“One must imagine Sisyphus Happy.”
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
The “Theatrical” Dilemma
As literary genre, the grimly corrosive Trump years are best described not as tragedy (which is ennobling), but as “farce.” Though not readily apparent, redirecting America’s path from farce to heroic struggle would be indispensable. In essence, such redirection presents the United States with its only real option to stay meaningfully “alive.”
But how to soar above the still-multiplying wreckage of a hideous presidency? What sorts of struggles could prove suitably heroic? More than anything else, these struggles would represent principle-based contests against further political derangements.
By now, certain basic lessons should have been learned. Above all, Americans ought never again allow their elected representatives to abandon plain truth in favor of presumed self-interest. Accordingly, once it has become clear that the nation is being led by a charlatan and a criminal (1), it is already too late to wait “patiently” for tiny hints of presidential “improvement.”
In these matters, history deserves some pride of place. From the start, the core problem with Donald J. Trump was not that he tweeted too much or that he was too crude and coarse. It was that he is an inherently dishonest and patently insidious human being.
Even in its most dignified and noble manifestations, politics can never save the American democracy. Judging in part from the recent US Senate failure to convict former president Donald J. Trump for once unimaginable derelictions, we should be warned that an heroic struggle can never originate from within the political sphere. By definition, this most easily-corrupted sphere is by its very nature secondary and reflective, one wherein each citizen has already transformed himself/herself into a quantité négligeable.
The pertinent syllogism is uncomplicated. Always, an authentic societal struggle for truth over lies must begin with the conscious and conscientious individual. Only if we can first change the individual can we ever reasonably hope to survive as a nation (2). In this connection, elections are little more than subterfuge. Is there any conceivable reason to believe that judgments of Mass can best identify excellence?
Still, there are rational reasons for hope. There do exist various readily-available guidelines for an heroic struggle, multiple literary sources from which a suffering nation could draw insight and remedy. Among other things, metaphor and myth can help this battered nation with certain needed clarifications in murky or opaque circumstances. Together, they can differentiate and elucidate, usefully and with refinement.
When Sisyphus pushes his giant rock up the mountain, a punishment of endless duration inflicted by the Greek gods (3), his actions are not in any fashion demeaning. Significantly, they represent more than just a bitterly resigned expression of pain and “pathos.” These divinely-mandated actions are heroic. For the future, America need not depend upon any explicit expectations of godlike origin, but it will need to reject the hollow shrieks of another false prophet.
There is more to ask. A single corollary philosophical question must surface immediately: “How shall this theatrical imagery be uncovered in specifically American terms?” Now we must inquire holistically, “What is there for present-day Americans to learn purposefully from classical Greek myth?” Still, it’s not the sort of question ever asked in a nation that has been long lost to any life of Reason.
As aptly sober preface to meaningful inquiry, we must recognize this last query as a prospectively last-chance for Americans to display virtue and dignified candor. On a planet so wittingly disordered, so unequally desolated, so widely resigned to cumulatively catastrophic destruction (4), the Trump years presented only a variegated ritual of deception and horror. Patently dishonorable and cheerlessly incoherent, this latest “know-nothing” era of American politics seemingly left us with no reasonable cause for optimism.
And yet, somehow, a wounded America has managed to lurch forward. Fitfully, perhaps, with a new president at the helm, but with a more openly agreeable tilt toward knowledge and science, a beleaguered country has begun to restore itself as a “virtuous nation.”And this restoration comes not a moment too soon.
There is more. While so much that transpired during the fearful Trump years was preposterous, these years were largely founded upon a palpable triumph of unreason. Prima facie, by definition, this meant uninterrupted victories for malignant absurdity (6). Plausibly, any such “victory” represented a lethal oxymoron.
The core problem here is not that absurdity is a proper enemy somehow to be defeated. Rather, the absurd obtains as an ever-present and always-dissembling background of polity and society. This means, inter alia, a context subject to variously wrongful forms of political persuasion. At its nadir, that is, when it is also malignant, absurdity can descend deeply into madness, a condition which may then signal multiple further declensions, including even an impending destruction (7).
The Intellectual Imperative
There are additional relevant particulars. More than elections, any viable democracy demands meticulously refined efforts of “mind.” This suggests, in turn, sequentially careful applications of analytic scrutiny and disciplined “thought.” (8) Anything less substantial could leave the United States unprepared for yet another crippling assault of presidential debility and national farce. Next time, moreover, there might be no eleventh-hour rescue launched by small numbers of wittingly capable citizens. The next time, Trump-type insurrections could end with substantially more deaths and derangements.
Though the Biden years seem promisingly rational and mind-based, the longer term remains uncertain and problematic. At some point, future American vulnerability to demagogic leadership could extend to nuclear harms (9) (who can reliably predict an American president’s national security decision-making in extremis atomicum?) or to synergistic fusions of nuclear warfare and disease pandemic. In such intolerable fusions, the total or cumulative harms would be greater than the calculable sum of relevant “parts.”
As recent witnesses to an unambiguously lethal theatre of the absurd in national politics, what should Americans do now? First, there must be understanding. Americans will need to learn more systematically from so many Trump-created declensions; that is, to discover from “where” this near-fatal US leadership declension originated. This would not be a mundane query of simple geography, but one concerning presidential mindset and prevailing national ideology. Among other things, in this now sorely required inquiry, history, science and law would need to be restored to a more appropriate pride of place.
Everything has sequence.
The farcical Trump presidency did not preclude its murderousness.
It did not emerge ex nihilo, in a vacuum .
