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“Whisperings of the Irrational”: Core Origins of America’s Trump Decline

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“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.”-Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952)

The facts are unsettling. Even today, after so much day-to-day evidence of presidential incapacity and malfeasance, millions of Americans continue to regard Donald Trump’s leadership as acceptable or even exemplary. This ironic continuance can never be explained by referencing the ordinary features of American politics (e.g., the electoral college, weak Democratic candidates, steadily expanding Article II (presidential) powers, etc.)

What is needed instead is a more serious consideration of the cultural context from which this flawed president was somehow extracted.

To be sure, in the course of such consideration, there will be ample reasons for citizen bewilderment. Here, as with any other multi-layered political quandary, truth may prove to be counter-intuitive. In these complex matters, elements of  explanatory  context may point as much to certain persons of education, wealth and privilege as to less fortunate Americans. Significantly, both categories of Trump supporters, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, include people who most dearly seek to “fit in.”  

These are the ones who love to chant in mutually reassuring chorus and don (literally and metaphorically) the red hat messaging of Trump-style simplifications.

For those understandably despairing Americans who might worry because they take history seriously, one may draw  limited but still-fair comparisons with another fearful era of human governance. Though disturbing, the obvious reference here is the Third Reich. Then, as now, “whisperings” of gainful relationships (both economic and social) masked a virulent formula. In the end, of course, those earlier siren calls were not simply expressed sotto voce, that is, as merely residual “whisperings of the irrational.”

 They were declared without apology, unhesitatingly, and – most important of  all – safely beyond the range of any purposeful challenges or refutations.

In the end, these siren calls turned out to be the deadliest-ever prescription for national declension and human disappearance.

Then, as now, those in political power relied upon blaming “the usual suspects.”

The United States is not becoming Nazi Germany. But this ought not to be simply an “all or nothing” comparison. Then, as now, an irreversible decline arrived more-or-less indecipherably, in generally hard-to-fathom increments, not as any suddenly jolting  or riveting events, and not as any precipitous or conspicuously immobilizing “bolt from the blue.”

While there are plainly vital differences between then and now, there are also very disturbing forms of resemblance.

In the United States, a single core question must remain uppermost:  How shall this ominous American presidency best be explained? In part, at least, correct answers should be sought in the paradoxical juxtaposition of privilege with philistinism. For such a seemingly self-contradictory fusion, the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had already coined a specific term, one he hoped could eventually become universal.

This newly-coined  German word was Bildungsphilister. When expressed in its most lucid and coherent English translation, it means “educated Philistine.”[1]

 In all such delicate maters, precise language and “penetrating clear thought” can help to clarify. Accordingly, Bildungsphilister is a term that could shed useful additional light upon Donald Trump’s uninterrupted support among many of America’s presumptively well-educated and well-to-do. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump several-times commented: “I love the poorly-educated,” but – in the end – a substantial fraction of his voter support arrived from the not-so-poorly-educated. Here, recalling German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers’ indictment regarding “whisperings of the irrational,” one should  be  reminded of a kindred remark by Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels: “Intellect rots the brain.”

Truth is exculpatory. Uncomfortable truths may be upsetting and bewildering, but they remain truths nonetheless. Apropos of this conclusion, any ascertainable distance between “I love the poorly educated” and “Intellect rots the brain” is not nearly as great as might first appear.

In essence, let us be candid, they mean the same thing.

In prediction, they may have disturbingly similar consequences.

That’s just the way it is.

There remain tangibly meaningful distinctions between German National Socialism and the current US presidential administration, but – at least in some respects – these distinctions express more of a difference in magnitude than in discernible origins. At one obvious level, many American citizens remain willing to abide a president who not only avoids reading absolutely anything, but who simultaneously belittles history, intellection and learning.

What is going on here,?

How shall we explain so little public uneasiness over White House illiteracy?

Recall that for negotiating successfully with North Korea, President Trump had openly advised “attitude, not preparation.”

At any reasonable level of assessment, this advice was caricatural. But the presidential comment was not intended as satire. Not at all.

Now, more “penetrating clear thought” is needed to understand our ongoing Trump-era declension. Do most Americans (even Trump’s avowed political opponents) sufficiently object to a president who has never glanced at the US Constitution, the same allegedly revered document he so solemnly swore “to uphold, protect and defend?” Is it reasonable or persuasive to “uphold protect and defend” a document that one has never even bothered to read?

In the United States, is it reasonable or persuasive for “We the people….” not to be troubled by such a vast intellectual disjuncture?

