national security.
Plausibly, after Trump, we are even more apt to concur with Irish poet W.B. Yeats, “There is no longer a virtuous nation, and the best of us live by candle light.”
When Donald Trump is finally compelled to leave office on January 20, 2021 – and no doubt, shrieking with indignation about “unfairness” – the United States will have reached a nadir of epic proportion. This once-unimaginable low point will reveal not only greatly expanded American weakness on all legal fronts, but also a pandemic-created body count exceeding earlier compilations of national war dead. In specifically jurisprudential or legal terms, it would not be unreasonable to call these American Covid-19 fatalities the victims of a de facto genocide.
Donald J. Trump made all the wrong calls on controlling this disease, many of them based on deliberate and conscious manipulations of truth and law. These catastrophically wrong calls cannot be ascribed to predictive error.
It’s finally time for candor. The only tangible difference between the Trump-assisted mass dying and a true genocide lies in the presumed absence of criminal intent or mens rea. From the flesh-and-blood standpoint of the dead Americans and their surviving families, of course, this law-based absence is simply immaterial.
Expecting this defiling President’s behavior to change on its own has always been a core mistake in the United States. Merely hoping against hope that such persistently barbarous behavior can change was always about as credible an expectation as awaiting a sudden change in the earth’s gravitational tides. Today, on account of our refractory unwillingness to call things by their correct name, Americans are living (and dying) in a self-created desert of pervasive despair.
This demeaning creation will have ubiquitous long-term consequences. After all, as we may learn from 20th century European thinker E.M. Cioran, “…a cry of despair is more revealing than the most subtle thought; and tears always have deeper roots than smiles.”
What do we do now, when even the normal prospect of a peaceful transfer of US presidential power can no longer be assured? To begin with, it is essential that we consciously reject the atavistic “insights” of “mass man,” and begin, with apt seriousness, to embrace Reason. Going forward, American national policies ought no longer be based upon unchallenged and boorish gibberish.
After Trump, it will be high time for competently gathered facts and a closely corresponding corpus of science-based theory.
And for jurisprudence, it will be very high time.
Something else will also be necessary. To wit, certain acts that were once “merely” wrong or harmful have recently become murderous or prospectively murderous. In large measure, this is because the Covid-19 pandemic mandates more substantially far-reaching patterns of serious cooperation, domestically and internationally. These patterns concern densely intersecting elements of world order.
Quo Vadis? Where should we go from here? To start the list, the conspicuously shallow and degrading Trump vision of “America First” ought never be allowed to outlast his corrupted presidency. Such a retrograde allowance would only lead the United States toward endlessly Darwinian global struggles and to an even larger worldwide chaos. Here, amid fiercely escalating competitions between nation-states, we could then expect more and more refractory global conflicts.
There is more. The failed standard of “everyone for himself” can produce only more and more intense levels of human suffering. Ipso facto, such bitter results would reflect discernibly wide deviations from America’s assorted legal obligations. Most notable, in this regard, would be certain statutory and customary obligations of both national and international law.
We are all obliged to inquire: Where should we be headed from such an inauspicious decisional precipice? In our war and disease-ravaged world, a synergy-exacerbated planet now teetering at the most vertiginous “heights of despair,” only a law-based expansion of human empathy could possibly save us. This suggests, among other things, that any such expansion by the United States would represent not “just” some generous or one-sided act of charity – that is, a mistakenly altruistic species of “traditional” American benevolence.
Instead, we are speaking here of a determinedly positive and self-serving expression of rational US policy.
The reasons are easily identifiable and abundantly clear. In brief summation: US national interests can no longer be served at the calculably deliberate and zero-sum expense of other states and nations. As we ought already to have learned from the grievously debilitating Trump years, “America First” really means “America Last.”
It has been a lethal oxymoron.
There is more. At every crucial level of evaluation – military, economic, biological and legal – American security is integrally linked with a wider “human soul.” For the United States, any further misplaced confidence in embarrassingly vacant presidential witticisms or allegations could fatally undermine this unhappy country’s overall security. Although, until now, any open reference to US national morbidity would have seemed a hyperbole, or a gross exaggeration; but this is no longer the case.
Prima facie, we Americans are in grievously mortal danger, individually and collectively.
What we have been witnessing during the dissembling Trump Era, hour by hour, minute by minute, is the incremental dismantling of a once decent and law-respecting nation. Now, an immutable element of transience has become tragically self-evident. It’s not that such transience or impermanence can ever be “fixed,” but rather that still-aspiring “great nations” ought not to take witting steps to hasten their collective disappearance.
Trump did not make America “great again.”