It did not arise “from nothing.” (10)
For students of national and world politics, context always matters. Donald J. Trump represented the more-or-less predictable outgrowth of an American polity too-long nurtured by distraction, by “bread and circus,” (11) by an amusement-based commonwealth that routinely rejects serious thought (12). In 2020, as unassailable point of fact, tens of millions of Americans were altogether comfortable voting for a president who had openly undermined (13) basic democratic institutions, critical health services and fully peremptory (14) “due processes of law,” (15) including the “incorporated” elements of international law (16).
The ironies are many-sided and plainly evident. Any true democracy requires, at a bare minimum, a decent respect for literacy. But even now, even after Trump, no such regard obtains in these United States. Instead, nurtured by a wittingly callous indifference to learning and wisdom, Americans generally still resist the strenuousness of any sincere intellectual effort and the corresponding obligations of difficult analytic thought. The core problem here is not that tens of millions of citizens know very little of truth. It is rather that they want to know very little.
For ascertaining truth in the Trump-defiled United States, there was always too little will (17).
Truth as Blasphemy
When they voted for Donald J. Trump, millions of Americans endorsed a candidate for whom truth was not “merely” anathema. In this president’s crushingly rancorous world, authentic truth was effectively “blasphemous” or “against the faith.” Over the past four years, truth had been transformed for millions of Americans into heresy, into a woeful form of “impiety.” As we know, this rueful transformation was not without abundantly lethal consequences.
There is more. Certain increasingly specific subsidiary questions must soon be answered. “How did America manage to arrive at such a perilous space of crude contrivance and anti-Reason?” “From where did this pernicious amalgam emerge?” “Who, or what, we must finally inquire, is America’s real enemy?”
To reply purposefully, we must look behind the manifold distractions of the daily news. The discernible adversary of a more dignified American polity was never just one political party or another, never one particular ideology. It was, instead, a sustained citizen antipathy to Reason and Virtue. Naturally, Americans can’t usually be expected to recognize the philosophic (Socratic-Platonic) origins of these closely-coinciding objectives, but they can at least make an effort to learn about certain critically underlying ideas.
Without making such efforts, future elections will be largely beside the point.
In its most basic contours, the continuous American antipathy to Reason and Virtue is plausibly universal. It is rooted less in any specific time or place than in the ubiquitously human horror of disciplined learning and refined thought. At the same time, this most worrisome species of universality in no way diminishes anti-Reason’s durable harms to the United States (18).
For Americans just newly emerging from the bruising darkness of Donald J. Trump’s craven lawlessness and ignorant authoritarianism, the first orders of remediation must be undertaken at home.
“The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth,” prophesied 20th century German philosopher Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952). This starkly demeaning spirit continues to dominate present-day United States (19). Although we Americans can take some deserved comfort from the electoral defeat of Donald J. Trump, it is still worth noting that pundit and academic post-mortems of this American presidency tend to focus on narrowly technical explanations and on the most easily identifiable Trumpian derelictions (20).
Almost nowhere, it is now safe to predict, will capable analysts or thinkers seek to discover coherent explanations in any broader considerations of context.
Roots of Trumpian Farce
It is finally time to ask pointedly: “Wherein lie the roots of America’s long lasting antipathy to intellect and serious learning?” A generic but pertinent answer is supplied by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In his classic Notes from Underground (1864), the great Russian writer compares the attractions of “reason” with those of “desire.” His conclusion: “The manifestations of life itself” (i.e., desire or passion) always have an upper hand (21).
Always, obedient societies are led astray to “farce.”
Significant variations obtain, from country to country and time to time, but history reveals that those political leaders favoring anti-reason will be aspiring somewhere “in the wings.” (22) Here, often quite diligently, they prepare to pounce against whatever might support the less immediately gratifying claims of intellect or “mind.” And to leap against whomever. (23)
This insight ought not appear odd or unfathomable to us. After all, we really should already have learned this from the historic end of Weimar Germany and also of Nazi Germany twelve years later. We should now also have learned this lesson from the barbarous Trump years here in the United States. Though America’s four-year subjection to falsehood and doctrinal anti-Reason had not been literally genocidal (the jurisprudential crime of genocide expressly includes criminal intent, or mens rea), the animating sentiments of the Trump White House were openly opposed to universal human rights and fundamental human freedoms (24).
There is more. It was Donald J. Trump’s disregard for justness and fairness that became his most signature mantra (25). But why, we ought to inquire, did he receive wide and enthusiastic support from so many millions of Americans? In this regard, even the final election vote count is hardly comforting or morally reassuring. Even now, tens of millions of citizens remain deeply sympathetic to a president who was never able to decipher the most elementary social problems, to figure out the basic elements of climate science and disease or even to deliver the most minimally coherent logical argument.
This was a president, lest we forget, who several times opined that individual injections of bleach could become an ideal way of defeating the Corona virus and who never regretted or rescinded this deranged recommendation.
There is much more to consider. In the United States, presidential elections represent an immutable fixture of working democracy. Nonetheless, though necessary, these elections are also insufficient in dealing with this country’s most seriously underlying challenges. To deal satisfactorily with the Corona Virus pandemic (our current worldwide “plague”) and with the corresponding global chaos, America will first have to “fix the microcosm.”
Everything must begin at this elementary level.
Every genuine advancement (or declension) in society and law must begin with the individual human being (26). “Ultimately,” summarizes 20th century Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957), “everything depends on the quality of the individual.” When this quality becomes an adjunct to a rally crowd chanting for a “know nothing” president, the expected result is “farce.” It is anything but tragic, which would be ennobling.