Key questions should not be skirted any longer. How has the United States managed to arrive at such a portentous and dismal place? What have been the pertinent failures (both particular and aggregated) of American education, most notably in our vaunted universities?

It’s a discomfiting but entirely sensible two-part question, especially as the Trump presidency is assiduously transforming a “merely” self-deceiving country into a finely-lacquered national corpse.  

 Once upon a time in western philosophy, Plato revealed much higher leadership expectations for his “philosopher-king.”  Yet, even if we should no longer plausibly expect anything like a philosopher-king in the White House, ought we not still be entitled to a man or woman who manages to read and think seriously, sometimes, something –  anything?

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra warns prophetically: “One should never seek the `higher man’ at the marketplace.” But the generally intellect-free marketplace was where a proudly visceral segment of American society first championed Donald J. Trump. What else should we have expected? In the United States, after all, a society where almost no one takes erudition seriously, Americans are ultimately measured by only one conspicuous standard.

We are what we buy.

There is more, much more. This American president is not “merely” marginal or misguided. Quite literally, he is the diametric opposite of both Plato’s philosopher-king and Nietzsche’s “higher-man.” Unambiguously, at its moral and analytic core, the Trump administration now reveals a thoroughly wretched inversion of what might once have been ennobling in the United States. Even more worrisome, Americans are more rapidly stumbling backwards, further and further, visibly, unsteadily, not in  any measurable decipherable increments, but still, in giant or quantum leaps of self-reinforcing harms.

In their totality, these are leaps of unforgivable cowardice, especially in various partisan sectors of the Congress.

Among so many other palpable deficits, America’s current president does not begin to understand that US history deserves a special pride of place. How many Americans have ever paused to remember that the Founding Fathers who framed the second amendment were not expecting or imagining automatic weapons? How many citizens ever really knew that the early American Republic was the religious heir of John Calvin or the philosophical descendant of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes?

How many “successful” US lawyers have ever heard of William Blackstone, the extraordinary English jurist whose learned Commentaries literally formed the common law underpinnings of America’s current legal system?

Is there a single Trump lawyer (personal or institutional) who could conceivably even know (let alone actually read) about Blackstone’s unparalleled juristic contributions?

It’s a silly question. Only one thing really matters. In America, you are what you can buy, not what you can learn or understand.

Erudition has no cash value –  no purchasing power.

Human beings are the creators of their machines; not the other way round. Still, there exists today an implicit and grotesque reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate and potentially lethal pantomime between the users and the used. Nowhere is this prospective lethality more apparent than among the self-deluded but endlessly loyal supporters of US President Donald Trump. They  follow him faithfully only because the wider American society had first been allowed to become an intellectual desert.

Cultural context has its invariant explanatory place.

President Donald Trump’s simplifying cultural context offers millions of Americans an ill-founded kind of reassurance. Metaphorically, it provides then a ubiquitous and useful “solvent,” one capable of dissolving almost anything of any tangible or enlightening consequence. To wit, in higher education, the traditionally revered Western Canon of literature and art is largely being supplanted by far more pleasingly visible emphases on “branding.”

In fairness, this lethal supplantation began long before Trump, but it has absolutely flourished during the current ascendancy of Bildungsphilister.

A few years ago, before my retirement as a Purdue University professor, I asked my students, a class of fifty, what would they choose if offered a degree right away, without having to take further studies or coursework or tests (and correspondingly, without any further opportunities for “higher education”). Forty-seven students enthusiastically accepted the “offer.”

This was not in any way an eccentric or idiosyncratic response. I had very similar or roughly identical responses in three subsequent years.

Soon, even if we should somehow manage to avoid nuclear war and nuclear terrorism – an avoidance not to be taken for granted in the incoherent Trump Era – the swaying of the American vessel could still become unendurably violent. Then, the phantoms of great ships of state once laden with silver and gold may no longer lie forgotten. Then, perhaps, we will finally understand that the circumstances that could send the compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Freud and Kafka to join the works of properly forgotten poets were neither unique nor transient.

Or perhaps not.

In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired tellingly about the “authenticity “of Americans. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked. This US president had answered “yes,” but only if citizens could first refuse to cheer the dreadfully injurious “herds” of mass society. Otherwise, as President Wilson already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of broken machinery, more hideous even than the biological decompositions of individual persons.

 In every society, as Emerson and the other American Transcendentalists already recognized, the scrupulous care of each individualhuman “soul” is most important. Looking ahead, there likely still can be a “better”American soul[2] (and thereby an improved American politics),  but not before we can first acknowledge a prior obligation. This antecedent requirement is a far-reaching national responsibility to finally overcome the lethal barriers of  “herd” culture or –  per the German philosopher Karl Jaspers’ apt warning –  “whisperings of the irrational.”

