Folly Redux?: The Deeper Meanings of a Second Trump Presidency
Erasmus (Wikimedia Commons/ National Gallery of Art)
Folly Redux?: The Deeper Meanings of a Second Trump Presidency

Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.”

-Tertullian

Macrocosm and Microcosm

One thing is certain. If Donald J. Trump should decide to run again, various condemnations and justifications would instantly spring forth from absolutely every segment of the political spectrum. The deepest and truest explanations, however, would not be discoverable in day-to-day politics. Rather, as 20th century Swiss psychologist Carl Jung earlier understood about such multi-layered public matters, every society must ultimately come to reflect the sum total of its individual members – that is, of myriad “souls” seeking “redemption.”

Quo Vadis? In essence, as a nation of individuals, the United States is now tracking more closely to irreversible peril than to any meaningful forms of “redemption.” More precisely, since the former president’s electoral defeat in 2020, the life of the mind in America has become even more conspicuously valueless.

Too often, despite their vaunted universities, Americans continue to oppose the tiniest hints of serious intellectual endeavor or analysis. Literally millions of Americans still blame Covid’s devastating toll not on endlessly willful rejections of science-based epidemiology (e.g., the conspiratorial rantings of “anti-vaxers”), but on medicine’s most visibly informed and capable messengers.)

Credo quia absurdum,” affirmed the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.” Among Trump loyalists, ad hominem attacks upon Dr.Anthony Fauci continue to be more common than well-reasoned attacks upon their own determinedly self-destructive behaviors.

Always, whatever the particular political deceptions in play, truth is exculpatory. As a 76-year old American academic who has spent every year of his adult life in universities, as student or as professor, it’s sensible to observe as follows: Too often, the American university has become just another commodity, an all-too-willing adjunct to the profit-seeking corporate and commercial worlds.

To the much larger conceptual point, too many Americans implicitly prefer the unheroic phrase, “I follow,” to the once-still commendable, “I think.” Over time, such an ill-fated preference can lead only toward an even more consummate and irremediable national declension. Here, unambiguously, macrocosm would follow microcosm.

Reason versus Anti-Reason: The Core Polarity

It’s time for utter candor. Many in Trump’s stridently anti-intellectual America loved to yell and scream together, in chorus. It scarcely matters that their rhythmically preposterous chanting was intentionally devoid of ascertainable facts, reason or logic. To wit: “The wall will be very beautiful because barbed wire can be very beautiful.” Or: “I trust my intelligence community, but (Russian President) Vladimir Putin must also be trusted.” And most famously/infamously: “The risks of a nuclear war with North Korea have disappeared (after the Singapore Summit) because we (Kim Jong Un and Trump) fell in love.”

“I’ll make America great again!” At best, and on every imaginable level, this intellectually vacant pledge remained the resuscitated slogan of 1933 German National Socialism. Prima facie, of course, no such potentially murderous claim could ever have signified anything of foreseeable national virtue. It was, rather, the easily recognizable omen of then still-latent national crises. Should Mr. Trump decide to run again, similarly ludicrous presidential claims would surface once again, still preempting the place of correctly reasoned analyses.

All such exegeses must begin with truth. Whatever the particular ideology, truth is exculpatory. Accordingly, no American society nurtured by authentic considerations of learning could ever have considered such glibly illiterate promises to express anything more than a grotesque self-parody. Nonetheless, tens of millions of Americans continue to stand “loyally” beside a former President who they know has never read a book or so much as glanced at the US Constitution, a document he wittingly defiled on several bitter occasions, most plainly on January 6, 2021.

What sort of loyalty is this for a free and reasoning nation? What does such dissembling support suggest about the ongoing outlook of American schools and universities in transmitting at least minimally foundational intellectual values, not to mention “virtue”? To be sure, this is not a minor question for a society now confronting the intersecting and synergistic perils of major war and disease pandemic.

“I love the poorly educated” bragged Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

“Intellect rots the brain” shrieked Third Reich Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels in 1934.

Is there really any significant difference of sentiment here?

The Declining Importance of Learning and a Non-Vocational University Education

 In these vital matters, American higher education ought not to be let off the hook too easily. Mustn’t Americans at least inquire about those millions of Trump supporters who graduated from one or another of the country’s “great” universities? What exactly did these citizens learn about science, logic, law, reason and history? How can they ever claim to respect the most basic elements of learning if they can simultaneously support a former American president who openly reviles erudition?

Donald Trump was a president who suggested that nuclear weapons could be used productively against hurricanes; “The Moon is part of Mars”; Iranian nuclear weapons could best be prevented by ending purposeful diplomatic dialogue with that country; and “The American revolutionary army (after 1776) took immediate control of all national airports.”

“I love the poorly educated.”

We really ought not to be surprised by such a sweeping ignorance.