Intellect as Disease: A Lethal Metaphor
“Intellect rots the mind,” warned Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels at the Nuremberg rallies of 1935. “I love the poorly educated” said candidate Donald J. Trump in 2016. This evident commonality need not suggest that the Trump administration had in any way been intentionally murderous, but only that both regimes (National Socialist and Trump Republican) received “primal” nurturance from the darkly-poisonous font of anti-Reason (27).
Among many other things, Trump rallies, in the fashion of their more seemingly sinister Nazi antecedents, represented noisily incoherent gatherings of the faithful. Replete with empty witticisms, ritualistic phrases, banalities, and gibberish, these compliant “herds” chanted reliably, in loud and atavistic chorus (28).
Let us finally be candid. During the “Trump Era,” there obtained in the United States not even a credible pretense of intellectual integrity or “mind.” Then, thinking and dignity were both strikingly out of political fashion. In the most cantankerous public realms defined by the White House, truth itself was never regarded as worthwhile or advantageous per se. Conspicuously and unassailably, it became just another presidential target of opprobrium and cynical manipulation.
For this president, truth was generally just a liability, a grievous and insufferable defect.
Where does America go from here? Though not generally understood, looking industriously behind the news is everyone’s first obligation of good citizenship. Only here, in the rarefied background of public meanness and electoral squalor, in those areas not immediately obvious and not routinely dissected on television or online, can we discover the irrefutable truths of American political life. To be sure, once discovered (or re-discovered), these truths could provide a suitable standard against which any still-impending leadership farce could be measured and subsequently corrected.
Certain additional core questions must also be answered. Americans should now more sincerely inquire: “How can a US president have so willfully accepted his Russian counterpart as “puppet master?” Even in the wholesale absence of Emersonian “high thinking” within the Trump White House (29), it should finally have become obvious that one superpower president was the all-too-witting marionette of the other. Functioning within an alleged balance of power or Westphalian (30) international system, this most revealing sort of US geopolitical subordination had placed the entire American nation in tangible jeopardy (31).
Why then was it never fully examined and explicated?
Prima facie, Trump’s “America First” (32) was the newest iteration of a long-failed world political system of belligerent (argumentum ad bacculum) power management (33). Succinctly, the “balance-of-power” had never actually been more than a convenient and facile metaphor. Despite its name, it has never had anything to do with ensuring or ascertaining actual equilibrium. “Balance” has always been largely subjective, a changing matter of assorted configurations and individual perceptions.
There is more. Adversarial states existing in this zero-sum “Westphalian” dynamic can never be sufficiently confident that pertinent strategic circumstances are suitably “balanced.” In consequence, each side to any particular contest or competition in world politics must perpetually fear that it will somehow be left behind. This apprehension creates ever wider and cascading patterns of both national insecurity and global disequilibrium.
Derivatively, all too often, such patterns can lead to a murderous “farce.”
Still, there remain even more serious questions. As a nation, when shall Americans finally agree to bear truthful and informed witness on Constitutional governance? (34) Can any doubt remain that there is much more to these founding principles than robotic recitals of certain “Second Amendment rights”? Surely this country must now be about much more than just killing and guns, about the right to bear arms, especially when this right is defined in ways that would have been starkly incomprehensible to the Founding Fathers (35).
Can anyone reasonably argue today that the original intended rights of gun ownership should now extend gratuitously and frivolously to automatic weapons?
Cultural context remains vital, even determinative, in explaining Donald J. Trump’s once-unimaginable ascent to the US presidency. Trump did not arise ex nihilo. What went so far wrong with American “high thinking?” How, more precisely, in 2016, did we allow a once-promising and still-rising nation to slide uncontrollably toward collective national misfortune?
In the unsteady nuclear age, such misfortune could have included steeply catastrophic human wars (36). With any dreaded inclusion, “We the people” might sometime have needed to witness an unprecedented fusion. This especially fearful coming-together would have presented as an explosive alloy of banality and apocalypse (37f). By definition, it would not have been a tolerable fusion.
Less than Tragic
In the demeaning farce directed by Donald J. Trump, Americans were never authentically tragic figures. At no time did we become just the passive victims of some disjointed and contrived presidency. As long as our Congressional representatives refused to speak out at refreshingly indelicate levels of truth-telling , “We the people” fully deserved our consequent losses. It was a markedly less than tragic fate.
Amid any such “theatrical” matters, Americans may now have less to learn from Plato, Aristotle or Shakespeare than from the 20th century psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Even a cursory glance at the two seminal thinkers from Vienna and Zurich should remind us of the ever-present human dangers posed by “herd,” or “horde” or “mass” or “crowd.”). From the standpoint of pertinent intellectual history, Freud and Jung were strongly influenced by both the Danish existentialist Soren Kierkegaard and by the German-Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (38).
Without guile, Nietzsche had spoken woefully (and prophetically) of the “herd.” It is this assemblage of sheep that gave actual form to Donald Trump’s farcical serenade of suffering. It is this assemblage that clamored and shrieked for “freedom,” but of what use is freedom for such sheep? They stick only to bleating.
Going forward, whatever terms we might still choose to favor, one key point should remain constant: When an entire nation and society abandon the most basic obligations of freedom, critical thinking and “reason” (again, this observation about “reason” should bring us back to the German post-War philosopher, Karl Jaspers (39)), we should expect accelerating deformity and eventual tyranny. Nietzsche, in his masterpiece Zarathustra, was more specific. “Do not seek the higher-man in the marketplace,” the philosopher- prophet had warned presciently. To the end, Trump was a man of the marketplace, a “mass man,” the philosophic embodiment of a lower-form.