With some necessary luck, and even after the evident failures of nuclear diplomacy with Russia, Iran and North Korea, the Trump presidency will somehow manage to end without a catastrophic unconventional war.  But for the United States, even that presumptively “happy ending” might represent little more than a temporary reprieve. Unless we can finally begin to work much harder at changing this society’s consistently core antipathies to intellect and reason, Americans will have to face periodic and increasingly perilous eras of steep national decline.

As citizens who could once again take deserving pride in learning and genuine education, Americans would then be ready to select a more decent, thoughtful and capable US president.


[1] The first language of the author here, Professor Louis René Beres, was German. This is his own straightforward translation.

[2] Sigmund Freud maintained a general antipathy to all things American. In essence, he most objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to this country’s “shallow optimism” and its seemingly corollary commitment to a crude form of materialism. America, thought Freud, was very evidently “lacking in soul.” See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Americas

Who won the interaction with the “free press” at the Geneva Summit?

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Before the much anticipated Geneva Summit, it became clear that President Biden would not be holding a joint press conference with President Putin because Biden wanted to go speak to the “free press” after the meeting. This was Biden’s way to show Putin, to rub it into Putin’s face that in Russia the media is not free.

Then the day of the meeting came and it turned out that Biden had a list of pre-approved reporters “as usual” whose names only he had to call. And Biden told everyone to the dismay of not only Republicans but pretty much anyone, including the free press.

Then Biden had a hard time answering questions even from that list. When CNN’s Kaitlan Collins asked him a regular question along the lines of “why do you think this would work?”, Biden lost it and suggested that Collins did not belong in the journalistic profession.

Collin’s question was a softball question, in fact. It was not even a tough question according to international standards. It was a critical question from an American mainstream media point of view, assuming Biden as the good guy who just can’t do enough to stop the bad guy Putin.

It was not even a tough question and Biden still couldn’t handle it by mustering something diplomatic and intelligent that makes him look like he was in control. Biden is no Obama. We knew that already but he should be able to at least respond to a regular question with a regular answer.

If you think American mainstream media were mistreated at the Geneva Summit, you should have seen how the rest of the international and local media were treated at another venue, at the request of the American government. I already described what happened at the point where the Biden and Putin convoys were going to pass. You should have seen how we were treated, at the request of the US authorities, and how the Swiss authorities really played by the US’s drum. Later on, White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said on CNN’s State of the Union that Biden gave Swiss companies exemptions from sanctions imposed on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Biden refused a joint press conference with Putin because he wanted to rub the “free press” in Putin’s face. Well, Biden surely showed him. It was the other way around, in fact. Biden didn’t take questions from the other side. Putin took highly critical questions from American journalists and he did it like it was business as usual. Putin didn’t have a list of blocked or preapproved journalists from the other side, or people he dismissed on the spot. Russian journalists were in fact denied access to the venue, in front of Parc la Grange.

Supporters of Black Lives Matter like me naturally didn’t like the substance of Putin’s answers. President Putin attacked Black Lives Matter, even though ever since the Soviet times the treatment of black people has always been a highlight of Russian criticism of American society and values. It seems like President Putin doesn’t want a big, sweeping movement that would reform everything, so that the issues can persist and so that Putin can keep hammering on the same point over and over again. If one is truly concerned about rights and well-being, one has to be in support of the social justice movement trying to address the problems.

In fact, Putin’s approach to black people’s rights is a lot like the FBI’s view of the radical, violent far left: the FBI do not wish to address the violent elements which probably represent 5% of the whole movement, just so that the FBI can keep the issues alive and discredit the whole movement. One saw that the Capitol riots groups really calmed down as soon as the FBI stepped in but FBI director Chris Wray is not interested in doing the same with the violent radical left, precisely so that the issues can persist and the FBI can keep pointing to violent “Black identity” extremists. It is the FBI’ style to keep little nests of fire here and there, so that they can exploit or redirect them in their own preferred direction from time to time. Let’s not forget that the leader of the Proud Boys was actually an FBI informant for a long time, probably taking instructions from the FBI.

At the Geneva Summit, Putin also stated that he saw nothing criminal in the Capitol riots on 6 January that undermined democratic principles and institutions. That was an example of someone trying to use and support existing forces within American society in order to undermine it.