But there is still more. Revealingly, the former president repeatedly proudly revealed his own special personal heroes. In addition to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, who was cheerfully celebrating his ongoing and still-planned crimes against humanity, Trump praised former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for his “effective treatment” of “terrorists,” mass murderer Muamar Khadafy for having kept Libya “well-ordered,” North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un because he is a “good guy,” the Chinese president for dealing with drug addiction by way of capital punishment, the Philippine president for championing army death squads, and an emboldened Saudi Arabian monarch who murdered a Washington Post journalist with calculated impunity.

Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.” What about pertinent law, both domestic and international? Amid his very strange pantheon of personal leadership preferences, Mr. Trump had been aggressively specific about his callous indifference to any residual considerations of justice. For one unambiguous example, he periodically advocated the torture of terror suspects and the killing of families of alleged terrorists. Derivatively, at least for this American president, the phrase “due process of law” became little more than an inconvenient obstruction to crude private satisfactions. This nefarious transformation became most obvious and barbarous in the former president’s words of support for Proud Boys, Oath Takers and various others involved in the January 6, 2021 seditious insurrection.

This was not a law-based rebellion. During this openly criminal attempt to overthrow the US Constitution, several members of the US Capitol Police Force were murdered. Another significant casualty was a nation’s law-based democracy.

Now, corollary questions should also be raised. Does former President Trump even know that the law of war (aka the law of armed conflict or humanitarian international law) is (a) comprised of codified and customary norms designed to protect noncombatants from deliberate harms; and (b) expresses the municipal law of the United States? In a second White House go-around, could Mr. Trump even hope to understand Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, the “Supremacy Clause,” or the several related U.S. Supreme Court decisions (especially The Paquete Habana, 1900 and Tel Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic, 1984) that very explicitly reinforce and widen Article 6 incorporations?

It’s a silly question. The correct answer is obvious and not-at-all obscure. International law is part of the law of the United States. This fact is written directly into the US Constitution and in authoritative judgments of this country’s highest court. Ipso facto, a president can never disavow international law without simultaneously rejecting U.S. law. Plainly, one can’t reasonably expect a US president to act purposefully on vital jurisprudential matters if that figure remains determinedly unacquainted with relevant cases and documents.

An American “Life of the Mind”?

In Trump’s America – even while the former president was being widely challenged on multiple dimensions of egregious policy malfeasance – the public inhabited a society so numbingly false that even its melancholy had already been anesthetized. Now, still wallowing in the dim national twilight of near-irresistible conformance, Trump’s chanting loyalists continue to display infinite forbearance for their leader’s shallow thinking and his literally endless affection for belligerent and degrading policies.

An American “life of the mind?” Is this in any way a defensible juxtaposition? Where is classic or simply serious American theatre? Who in this country is even marginally inclined to read real and thoughtful literature? Why bother, all inquire. Incontestably, true learning doesn’t “pay.”

Several years ago, I visited Fanning Island in the faraway South Pacific Republic of Kiribati. Although the people who came out to meet our small tender boat were astoundingly poor and without any modern conveniences (including electricity or indoor plumbing), they seemed much better off and more content than the millions of disaffected Americans who now struggle merely to stay alive amid impressively modern social media and its variously associated technologies.

Insidiously, Donald J. Trump still seeks to capitalize on this far-reaching disaffection, perhaps with a third-run for the American presidency, but neither his concocted diagnoses nor his prescribed therapies could ever make any conceivable sense. Significantly, this intolerable disjunction is not yet a disqualifier among so many millions of his stalwart supporters. What can they possibly be “thinking?”

In the mid-nineteenth century, the American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson called wisely upon this nation to embrace “plain living and high thinking.” For Donald J. Trump, the preferred mantra might now just as well be the exact opposite. “Plain living and high thinking?” Hardly. Such a still-commendable imperative is nowhere to be found amid this former president’s rapidly crumbling architecture of American “greatness.” Within this inherently fragile construction, citizen aspirations must continuously be driven by what sociologist Thorsten Veblen (The Theory of the Leisure Class) earlier called “pecuniary envy.”

Nowadays, of course, Americans are more apt to describe this particular species of “envy” as “conspicuous consumption.” But the palpable import remains the same.

Loneliness and American Politics

There is more. The American people can be lonely in the world, or lonely for the world. Somehow, however, the country’s insistently crass culture has managed to generate both. Before a more sustainable America could ever be born from any such bifurcated loneliness, someone other than a lascivious presidential gravedigger would need to wield the “forceps.”

This is not an inspiring expectation. Nonetheless, truth is always exculpatory. And truth alone can save America’s imperiled citizenry from the manifestly retrograde and lethal “insights” of a recycled US President Donald J. Trump.

Ironically, Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different, perhaps even exemplary. Once, they possessed at least a unique potential to nurture cooperative individuals beyond a docile mass, more than an obedient herd, and more than a cowardly crowd that yearns above all else to wear unifying red hats and chant nonsense together. Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson had optimistically described Americans as an enviable people, one spurred on famously (and optimistically) by “self-reliance.”