In continuous candor, during its Trump-based and pandemic-hastened decline, the American “mass” could not possibly cling convincingly to this President’s contrived promises of “greatness.” At best, the childishly-inscribed red hats and related paraphernalia expressed a dangerously thin parody of high thinking. They were a demonstrably hideous caricature of legitimate thought. For the foreseeable future, lest we should forget the immutable lessons of change and transformation in world affairs, America will need to settle not for “greatness,” but only for elementary physical survival.
All this is hardly reassuring or comforting. Nonetheless, truth is necessary, and exculpatory, not just in law, but in national life generally. Trumpian false reassurance is not something we should ever seek or accept. Already, this deception has cost tens or hundreds of thousands of American lives, fellow citizens who foolishly believed in an elected leader who said treacherously, again and again, “We have everything under control” and “We are rounding the corner on this virus.”
Always, truth excuses candor. This particular truth about America’s mortal vulnerabilities is not subject to any captivating metaphors or credible contradictions. US President Donald J. Trump is personally responsible for uncountable American disease fatalities. Even if he “meant well” (a problematic assumption in its own right), his decision to distribute pertinent health supplies on the basis of presumed political loyalty was morally and legally inexcusable.
There is still more. For the United States, today’s national and geopolitical truth is expectedly grim and undeniably sobering. Even worse, there are no discoverable correctives visible anywhere on this bewildered administration’s determinable policy horizons. On the contrary, the “medicine” offered by a still-lingering (and still-limping) Trump administration is just more and more of the same.
This medicine remains toxic.
From the White House, nothing seriously remediating has been offered, whether on matters concerning war, genocide, terrorism or planet-wide pandemic. Of course, if we can somehow manage to hold out until January 20, 2021 – and if the increasingly violent street fighters backing Donald Trump can be prevented from obstructing a peaceful transfer of presidential authority – the incoming Biden administration ought to quickly supply some authentic and law-supporting solace.
The finding of regularities constitutes the beginning of any scientific inquiry. Apropos of this core understanding, there is a common problem here. Most fundamentally injurious and ominous about Donald Trump’s studied indifference to human interconnections and properly codified legal rights has been his willful destruction of empathy. For still-thinking Americans, the palpably dreadful consequences of such destruction ought to have already become obvious.
The unmistakably monstrous global consequences of “Germany First” – a readily recognizable antecedent of Trump’s “America First” – should have immediately exhibited certain stinging historical resonances.
For any necessary expansions of empathy to become sufficiently practical would first require a president and a citizenry at least minimally versed in history and law. At this moment, there is precious little evidence of any such learning. Even worse, we have been witnessing an American political process wherein learning and intellect are ridiculed and count only as liabilities.
Donald J. Trump did not create this country’s stultifying disinterest in history, law and learning. There are other much deeper roots to the correlative American deficiencies of empathy and cooperation. Divided into thousands of hostile tribes, almost two hundred of which are called “nation-states,” too many human beings still find it easy or even pleasing to slay “others.” As for any remediating considerations of compassion, that indispensable sort of sentiment is typically reserved only for those who live well within one’s own previously-delineated “tribe.”
Looking ahead, any needed expansion of empathy to include “outsiders” remains a basic condition of law-based peace and more viable global cooperation. Without such a needed expansion, our entire species will remain inconveniently dedicated to its own protracted debasement and, by extrapolation, its own incremental disappearance. Hopefully, with the advent of a new President on January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will take useful note of this urgent human obligation.
Ironically, however, the essential expansion of empathy for many could become “dreadful,” improving human community, but only at the prohibitive costs of private sanity. This potentially insufferable consequence is rooted deeply in the way we humans were originally “designed,” that is, as more-or-less “hard-wired” beings, as individuals with distinctly recognizable and largely “impermeable” boundaries of personal feeling. Were it otherwise, an extended range of compassion toward too many others would inevitably bring about our own emotional collapse.
As an easy to understand example, we may consider how difficult it would be if all of us were suddenly to feel the same compelling pangs of sympathy and compassion for certain others outside our primary spheres of attachment that we customarily maintain only for family and friends “inside” these spheres.
This daunting challenge presents a challenging paradox. It has already been examined in the ancient Jewish legend of the Lamed-Vov; this is a Talmudic tradition that scholars generally trace back to Isaiah. Here, the whole world is said to rest upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-Vov. Along normal criteria of differentiation, these figures are otherwise indistinguishable from ordinary mortals. Still, instructs the legend, if just one of their number were absent, the resultant sufferings of humankind would become staggering, poisoning even the purest souls of the newly-born.
This Talmud-explained paradox has some useful contemporary legal meaning for the United States. The modernized signification reveals that a widening circle of human compassion is indispensable to civilizational survival and yet, represents a source of private anguish. According to the Jewish legend, such overwhelming anguish would be unimaginable.