But the substance of Putin’s answers had nothing to do with the process of interacting with the “free press”. Putin took questions from everyone, Biden didn’t. Putin didn’t screen out or dismiss journalists from the other side, Biden did. Putin didn’t lash out on anyone suggesting that they should not be in that job. Biden did and he did it even to his own pre-approved list of media that he was supposed to like.

In terms of process, Putin passed the test and Biden couldn’t handle interacting with the free press even in very restricted, sanitized conditions. Despite what you think of each leader and their policies, it has to be said that Putin handled interacting with the media as business as usual, and Biden struggled in his interaction with the media. Even when Biden was reading from a teleprompter, even with a preapproved list of journalists and even when he was not in the same room as Putin, Biden still made mistakes and couldn’t handle it. Even when everything was chewed for him, Biden still couldn’t do it.

In fact, Biden looked more like an overwhelmed Kardashian abroad who had to have his hand held at any moment and less like the leader of the free world. First lady Jill Biden in fact did hold Biden’s hand on occasion and rushed him out of places like a child when the President seemed to wonder off in the wrong direction, such as at the G7 Summit in Cornwall. And that guy has the nuclear codes?

There have been concerns with Biden’s cognitive abilities. President Biden confused President Putin with President Trump, while reading from a teleprompter. What was remarkable is that Putin stated that he found Biden to be actually knowledgeable and prepared on the issues, and that Biden is actually not in a mental and cognitive decline contrary to mainstream understanding. While on the face of it, the statement sounded 100% positive and in defense of Biden, this was a very aggressive, veiled jab of the sort “many are saying that but I don’t think that”. Putin raised the doubt, gave Biden an evaluation and proved to be a total player.

In total, the bottom line of who won the interaction with the “free press” at the Geneva Summit was clear: Russia 1, the US 0.

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Americas

Joe Biden’s European vacations

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Joseph Biden, better known as Joe Biden, is an American politician from the Democratic Party who won last year’s presidential elections amid scandals and accusations of fraud. In his autobiography, Biden describes himself as a leading figure in determining US policy in the Balkans, and openly admits having convinced President Bill Clinton to intervene militarily in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and becoming the main architect of NATO enlargement.

Here are just a few facts from his past that can shed light on the possible  line of actions that could be taken by America’s current President.

Biden is certainly no stranger to Balkan issues. In 1999, he played an important role in the administration of President Bill Clinton, when NATO bombed Yugoslavia without a UN resolution, an act of aggression that resulted in Kosovo being proclaimed an independent state and which is now home to the largest US military base in Europe – Camp Bondsteel.  In 1999, the current US president was one of the most outspoken supporters of the bombing of Yugoslavia, which is something he took pride in.

“I propose to bomb Belgrade. I propose to send American pilots and blow up all the bridges over the Drina River,” said Biden, then a US Senator.

On September 1, 1999, Senator Joseph Biden visited Bulgaria as a representative of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, meeting with President Peter Stoyanov, Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mikhailova and local lawmakers. Biden has become a key figure in Bulgaria’s integration into the North Atlantic Alliance.

Today, after several years of lull, tensions in Ukraine are shooting up again.  At the close of 2013, a series of riots were provoked there eventually leading up to the 2014 coup and the subsequent conflict in the country’s eastern regions. During the armed confrontation, the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics were established, which to this day remain at loggerheads with Kiev. After a region-wide referendum, over 95 percent of the residents of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea announced their desire to reunite with Russia. The role of Washington in the violent overthrow of power in Ukraine was clearly visible. US officials openly supported the Maidan, and Senator John McCain met with future government officials. Victoria Nuland, then US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, publicly stated that Washington had allocated $5 billion to support democracy in Ukraine. She personally distributed food to “peaceful demonstrators”, many of whom later ended up on the Maidan with weapons in their hands. Nuland, who served as Assistant Secretary of State to three presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, retired in 2017. Today, Biden is bringing her back into politics, nominating her to the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Political Affairs – the third most important in the State Department.

Biden visited Ukraine five times during and after the Maidan. The United States, along with Germany, Poland and France, forced the country’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych to make concessions to protesters, which quickly led to the government’s collapse. Immediately after the resignation of Yanukovych in February 2014, President Barack Obama appointed Biden as his official representative in Ukraine. A little later, Biden’s son, Hunter, was appointed to the board of directors of Ukraine’s Burisma gas company.