In the United States, far too many failed to listen. Donald J. Trump’s mundane skill sets were acquired in the market-based worlds of real-estate dithering, casino gambling and “branding.” These skills did not “carry over” to any intersecting intricacies of high-politics and diplomacy. Basing his foreign policies on an explicit rejection of intellect (40) – a rejection continuously affirmed by his variously sequential appointments of ill-equipped family members to senior posts – Americans were left with a tortured world of disappearing national friends and ever-multiplying national foes.
Now, with a new president in the White House, American leadership can at least begin to offer more than clichés, empty-witticisms or delusionary “deals.” (41) Trump’s assorted trade wars, much like his disjointed approach to pandemic disease (“Operation Warp Speed”) became a gargantuan net-negative for the United States. Still, what is most important presently, after so much damage has already been inflicted, is that Americans avoid similar decisional failings in the future. Such avoidance can never be accomplished directly through politics, but only by a far-reaching and antecedent rejection of herd-logic.
In the end, whatever specific nuances of difference can be identified, every society must represent the sum total of its individual souls seeking some sort of “redemption.” (42) This always overriding search is never narrowly scientific – after all, there can be no discernible or tangible referent for a human “soul” – but variously important answers may still lie outside mainstream sorts of investigation (43). These “subjective” answers ought not immediately be disregarded. At times, at least, they should be consciously sought and very meticulously studied.
In President Donald J. Trump’s deeply fractionated American republic, “We the people” cheerlessly inhabited a stultifying “hollow land” of unending submission, crass consumption, dreary profanity and abundantly shallow pleasures. Bored to literal tears by the suffocating banalities of American daily life, and beaten down by the grinding struggle to stay hopeful amid ever-widening polarities of health and disease, of wealth and poverty, weary US citizens – people who have had every right to vote, but not to keep their teeth (44) – grasped anxiously for all available lifelines of palpable distraction.
In 2016, this presumed lifeline was a conspicuously false prophet of American “greatness.”
In 2021, unsurprisingly, America is not “great again.”
For Donald J. Trump, crude and cynical simplifications had represented his carefully-planned path to electoral victory. Correspondingly, an evident anti-Reason became his corresponding stock in trade. Indeed, this chosen posture quickly became a demeaning but widespread national “faith.”
The Imperatives of System
There is still more. Misdirected by hollow claims of “American Exceptionalism” and “America First,” Americans living through the Trump era farce managed to forget altogether that world politics is first and foremost a system. It follows, looking ahead, that considerations of US security and prosperity must be more consciously and consistently linked to the calculable well-being of other states.
In world politics, as in life generally, “We are all in the soup together.” It’s a homely metaphor, but one that still remains telling.
Until now, Americans have unceremoniously ignored the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s clear warning from The Phenomenon of Man (1955): “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’ is false and against nature. No element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.” Any society that makes tax avoidance into a key virtue – especially one used as a standard of presidential selection – is a society without adequate visions of meaning, survival, virtue or “genre.”
Trapped in “Trump World,” Americans (and also others) had been ignoring almost everything of some commendable intellectual importance. Should there remain any sincere doubts about this indictment, one need only look at the still-deteriorating state of American higher education. In many ways, this once-exemplary realm is now just another farcical expression of Nietzsche’s (Zarathustra’s) abysmal “marketplace.”
In Donald Trump’s America, We the people were no longer being shaped by suitably generalized feelings of reverence or compassion, or by even the tiniest hints of “mind.” Until now, America’s oft-preferred preoccupation, encouraged by the Trump White House and shamelessly unhidden, was a closely- orchestrated interference in other people’s lives and (with even greater enthusiasm) an amplification of their grievous sufferings. In German, there is a specially-designated word for this grim pathology of human spirit. There it is called schadenfreude, or taking an exquisite pleasure in the misfortunes of others.
For the most part, during Trump time, this voyeuristic frenzy had been juxtaposed against the contrived myths of American superiority. In the end, this particular fiction was apt to produce only further collective declension and an expanded individual despair. It’s good to have Nation on your side, Donald J. Trump figured out early on, but it’s still better to have God on your side. Arguably, never were the bitter ironies of Bob Dylan’s classic song (“With God on Your Side”) more clearly on display.
“I belong, therefore I am.” This is not what philosopher René Descartes had in mind when, in the 17th century, he had urged greater thought and an expanding doubt. It is also a very sad and dangerous credo. It shrieks loudly that social acceptance by the mass or herd or horse or crowd is roughly equivalent to physical survival. Here, presumptively, even the most sorely pretended pleasures of inclusion are worth pursuing.
There is still more to explain, and not all of it attributable to the Trump horror. To continue, a push-button metaphysics of “apps” now reigns supreme in America. This immense attraction of smart devices and bewildering social networks stems in large part from am already barren society’s machine-like existence. Within such robotic national universe, every hint of human passion must first be shunted away from still-caring human emotions, and then re-directed along certain uniform and vicariously satisfying pathways.
Matters of Law, Marketplace and “Soul”
During his administration’s last weeks, though international law obliges the United States to oppose all crimes of genocide and related crimes against humanity, and despite the fact that binding international law is an established part of the law of the United States, Donald Trump issued blanket pardons for egregious war crimes. When this American president first defended Russia’s Vladimir Putin against the advice of America’s intelligence community, Americans ought already have known they were in significant trouble. During his rambling tenure, Donald J. Trump never once backed off this unsupportable priority.
