The first two years of the Trump presidency have been characterized by disdain for intellect, history, science and expertise.
By Louis René Beres*
An open loathing of intellect has become substantially de rigeur for Donald Trump and his supporters. Accordingly, the nation’s chief executive regards terms like “intellectual” or “analytic” as epithets rather than positive attributes or prospectively gainful expectations.
While Trump did not create this demeaning subordination of the “mind,” it is nonetheless an integral component of his bitter and corrosive presidency. Furthermore, there are particular concerns. Above all, one must now inquire, how can an American president so willfully ignore the obvious foreign and domestic policy manipulations committed by his Russian counterpart and the deepening concerns shared by intelligence officials, investigators, congressional representatives of both parties, allies and other world leaders? Indeed, even in the absence of any recognizable “high thinking” in the White House, alarm builds that one superpower president has become the pawn of another power.
Trump’s curious ascent to the American presidency did not arise in a vacuum. Rather, the country’s long history of distrust for intellect and science conveniently set the stage for such debilitating and portentous national leadership. In the words of poet W.B. Yeats, “There is no longer a virtuous nation, and the best of us live by candlelight.”
We dare not speak of “tragedy.” Tragedy, unlike catastrophe and misfortune, is ennobling. It demands a victim, either individual or societal, who suffers markedly and undeservedly. It follows that a democratic and presumably virtuous nation that elected a blustering businessman and reality TV star can hardly be held blameless.
Today, not only the crass American “emperor,” but also those still watching the stifling “parade” with unsuitable deference are similarly “naked.” To wit, in Trump’s deeply fractionated American republic, we the people now inhabit a rapidly descending “hollow” land of unending submission, crude consumption, dreary profanity and immutably shallow pleasures. Bored by the suffocating banality of daily life and beaten down by the grinding struggle to stay hopeful amid ever-widening polarities of wealth and poverty, Americans grasp anxiously for almost any available lifeline of promising distraction. Small wonder that the cavernous opiate crisis is deep enough to drown whole oceans of a once-sacred poetry.
In part, at least, because of the grievously misdirected and ineffectual stewardship of the current president, both the nation and the much wider system of nation-states are increasingly imperiled. Where, then, shall people seek to dispel any still-lingering public apprehensions concerning collective survival and human improvement? Where, indeed, can they discover any usefully reinforcing visions of social cooperation and personal growth?
Misled by the self-destructive syntax of “America First,” Americans have already forgotten that world politics is inevitably a system with US prosperity inextricably linked to the calculable well-being of other societies.
In Trump’s cliché-ridden America, we the people are no longer shaped by common feelings of reverence or compassion, or even the tiniest hints of some clarifying analytic thought. Unsurprisingly, education failures represent a large part of the anti-intellectual problem. Even in the nation’s best colleges and universities, there is now far greater interest in studying “practical” matters than in learning history, government, literature, music or philosophy. And why not? In this country, true learning assuredly doesn’t “pay.”
In this feverishly disjointed era, the US president fervently encourages Americans to resist aggressively intellect, science, journalism and history. Often, too, even the most affluent US citizens separate themselves to inhabit the loneliest of places. Apart from their ownership of more conspicuously glittering “stuff,” there is little about greater wealth than can insulate these citizens from anomie, alienation and an utterly profound sense of meaninglessness.
“I belong, therefore I am” – this is not what philosopher René Descartes had in mind when he famously urged intellectual thought and purposeful doubt. It is also a sad credo, an unhesitatingly pathetic cry that social acceptance and certain related affections are roughly equivalent to physical survival and that even the sorely pretended pleasures of inclusion are desperately worth pursuing. At the same time, Americans shrug off the very real survival issue of others fleeing war in Syria or hopeless poverty in Central America. Although international law obliges the United States to oppose crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity, Trump remains silent on irremediable war crimes committed by Syria’s murderous dictator and his Russian presidential patron – this despite the fact that international law represents an incorporated part of the law of the United States. In the words of Justice Horace Gray delivering the 1900 US Supreme Court judgment in Paquete Habana, “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….”
For most of our young people, learning has become a reluctantly required and inconvenient commodity, nothing more. At the same time, commodities exist for one overriding purpose. They are there, much like the newly minted college graduates themselves, to be marketed, bought and sold.
Though faced with distinctly genuine threats of war, illness, impoverishment and terror, vast millions of Americans still choose to distract and amuse themselves with assorted forms of morbid excitement, public scandal and the thoroughly inane repetitions of an authentically illiterate political discourse. Not a day goes by that we don’t notice some premonitory sign of impending catastrophe. Still, this self-anesthetized nation continues to impose upon its exhausted and manipulated people a shamelessly open devaluation of disciplined thought.
Soon, even if the United States should somehow manage to avoid nuclear war and nuclear terrorism under the relentless corrupting Trump leadership, the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned. Then, the phantoms of great ships of state, once laden with silver and gold, may no longer lie forgotten. Instead, citizens will finally understand that the circumstances that once sent the great compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Freud and Kafka to join the disintegrating works of forgotten poets were neither unique nor transient.
In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson, later president of Princeton and the United States, inquired coyly about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” This president answered “yes,” but only if we first refused to stoop to join the inglorious “herds” of mass society. Wilson describes the challenges: “once it was a simple enough matter to be a human being, but now it is deeply difficult; because life was once simple, but is now complex, confused, multifarious. Haste, anxiety, preoccupation, the need to specialize and make machines of ourselves, have transformed the once simple world, and we are apprised that it will not be without effort that we shall keep the broad human traits which have so far made the earth habitable.”
In all societies, the meticulous care of individual souls is critically important. In principle, there can be a better American soul, but not until we first affirm a prior obligation to shun the unsustainable and inter-penetrating seductions of mass culture, rank imitation, shallow thinking, organized mediocrity and as corollary a manifestly predatory presidential politics of “rallies.”
“This is the dead land…,” intones T.S. Eliot in The Hollow Men. Here, as the prophetic poet already understood, those still living must reluctantly plan to receive “the supplication of a dead man’s hand.” For the steadily weakening United States, now in cascading moral and physical decline, there does exist a more promising and dignified orientation, but it would require more conscious acceptance of how far the nation has fallen during the first years of Trump’s convulsive presidency.
This two-year anniversary is not one for anyone to celebrate with pride – except perhaps for Vladimir Putin and Bashar al Assad.
*Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (PhD, 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue, Dr. Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland. His twelfth and latest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; second edition, 2018). Some of his essays on America and mass society can be found at Oxford University Press, The Daily Princetonian, The Hudson Review; The Montreal Review; Jurist; US News & World Report, The Atlantic, The Hill; The National Interest; The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and YaleGlobal Online.
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