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Exiting Donald Trump’s “Heart Of Darkness”: What Have We Learned?

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

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“It ain’t over till it’s over,” we learn from New York Yankee great Yogi Berra.[1] Now that Donald J. Trump has been defeated at the polls and is on his way out, this defiling president is almost “over.” Nonetheless, his rancorous and dissembling tenure deserves a more critical summation than perfunctorily polite nods of “good riddance.” To protect against similar electoral misfortunes in the future, Trump’s twisted political provenance now warrants a retrospective examination.

               In essence, these origins deserve a science-based “autopsy.”

               With or without metaphor, they demand refined efforts of “mind.” This means, in turn, variously careful applications of analytic scrutiny and disciplined “thought.”[2] Anything less substantial could leave us unprepared for a paralyzing “second wave,” for an unwelcome presidential “encore.”

               Let us not be unwary. Without aptly systemic remediation, the United States could sometime make itself vulnerable again. Next time it could even extend to nuclear existential harms.[3]

               What do we do now? First, we need to learn more systematically from so many Trump-created declensions; that is, to discover from where this near-fatal leadership plague originated. This will not be a query of geography, but one of mindset or ideology. In this indispensable inquiry, history, science and law must be restored to an appropriate pride of place. After all, it must be understood, such a manifestly unfit American president did not emerge ex nihilo, in a vacuum, from nothing.

               Donald Trump was the more-or-less predictable outgrowth of an American polity and society nurtured by  “bread and circus,”[4] of an amusement-based commonwealth that all too often loathes serious thought.[5] Tens of millions of Americans were comfortable voting for a president who openly and habitually undermined “due processes of law,” and who never reads anything; ever.[6]

               The ironies are conspicuous. Any true democracy requires, inter alia, and at a minimum, a decent respect for literacy. But no such basic regard obtains in these unhappy United States, not even today. Instead, nurtured by a consistently callous indifference to wisdom, Americans generally resist the strenuousness of honest intellectual effort or authentic analytic thought. 

               The basic problem is not just that tens of millions of citizens know so very little of truth. It is rather that they want to know so very little.

               When they voted for Donald J. Trump, these American s wittingly endorsed a candidate for whom truth was not “merely” anathema. In this president’s inverted world, authentic truth is quite literally “against the faith.” Over the past four years, it has effectively been transformed for millions into a distinct form of “impiety.”

               Questions must be answered. How did we ever arrive at such a dark space of contrivance and anti-Reason? Who is our real “enemy?”

               To reply, the discernible core adversary of any dignified American polity is never any one particular ideology or another –  neither “left wing radicals” nor “right wing extremists.” It is, instead, a sustained collective citizen antipathy to Reason and Virtue. Naturally, Americans can’t usually be expected to recognize the philosophic (Platonic) origins of these coinciding objectives, but they can at least make an effort to learn about certain underlying ideas.

               In its basic contours, this craven American antipathy to Reason and Virtue is plausibly universal. It is rooted less in any specific time or place than in a ubiquitously human horror of disciplined thought. At the same time, this species of universality in no way diminishes anti-Reason’s durable harms to the United States.[7] For Americans just newly emerging from the bruising darkness of Donald J. Trump’s crude authoritarianism, the first order of business – the very first societal “repairs” – must be undertaken here, at home.

                “The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth,” clarified 20th century German philosopher Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952). It is this identical demeaning spirit that continues to dominate the present-day United States.[8] Although we can take some palpable comfort from the electoral defeat of Donald J. Trump, it is still worth noting that pundit and academic post-mortems of this disgraced American presidency focus on narrowly technical electoral explanations and on identifiable defects or derelictions of the losing candidate.

               Nowhere, it is safe to predict, will capable analysts or thinkers seek to find coherent explanations in appropriately broader considerations of context.

                It is finally time to ask: Wherein lie the pertinent roots of America’s antipathy to intellect and serious learning? A generic but pertinent answer is supplied not by political and social scientists, but by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In his classic Notes from Underground (1864), the great Russian  writer compares the attractions of “reason” and “desire,” concluding that the latter –  “the manifestation of life itself” – has the upper hand.

               Always.

               There are significant variations from country to country, and from time to time, but history reveals that anti-Reason political leaders are always aspiring somewhere “in the wings.”[9] Here, often  diligently, they prepare to pounce against whatever might support the less immediately gratifying claims of intellect or “mind.” Or against whomever.

               This insight ought not appear new to us. We should have learned all this from the historic end of Weimar Germany and Nazi Germany. We should also have learn this lesson from the incrementally calamitous Trump years here in the United States. Though America’s four-year subjection to falsehood and doctrinal anti-Reason has not been genocidal (the jurisprudential crime of genocide expressly includes criminal intent, or mens rea), the animating sentiments of the Trump White House have been furiously opposed to universal human rights and fundamental human freedoms.[10]

               Perversely, it was Donald J. Trump’s unabashed disregard for justness and fairness that became its singular and signature mantra.[11] But why receive such wide and enthusiastic support from so many millions of Americans? In this regard, even the final election vote count is hardly comforting or reassuring. Even now, tens of millions of citizens remain deeply sympathetic to a president who could never decipher the most elementary social problems, figure out basic elements of climate science and disease, or deliver even the most minimally coherent logical argument.