For Trump, being Putin’s ever-obliging puppet was part of another kind of theater. It was part of a perilous and humiliating farce. When Trump first said of North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un “We’re in love,” we then ought immediately have suspected that an American president’s alleged plan for “denuclearization” was utterly without merit. From the start, the plan lacked any conceivable semblance of analytic foundation. It was, rather, all gibberish, all ad hominem.
Increasingly, across this Trump- beleaguered land, America’s once traditionally revered Western Canon of literature and art is being replaced by “practical” emphases on job preparation, loyalty-building sports and “branding.” For most of America’s young people, even before the pandemic and before Trump, learning had become an inconvenient and burdensome commodity. Now, correspondingly, it is not uncommon for pundits and “experts” to evaluate alternative courses of study according to “relative income potential.”
This is not the sign of an excellence-oriented system of education.
Not at all.
“Beware,” warns Zarathustra, of seeking virtue, fairness or justice anywhere at the marketplace. This is a place for commerce, for trading, for buying and selling. It is a cheapening venue, one designed for “deals.” It is not a suitable place for identifying exemplary national leaders.
In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired coyly about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked. This president (a leader who actually read and wrote serious books) answered “yes,” but only if Americans would first refuse to join the misdirecting “herds” of mass society.
Otherwise, President Wilson had already understood, an entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty corrosion of broken machinery, more disabling even than the sordid decompositions of an individual human being.
In all societies, Ralph Waldo Emerson earlier commented, the care of individual “souls” must represent the most enduringly insistent national responsibility. Conceivably, there could sometime emerge a better “American Soul,” but not until a nation could first agree to shun several seductions of mass culture. These inter-penetrating lures are rank imitation; shallow thinking; organized mediocrity; and a manifestly predatory politics focused upon ethnicity, gender, race and/or class.
For Americans, especially after Trump, any such far-reaching rejection will not be easy. It will take time. It will take vision.
Newly liberated from the painful shackles of Trump-enhanced farce, hope may no longer have to sing softly, sotto voce, in determined undertone. Soon, perhaps, it will be able to re-emerge without excuses, increasingly reasonable and newly purposeful. The alternative could prove unseemly and injurious. Among other things, it would be indecent for us not to have learned something useful from the barbarous Trump Era; that is, to combat a gratuitously rancorous orientation toward both intellect and politics.
We may come back to Soren Kierkegaard. In broad conceptual and generic outline, this orientation was already described by the 19th century Danish philosopher in what he had famously called “a sickness unto death.” For the moment, at least, We the people may have managed to negotiate an eleventh hour escape from this all-consuming “sickness” – from the consequences of Donald J. Trump’s poisoned presidency – but there remains at least one overriding obligation.
It is to render this essential escape from darkness to enlightenment more conspicuous, more welcome, more durable and (hopefully) more permanent.
Reversing America’s Trump-Accelerated Retreat from Reason
The American public’s retreat from Reason did not start with the bilious Trump presidency; it will not end with the current presidency of Joe Biden. Nonetheless, as a society, we can still take certain steps to (1) get beyond the ruthless shortcomings of Trump-era governance; and (2) acknowledge the singular benefits of well-reasoned thought. With the electoral defeat of Donald J. Trump, Americans have already marked a necessary beginning, but it’s really just a beginning that has been accomplished thus far.
Now, with rehabilitating excursions into science and learning, we are entering a delicate moment of “catching up.”
In The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus inquires: “Does the Absurd dictate death?” Understood in the specific context of Donald Trump’s sordid presidency, a “correct” answer is both determinable and unassailable. In every imaginable component of Trump-induced or accelerated harms – e.g., pandemic disease; human rights disregard; nuclear arms proliferation; Realpolitik or global power politics; chaos – the specter of nothingness made itself palpable. With little basis for offering any reasonable disagreement, death is the immutable prototype of human injustice.
It remains a useful and elucidating exemplar.
Still at the beginning of a Biden presidency, Americans must knowingly abjure any notion of sudden flight to a more rationally ordered world. In politics, there can be no prompt “liberation” from theatrical absurdity or demeaning farce . This sober suggestion should not be interpreted as an expression of collective liability or national weakness. Rather, though seemingly regrettable, what has already been suffered in the United States can conveniently “set the stage” for what Albert Camus would certainly have lauded as an “heroic struggle.”
In the classical Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned to push a huge boulder up a large mountain – ceaselessly and endlessly. While evidently futile, this exhausting struggle was neither shameful or lamentable. Instead, because futile effort can still be ennobling, it was “tragic.”
For Americans, the Trump Era was not at all tragic. It was a continuous descent into pathos and farce. Now we have begun the indispensable climb upward, but absurdity cannot be expected to disappear as if it were just another replaceable “genre.”
Absurdity remains an integral and indelible part of the human condition. In consequence, the struggle for planetary survival must accept it as given. The only possible alternative would be to build false hopes upon erroneous assumptions of some all-powerful human Reason. At that point, a twisting country would likely lapse again and again into weakening national melodramas of capitulation and cowardice.
Already, during the second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump, members of the United States Senate prioritized “herd” over truth.
For human beings everywhere, absurdity is immutable, but there still remains ample room for dignified virtue and heroic struggle. Whether we Americans should now wish to call such a dissembling choice “tragic” is effectively immaterial. All that really matters is that we conspicuously refuse any future collective descents into pathetic farce.
To survive and prosper, Americans must learn to look insightfully and probingly behind the news. In the final analysis, presidential insurrections and impeachments are both epiphenomenal, both merely the tangible manifestations of what lies most causally underneath and what is most continuously causal. Invoking Plato’s eternally valid distinction between appearance and reality in The Republic, the sad and bitter events associated with Donald J. Trump’s presidency are really only “shadows” of what is genuinely important. That most primary source of reflection is a society bent determinedly toward self-deception and pathetic farce.