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” exulted the country’s most purely American poet, Walt Whitman, but, today, the American Self remains under multi-pronged assault by a repressively vast mediocrity. Indeed, without such a debilitating assault, Donald J. Trump could never have been elected President of the United States. And without such a primal assault, America could still manage to stave off a second Trump presidency.

Going forward, whatever one’s personal political preferences, history and intellect must be awarded a renewed pride of place. Too often, we ought to finally know by now, a threatened civilization compromises with its afflictions, cheerlessly, 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 fevered unison. To meaningfully restore America as a nation to long-term health and potential (these two objectives must always proceed together), Americans must first learn to look far beyond the 2024 elections. Even now, however, the American declension problem is not about Trump per se; he is merely the most virulent symptom of a much deeper national sickness. Recalling the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, this is quite literally a “sickness unto death.”

Looking backward, Donald Trump – despite the cumulative perniciousness of his defiling presidency – was never America’s “true” pathology. Recalling Plato, that sordid presidency was still merely reflection, a tangible symptom of a society that routinely mistook transient half-thoughts for genuine understanding. To be sure, Plato’s most ambitious remedy – “to make the souls of the citizens better” – is not even a mentionable American goal today.

How could it be?

But the philosopher’s underlying diagnosis, which correctly highlights the individual human being instead of his or her reflected political creations, was right on the mark. In America, citizens should finally learn, politics and elections are never a genuinely primary cause of either national decline or national renaissance. Always, they are only the manifestly distracting “shadows” of authentic truth.

In Praise of Folly

In 1509, famed Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus published In Praise of Folly. The narrator, identified as a court jester, argues that she is humanity’s greatest benefactor. Nursed by Drunkenness and Ignorance, her closest followers include Self-Love, Pleasure, Flattery, and Sound Sleep. Later, in Chapter 31, the long parade of blemished souls upon whom she has conferred “special benefits” shifts disconcertingly.

It is, in essence, a pivot from those who had once been alluring, young and “hot-blooded” to the old, pitiful and grotesque.

Truth proceeds here without hesitation or remorse. As any still-remaining illusions are stripped away by Erasmus, Folly continues to extend high praise to Ignorance and Lunacy. Ultimately, as her satiric banter turns palpably to “acid,” Folly sums up her contrived frivolity with an approving citation to the classic Greek playwright, Sophocles: “Ignorance always provides the happiest life.”

Today, incontestably, the former American president is plainly symptomatic of such recalcitrant Folly. At its core, however, the truest cause of our perilous political affliction lies less in the personal qualities of a conspicuously unsuitable former president than in the surrounding political culture; that is, in the much larger society that wittingly “allowed” such a crude and intellectually shallow candidacy to ever be taken seriously. In concise summarization, the all-too-precipitous decline of America’s highest office under Donald Trump mirrors a US population that steadfastly refuses to take itself seriously.

 To Finally Understand Politics as Reflection

America represents a jarring and disjointed society, one that doggedly refuses to think beyond its most immediate and visceral satisfactions. If there should remain any doubts about all this, one need only look at the ever-expanding waves of collective anxiety and unhappiness throughout the beleaguered land. More expressly apropos of America’s former president, there can never be any promising redemption from his rancor-driven political chorus. This was never the dignified chorus of a Greek tragedy – a balanced commentary endowed with genuine insight and decipherable clarity – but rather the self-defiling chant of mindless pathos and political farce. Left to renew its humiliating barrage during a second Trump presidency, this fractured American society could quickly propel itself beyond the pale of any still-plausible rescues.

There can remain only one logical reaction to the possible rebirth of a Trump presidency. To begin, any such starkly declining civilization would inevitably surrender to its most threatening afflictions, sometimes without offering any Reason-based opposition. Above all, to restore itself to long-term health in America, citizens will have to learn to look far beyond their perpetually futile faith in politics.

Before this can happen, however, a gravely docile American population will first need to restore refined intellectual examinations to its proper place in American society. Correspondingly, this nation’s population will need to reject any resurrected presidential celebrations of a doctrinal anti-Reason. Only when such rejection has become a tangibly irreversible gesture could Americans seriously hope to deflect the lethal embrace of any Trump “Folly” redux.

 

Louis René Beres is the author of many books and articles dealing with literature, philosophy, international relations and international law. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2016 (2nd ed, 2018) Professor Beres has published in The Bulletin of the Atomic ScientistsYale Global Online (Yale); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); World Politics (Princeton); International Security (Harvard); Modern Diplomacy; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); The Brown Journal of World Affairs; The Atlantic; The Hill; JURIST; The New York Times; The Jerusalem Post; The National Interest; The Hudson Review; The War Room (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); U.S. News & World ReportHorasis (Zurich) and Oxford University Press. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II

 

Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, Folly Redux?: The Deeper Meanings of a Second Trump Presidency, JURIST – Academic Commentary, February 9, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/02/louis-beres-folly-redux-second-trump-presidency/.


This article was prepared for publication by Sambhav Sharma, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org

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