After the coup, the Americans took deep roots in Ukraine with their representatives appearing both in economic structures and in the government and special services. Years later, details of their work became available to the media. Former US President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani said that he had managed to find witnesses and obtain documents demonstrating attempts to cover up violations of the law by Burisma and Hunter Biden’s involvement in the laundering of millions of dollars. Giuliani unveiled a scheme how $16 million, including $3 million “earned” by Biden Jr., had been withdrawn through a network of companies, a number of which were located in Cyprus. Other investigations initiated by the media have also revealed large flows of “dirty” money that was flowing from Ukraine through Latvia to Cyprus and other offshore companies such as Rosemont Seneca, founded by Hunter Biden and Devon Archer.

In April 2019, journalist John Solomon published a post in the American edition of Dakhil about how Joe Biden was helping his son in his business dealings after leaving the post of vice president and bragging to foreign policy experts that, as vice president, he had forced the dismissal of Ukraine’s chief prosecutor. Biden related how in March 2016 he threatened Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that Washington would withdraw its $ 1 billion loan guarantees and drive the country into bankruptcy unless Attorney General Viktor Shokin was dismissed immediately. And dismissed Shokin was, accused of not being active enough in fighting corruption. However, when talking about his victory, Biden misses an important point. Prior to his dismissal, the attorney general had launched a large-scale audit of the Burisma mining company where Hunter Biden was working. According to the US banking system, between spring 2014 and autumn 2015, Hunter’s company Rosemont Seneca regularly received transfers from Burisma to the tune of about $166,000.

This whole story gives us an idea of what kind of a person Joe Biden really is  and the question is how he will behave in the future.

Even before Biden’s inauguration as president, media representatives and analysts predicted an aggravation of the military situation, an escalation of the conflict in Ukraine and an increase in US activity in the Balkans. In the spring of 2021, these predictions were confirmed, and the military rhetoric of the US administration began heat up. In a March 17 interview with ABC TV, Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer.” Even during the Cold War, world leaders did not allow themselves such disrespect for one another. Similar statements from American politicians are often made against foreign leaders whom they want to overthrow or physically eliminate. A number of analysts believe that the absence of an apology from Washington indicates that such a statement was not accidental, but well thought out and comes as a new step in the information war against Russia.

The further development of events in the international arena appears more and more is scary each day. In the media and in public statements by a number of politicians the topic of possible military action is almost becoming “business as usual.” Therefore, the new American president’s personality and his inner circle is extremely important for understanding the future and assessing global risks around the world.

From our partner International Affairs

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Americas

The Private And Public Joe Biden: Belief And Policy

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Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith

Joe Biden supports abortion rights politically, a position conflicting with doctrine in the Catholic church.  Despite the pope issuing a warning to act with care, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is now ready to prepare a teaching document that could potentially bar Biden from receiving Holy Communion at mass.  A central sacrament during mass, Catholics believe that eating the consecrated wafer dipped in wine, representing the body and blood of Jesus Christ, unites them with their savior fortifying them to face evil temptations.

The USCCB vote to prepare the document was an overwhelming 168-55, and a committee of US bishops has been assigned the task.  Responding to questions, President Biden called it a private matter.  The document is expected to be ready in time for debate at the November bi-annual conference of US Catholic Bishops.

If that is one headache for Biden, another is in the offing.  Perhaps as a consequence of US policy towards Iran, the election of a hard-liner in Iran’s presidential election seems almost certain.  Judge Ebrahim Raisi, who is also Iran’s top judge, is on his way to victory on the basis of the votes counted so far.

The 60-year old cleric spent most of his life as a prosecutor until he was appointed Iran’s top judge in 2019.  He is fiercely loyal to his fellow clerics, particularly to Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader who has the final say in all matters.  All the same, the president does the administration and has significant input in both domestic and foreign policy.  Suffice to say, Raisi lost in a landslide to Hassan Rouhani, who sought accommodation with the West, in the previous election four years ago.

Having played hardball with Iran, the US is repeating itself with a Russia anxious for better relations.  Following the G7 meeting in Cornwall a week ago, President Biden flew to Geneva meeting President Putin at the Villa La Grange for a closely-watched summit.

Relations between the two countries have been tense following a series of events including the Russian annexation of Crimea.  The latter was transferred to Ukraine for administrative convenience when a connecting bridge was being constructed so that both ends of it would fall under the same authority.  The people of Crimea have no other connection with Ukrainians other than they were both part of the Soviet Union. 

Climate change, arms control, cyber security and American interest in jailed dissenters in Russia including Alexei Navalny .  Reading the riot act to Mr. Putin does little to further stability in relations.  Peace is not a problem among like-minded countries with a commonality of interests, it is a challenge when the parties are rivals, nuclear armed, and capable of blowing up the world.  Mr. Biden may be proud of his performance but is he able to accept the challenge, for if not where does it leave the rest of us …

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