For America, endlessly, even after the lingering horrors of Donald J.Trump, there will always be a “boulder” to push up the “mountain.”
For the United States, as for the rest of the world, there is no rational argument for entertaining paradisiacal fantasies.
To advance beyond farce in an inherently absurd world system, Americans will just have to “imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Louis Rene Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of twelve major books and several hundred journal articles dealing with world affairs and international law. His writings have been published in The New York Times; The Hudson Review; The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Horasis (Switzerland); Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard); Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); JURIST; Modern Diplomacy; The Princetonian; US News & World Report; The Hill; The War Room (Pentagon); Oxford Yearbook of International Law and Jurisprudence (Oxford University Press); Global-e (UCSB); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv) and The Atlantic.
Dr. Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland at the end of World War II.
1See by this writer, already in 2018, Louis René Beres, at US News & World Report: https://www.usnews.com/opinion/thomas-jefferson-street/articles/2018-02-14/donald-trump-is-willfully-incoherent-corrupt-and-dangerous
2On this primary line of thinking, see especially Carl G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self (1957).
3An earlier book by the author uses this image (though on a very different subject) in its title. See: Louis René Beres: Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (1983)(D.C. Heath and Company.
4 Consider Herman Hesse’s dire warning in Steppenwolf (1927): “The world as it is now wants to die, wants to perish, and it will.”
5 “There is no longer a virtuous nation (5),” laments the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, “and the best of us live by candle light.”
6As literary genre, the “theatre of the absurd” is highlighted by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Adamov and Jean Genet. One can discover pertinent intellectual roots in the earlier writings (and paintings) of surrealism, dada and – especially for Albert Camus – Franz Kafka. The core problem is not that absurdity is per se murderous or problematic, but that it can produce such harms if it is first allowed to become “malignant.”
7“Whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes mad.” Quem deus vult perdere, dementat prius. Fragment commonly attributed to Euripides. See Ruth Padel, Whom Gods Destroy: Fragments of Greek and Tragic Madness (Princeton 1995).
8This term will be explained more fully later on in reference to writings of 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt.
9See, by Professor Louis René Beres, at The Hill: https://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/418509-americas-greatest-danger-nuclear-war-decision-making-by-donald-trump In specific regard to Trump-created dangers of a nuclear war, we may be reminded of still-timely verse by “Beat Poet” Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “In a surrealist year….some cool clown pressed an inedible mushroom button, and an inaudible Sunday bomb fell down, catching the president at his prayers on the 19th green.” (A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958).
10One may recall, in this connection, the eschatological words of poet Saint-John Perse in Exile (Exil): “And all at once all is power and presence for me, here where the theme of nothingness rises still in smoke.”
11It was Juvenal (Satires, X) who coined the Latin phrase panem et circenses, forever stigmatizing the decadence and desolation of ancient Rome.
12We should be reminded here of Bertrand Russell’s trenchant observation in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death.”
13A most recent example was Trump’s pardon to four convicted US Army war criminals, an egregious violation of authoritative international law. Significantly, prima facie, international aw is also the law of the United States. See, by Professor Beres, at Modern Diplomacy: https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2021/02/10/donald-j-trumps-overlooked-dereliction/
14According to Article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties: “…a peremptory norm of general international law is a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of states as a whole as a norm from which no derogation is permitted and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.” See: Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Done at Vienna, May 23, 1969. Entered into force, Jan. 27, 1980. U.N. Doc. A/CONF. 39/27 at 289 (1969), 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, reprinted in 8 I.L.M. 679 (1969).
15Ironically, the Founding Fathers of the United States were serious intellectuals. As explained by famed American historian Richard Hofstadter: “The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.” See Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 145. To be sure, we can discover a tangible bit of sexism and racism in these commending characterizations, but such aspects of “enlightenment” thought must also be viewed in their 18th century context.
16In the precise words used by the U.S. Supreme Court in The Paquete Habana, “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction, as often as questions of right depending upon it are duly presented for their determination. For this purpose, where there is no treaty, and no controlling executive or legislative act or judicial decision, resort must be had to the customs and usages of civilized nations.” See The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900). See also: The Lola, 175 U.S. 677 (1900); Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984)(per curiam)(Edwards, J. concurring)(dismissing the action, but making several references to domestic jurisdiction over extraterritorial offenses), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1003 (1985)(“concept of extraordinary judicial jurisdiction over acts in violation of significant international standards…embodied in the principle of `universal violations of international law.’”).
17 In modern philosophy, the provenance of this key term lies in Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea (1818). For his own inspiration (and by his own expressed acknowledgment), Schopenhauer drew freely upon Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Later, Nietzsche drew just as freely (and perhaps more importantly) upon Schopenhauer. Goethe. also served as a core intellectual source for Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, author of the prophetic work, The Revolt of the Masses (Le Rebelion de las Masas (1930). See, accordingly, Ortega’s very grand essay, “In Search of Goethe from Within” (1932), written for Die Neue Rundschau of Berlin on the occasion of the centenary of Goethe’s death. It is reprinted in Ortega’s anthology, The Dehumanization of Art (1948) and is available from Princeton University Press (1968).
18Prospectively, the worst such harm would be a nuclear war. On the plausibly expected consequences of a nuclear war, see by this author, Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986); and most recently, Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed., 2018).
19 In a similar vein, Spanish 20th century thinker Jose Ortega y’Gasset says in The Revolt of the Masses (1930): “The mass man has no use for reason. He learns only in his own flesh.”