Still more questions must be raised. How shall President Trump or President Joe Biden begin to deal capably with a requirement for global civilization that is both essential and unbearable? Newly informed that empathy for many is a precondition for any decent and functioning world legal order, what could create such care without producing intolerable emotional pain? Recalling Ralph Waldo Emerson and the American Transcendentalists, remaining “high-thinkers” in the United States now ought to duly inquire: How can we be immediately released from the misconceived ideology of “America First,” a deranging posture that has been increasing the prospects not only of aggression, terrorism and genocide, but also of our now-uncontrolled disease pandemic?
There is more. The whole world, the world in toto, is a system. “The existence of system in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature,” says the Jesuit philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “no matter whom….Each element of the Cosmos is positively woven from all the others….” Above all, this dissembling President’s soon-to-be-installed successor should fully and finally understand that the legal state of America’s national union can never be any better than the state of the world as a whole. This key truth now obtains not “only” in traditional reference to the enduring issues of war, peace and human rights, but also to patently critical matters of epidemic disease management.
Always, for the imperiled United States, the overarching presidential objective must be to protect the sacred dignity, safety and law-based rights of each and every individual human being. It is exactly this high-minded and ancient goal that should now give preeminent policy direction to a bewildered and bewildering President Trump and incoming American President Joe Biden. Such indisputably good counsel could represent a law-based corrective to Trump’s consistently misleading endorsements of “America First.”
Naturally, it will be easy for many to dismiss any such seemingly lofty recommendations for human dignity and legal obligation as silly, ethereal or “academic.” But, in reality, there could never be any greater American presidential naiveté than to insistently champion the patently false extremities of “everyone for himself.”
Among Trump’s other egregious misunderstandings and falsifications, “America First” represented a sorely blemished presidential mantra. Devoid of empathy, intellect, and absolutely all principal obligations of human legal cooperation, it could only have led toward distressingly new heights of strife, disharmony and collective despair. Left intact and unrevised, “America First” would have pointed us all toward a potentially irreversible vita minima; that is, to badly corrupted personal lives emptied of themselves – meaningless, shattered, rancorous, unfeeling and radically unstable.
Here, located among so many other melodramas and misfortunes, we would find it impossible to battle not just the usual adversaries involving violence, but also our increasingly fearful biological/pathogen-centered enemies.
There is more. Without a suitable expansion of empathy, we Americans will remain at the mercy not just of other predatory human beings, but also of certain exceedingly virulent pathogens. Progressively, the harmful synergies created by such dangerous combinations would sometime likely become too much to bear. And we could not count upon the Lamed-Vov to rescue us.
For all who would still value clear thinking, the cumulative legal lesson should be unassailable. We are all part of the same planetary whole. Only by placing “Humanity First” can an American president make “America First.” The latter placement, which must now include the capacity to combat disease pandemic as well as war, terrorism and genocide, is not possible without the former. Today, as America hopes to survive the closing days of Donald J. Trump’s unraveling presidency, the driving reason behind this conclusion remains “cosmopolitan” and essentially unchanged.
“Is it an end that draws near,” asks postwar German philosopher Karl Jaspers in Man in the Modern Age (1951) “or a beginning?” To reply usefully, our national and international preparations must lie not in the warring streets of Donald J. Trump and Joseph Goebbels, but in the verifiable intellectual truths of history, science and jurisprudence. These basic truths are unhidden and ascertainable.
Americans now ought to embrace them together with other still-promising elements of the incoming Biden presidency. Inevitably, American security, global security and world law will remain intertwined. In the end, they must all become one.
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Law at Purdue. He is the author of twelve major books and several hundred journal articles in the field. Professor Beres’ writings appear in many leading newspapers and magazines, including The Atlantic, The Hill, U.S. News & World Report, The National Interest, The Jerusalem Post, The New York Times and Oxford University Press. In Israel, where his latest writings were published by the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, the Institute for Policy and Strategy and the Institute for National Security Studies, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003). Dr. Beres’ strategy-centered publications have been published in such places as The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; JURIST; Special Warfare (Pentagon); Infinity Journal (Israel); The Strategy Bridge; The War Room (USA War College); Modern War Institute (West Point); The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Modern Diplomacy; Yale Global Online; The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); World Politics (Princeton); International Security (Harvard) and the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Professor Louis René Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II.
Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, Dominating the Street: President Trump Recycles Lawlessness from the Gutter, JURIST – Academic Commentary, November 25, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/11/louis-rene-beres-trump-dominating-the-street/.
This article was prepared for publication by Akshita Tiwary, JURIST’s Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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