Connect with us

Americas

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

Published

on

“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

Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

Published

on

The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

Continue Reading

Americas

Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

Published

on

Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

Continue Reading

Americas

Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

Published

on

When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

forest fire forest fire
Green Planet52 mins ago

Wildfires in Turkish tourist regions are the highest recorded

Turkish fires in tourist regions are the hottest in history, due to which thousands of tourists evacuated as the nation...

Defense3 hours ago

The Future of The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the QUAD) Grouping Explained

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) comprises four counties, Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. It was founded in...

South Asia17 hours ago

Pakistani PM’s Interview with PBS News Hours on Afghanistan Issues

In an interview with PBS News Hour, host Judy Woodruff asked PM Imran Khan multiple questions about Pakistan’s point of...

Americas19 hours ago

Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive...

Africa21 hours ago

Criticism Highlights Russia’s Media Weakness in Africa

In her weekly media briefing July 23, Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized United States support for educational programs, media...

Science & Technology23 hours ago

Is your security compromised due to “Spy software” know how

Spy software is often referred to as spyware is a set of programs that gives access to user/ administrators to...

Russia1 day ago

The other side of the Olympics

The world Olympic movement has always been based on the principles of equal and impartial attitude towards athletes – representatives...

Trending