20Some of this former president’s derelictions, though fiendish and consequential, have remained inconspicuous. An example is Trump’s Constitutionally wrongful pardons for violations of international law. See, by this author, Louis René Beres, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/01/louis-beres-trump-pardons-international-law/; and also https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2021/02/10/donald-j-trumps-overlooked-dereliction/
21See also Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “There is something inside all of us that yearns not for reason, but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought, but for the whisperings of the irrational….”
22Says Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Revolt, the “mass man” is a sorely primal and universal being, one who has somehow “slipped back though the wings….”
23 “Conscious of his emptiness,” warns Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “a man tries to make a faith for himself in the political realm. In vain.”
24In effect, because all US law is founded upon “the law of nature” (see US Declaration of Independence and US Constitution), this opposition to human rights and freedom is ipso facto in opposition to Natural Law. This Natural Law is based upon the acceptance of certain principles of right and justice that prevail because of their own intrinsic merit. Eternal and immutable, they are external to all acts of human will and interpenetrate all human reason. It is a dynamic idea, and together with its attendant tradition of human civility runs continuously from Mosaic Law and the ancient Greeks and Romans to the present day. For a comprehensive and far-reaching assessment of the Natural Law origins of international law, see Louis René Beres, “Justice and Realpolitik: International Law and the Prevention of Genocide,” The American Journal of Jurisprudence, Vol. 33, 1988, pp. 123-159. This article was adapted from Professor Beres’ earlier presentation at the International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide, Tel-Aviv, Israel, June 1982.
25An additional question comes to mind, one posed originally by Honore de Balzac about the “human comedy,” not about politics in particular: “Who is to decide which is the grimmer sight: withered hearts or empty skulls?”
26In 1965, the Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, lamented in Who Is Man?: “The emancipated man is yet to emerge…”
27 In his Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), German thinker Karl Jaspers explains: “There is something inside all of us that yearns not for reason, but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought, but for the whisperings of the irrational.” These were the seductive “whisperings” of the Third Reich, and – at least among the several million avid subscribers to Donald J. Trump’s assorted conspiracy theories, also here in the United States.
28The term “herd” was favored by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, especially in his Zarathustra. Similar terms were used by Sigmund Freud (“horde”); Carl G, Jung (“mass”); Jose Ortega y’Gasset (“mass”) and Soren Kierkegaard (“crowd”).In all such usages, the key point is to underscore the existential perils of a forfeited individuality.
29 Reference here is to American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in the 19th century called famously for “plain living and high thinking.” Virtually no one in the Trump orbit had even heard of this country’s most esteemed school of philosophy. Like their “master,” they typically “learn only in their own flesh.”
30See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.
31 The belligerent nationalism of Donald Trump stood in marked contrast to authoritative legal assumptions concerning solidarity between states. These jurisprudential assumptions concern a presumptively common legal struggle against aggression, genocide and terrorism. Such a “peremptory” expectation, known formally in law as a jus cogens assumption, had already been mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey., tr, Clarendon Press, 1925)(1690); and Emmerich de Vattel, 1 Le Droit Des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758). In the introduction to Le Droit Des Gens -The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law – Swiss jurist Emmerich de Vattel cites to Cicero: “For there is nothing on earth more acceptable to that Supreme Deity who rules over this whole world than the councils and assemblages of men bound together by law, which are called States.” (Somnium Scipionis). This view is a far cry from the later Nietzschean view that “State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters” (Zarathustra) or Jose Ortega y’Gasset, “The state, after sucking out the very marrow of society, will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with hat rusty death of machinery, more gruesome even than the death of a living organism (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930).
32 See, by this author, Louis René Beres: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2019/06/louis-beres-america-first/ See also, by Professor Beres, at Yale Global Online: https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/what-trumps-foreign-policy-ignores American law and legal policy were founded upon the learned jurisprudence of Sir William Blackstone, which acknowledged the ubiquitous obligation of states to help one another. According to Blackstone, each state is always expected “to aid and enforce the law of nations, as part of the common law, by inflicting an adequate punishment upon offenses against that universal law….” See: 2 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 4, “Of Public Wrongs.” Lest anyone ask about the significance of Blackstone for current US national security policies, one need only point out that Commentaries were an original and core foundation of the laws of the United States. This fact always remained unknown to US President Donald Trump. Farce-based policies of “America First” were the diametric opposite of what Blackstone would have had urged or ever have expected.
33 Earlier, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (University of Denver, 1973) and Louis René Beres, Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (University of Denver, 1975).
34 See, by Professor Beres: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2017/07/Beres-president-trump-impeachment1/ See also, by Professor Beres: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/12/louis-rene-beres-presidential-crimes-and-pardons/#
35There are more guns in the United States than people.
36 This brings to mind the closing query of Agamemnon in The Oresteia by Aeschylus: “Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatreds, the destruction”?
37 C’est beau, n’est-ce pas, la fin du monde?” queries French playwright Jean Giraudoux. See: Sodome et Gomorrhe II, 2
38More directly, they were influenced by the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, especially his The World as Will and Idea. Famously, said the German philosopher, “The great majority of men are not capable of thinking, but only of believing. These are not susceptible to reasons, but only to authority.”
39 See especially Jaspers’ Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952).
40 In the observation of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, “It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.” See: “The New Spirit and the Poets” (1917).
41In his philosophic essay, The Dehumanization of Art (1925), Jose Ortega y’Gasset accurately foresaw what has been happening here in the United States: “The demagogues, impresarios of alteracion, who have already caused the death of several civilizations, harass men so that they will be able to reflect, manage to keep them herded together in crowds, so that they cannot reconstruct their individuality….They tear down service to truth, and in its stead offer us myths.”
42In the Realpolitik dynamic of world politics, a universal dynamic of belligerent nationalism, this search is sometimes literal. This is because of ubiquitous and longtime associations between national power position and individual human mortality. More precisely, in the nineteenth century, in his posthumously published lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.” The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from mere principle of action to a sacred and sacrilizing end in itself, drew its originating strength from the doctrine of sovereignty advanced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially conceived as a principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent a specific metamorphosis, whence it became the formal or justifying rationale for international anarchy – that is, for the global “state of nature.” First established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty came to be regarded as a power absolute and above the law. Understood in terms of modern international relations, this doctrine encouraged the notion that states lie above and beyond any form of legal regulation in their interactions with each other.
43 Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought of “soul” (in German, Seele) as the very essence of a human being. Neither Freud nor Jung ever provides a precise definition of the term, but it was not intended by either in any ordinary religious sense. For both, it was a still-recognizable and critical seat of mind and passions in this life. Interesting, too, in the present context, is that Freud explained his already-predicted decline of America by various express references to “soul.” Freud was plainly disgusted by any civilization so apparently unmoved by considerations of true “consciousness” (e.g., awareness of intellect and literature), and even thought that the crude American commitment to a perpetually shallow optimism and material accomplishment would occasion sweeping psychological misery.
44 One has to wonder just how many Americans can even afford to have essential dental care. As a practical matter, for a great many Americans (both poor and aged) teeth are simply no longer affordable. In a nation of staggering inequality, they have become a luxury for most elderly persons.
45See by this author, Louis René Beres, at JURIST: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2019/06/louis-beres-america-first/
46To coexist in this “soup,” there have been insightful prophets of global integration, notably Condorcet, Immanuel Kant, Auguste Comte and H.G. Wells. For the best available treatment of these prophets and their still-indispensable ideas, see W. Warren Wagar’s The City of Man (1963) and Building the City of Man: Outlines of a World Civilization (1971). Professor Wagar was a commendable visionary himself, one with whom I earlier had the honor to work at Princeton (World Order Models Project) during the late 1960s.
47This brings to mind the Natural Law origins of US jurisprudence. The Stoics, whose legal philosophies arose on the threshold of the Greek and Roman worlds, regarded Nature as humankind’s supreme legislator. Applying Platonic and Aristotelian thought to a then-hopefully emerging cosmopolis, they defined this nascent order as one wherein humankind, by means of its seemingly well-established capacity to reason, can commune directly with the gods. As this definition required further expansion of Plato’s and Aristotle’s developing notions of universalism, the Stoics articulated a further division between lex aeterna, ius natural and ius humanum. Though not widely understood or conspicuous in the United States, this division further elucidates the background of America’s ongoing legal responsibilities.
48See, by Professor Beres, at The Daily Princetonian: https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/06/a-core-challenge-of-higher-education
49René Descartes actual phrase, of course, is “I think therefore I am.” See the philosopher’s Discourse on Method (1637).
50The specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”
51See, by this author, Louis René Beres, at JURIST: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/01/louis-beres-trump-pardons-international-law/
52 Sigmund Freud was always darkly pessimistic about the United States, which he felt was “lacking in soul” and a demeaning place of great psychological misery or “wretchedness.” In a letter to Ernest Jones, Freud declared unambiguously: “America is gigantic, but it is a gigantic mistake.” (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (1983), p. 79.
53Italian film director Federico Fellini insightfully: “The visionary is the only realist.” Similarly, from the German philosopher Karl Jaspers: “Everyone knows that the world-situation in which we live is not a final one.” (Man in the Modern Age, 1951).
54 In a different essay, Point of View, “That Individual,” Kierkegaard says: “The crowd is untruth.” Though succinct, it remains a telling and comprehensive observation. The core sentiment here is almost identical to Friedrich Nietzsche’s discussion of the “herd” in Zarathustra and of “mass” by Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957). Sigmund Freud, too, spoke in several sources (e.g., Civilization and its Discontents, 1930) about the “horde.”
55 See Immanuel Kant’s long famous imperative, “Dare to know!,” in What is Enlightenment (1784).
56These benefits call to mind the relevant oeuvre of political philosopher Hannah Arendt, especially The Human Condition(1958); Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963); and The Life of the Mind (1978). In the same vein, the seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarks prophetically in Pensées: “All our dignity consists in thought….It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing further from Descartes – strives to define an essential theory of learning and knowledge.
57Whether it is described in the Old Testament or other major sources of ancient Western thought, chaos can also be viewed as a source of human betterment. In essence, chaos is that which prepares the world for all things, both sacred and profane. Further, as its conspicuous etymology reveals, chaos represents the yawning gulf or gap wherein nothing is as yet, but where all civilizational opportunity must inevitably originate. Appropriately, the great German poet Friedrich Hölderlin observed: “There is a desert sacred and chaotic which stands at the roots of the things and which prepares all things.” Even in the pagan ancient world, the Greeks thought of such a desert as logos, which indicates to us that it was presumed to be anything but starkly random or without conceivable merit.
58As discussed earlier here, the French poet, Saint-John Perse, summarized: “And all at once, all is power, and presence for me, here, where the theme of nothingness rises still in smoke.”
59 In The Myth of Sisyphus (1955), Albert Camus observes succinctly: “At any street corner, the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.” Had he had lived during the Trump years, Camus would have likely amplified the magnitude of such a strike.
60See, by this author, Louis René Beres, https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/09/08/truth-and-shadow-to-understand-a-lethal-american-presidency/