               This has been a president, lest we forget, who opined that individual injections of bleach could be an effective way of defeating the Corona virus.

               There is much more. In the United States, prima facie, presidential elections represent an immutable  fixture of democracy. Nonetheless, though necessary, they are also insufficient in dealing with this suffering 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.”

               Always, every advancement in society and law must begin with the individual human being.[12] “Ultimately,” summarizes 20th century Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957),”everything depends on the quality of the individual.”

               “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 comparison or commonality need not suggest that the Trump administration was in any way intentionally murderous, but only that both regimes had received their “primal” nurturance from the darkly-poisonous font of anti-Reason.[13]

               Among other things, Trump rallies, in the fashion of their more seemingly sinister Nazi antecedents, represented incoherent gatherings of the faithful, replete with ritualistic phrases of banalities, of gibberish, chanted in loud and atavistic chorus.

               During the glaringly rancorous “Trump Era,” there has obtained in the United States not even a pretense  of  intellectual integrity or “Mind.” Both thinking and dignity have been strikingly out of political fashion. In the most cantankerous public realms defined by the White House, truth has never been regarded as necessarily worthwhile or advantageous.

                For this now outgoing president who learned a great deal from unwitting mentor Joseph Goebbels, truth was just a grievous liability.

               Quo Vadis? Where do we go from here? Though not generally understood, looking behind the news is everyone’s first obligation of good citizenship. Only here, in the background, in areas not immediately obvious and not being dissected on television or online, can we still discover the meaningfully permanent truths of American political life.

               Additional core questions must now be answered. Americans should more sincerely inquire: “How can a US president have so willfully ignored and accepted his Russian counterpart as “puppet master?” Even in the wholesale absence of  Emersonian “high thinking” within the Trump White House,[14] it should be perfectly obvious that one superpower president became the all-too-witting marionette of the other. Functioning within a balance of power or Westphalian[15] international system, this eccentric sort of  US geopolitical subordination has put the entire American nation in existential jeopardy.[16]

               There remain still more serious questions. As a nation, when shall we finally agree to bear truthful and informed witness on Constitutional governance?[17] Can there remain any doubt that there is much more to these founding principles than robotic recitals of  alleged Second Amendment rights?  Surely this country must be about much more than just the right to bear arms, especially when this right is defined in ways that would have been starkly incomprehensible to the Founding Fathers.

               To wit, can anyone reasonably argue that the original intended rights of gun ownership should now extend to automatic weapons?

               Cultural context remains vital, even determinative, to explaining Donald J. Trump’s ascent to the presidency. Trump did not arise ex nihilo. What went so terribly wrong with American  “high thinking?” How, more precisely, did we allow a once-promising and still-rising nation to slide uncontrollably toward collective national misfortune?  

               We have seen that in the unsteady nuclear age, such misfortune could sometime have included catastrophic human wars.[18]  With such dreaded inclusion, we the people might sometime have needed to witness an unprecedented fusion. This fearful coming-together could have been an explosive alloy of banality and apocalypse.[19]

               It would not have been a tolerable fusion.

               In the profane melodrama and farce directed by US President Donald J. Trump, we Americans were not authentically tragic figures. At no time have we been just the passive victims of a disjointed and contrived presidency. As long as we refused to speak out at less delicate levels of truth-telling – and this refusal meant much more than showing up to vote in 2020 – we  fully “deserved” our consequent losses.

               Amid such consequential “theatrical” matters, we Americans may have much less to learn from Plato, Aristotle or Shakespeare than from 20th century psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Even a cursory glance at these two seminal thinkers from Vienna and Zurich should remind us of ever-present human dangers posed by “horde” or “mass.”Freud and Jung were both strongly influenced by the Danish Existentialist thinker Soren Kierkegaard (who personally preferred the term “crowd” to “horde” or “mass”) and by German-Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

                Without guile, Nietzsche had spoken woefully (and prophetically) of the “herd.”

               Whatever term we might now decide to favor, one key point should remain unassailable and constant: When an entire nation and society abandon the most basic obligations of critical thinking and “reason” (again, this observation about “reason” should bring us back to the German post-War philosopher, Karl Jaspers[20]), we should expect accelerating deformity and eventual tyranny.  Nietzsche, in his masterpiece Zarathustra, was even more specific. “Do not seek the higher-man in the marketplace,” the philosopher- prophet had warned presciently.

               In the United States, we failed to listen. Donald J. Trump’s wholly mundane skill sets were acquired in the market-based worlds of real-estate bargaining, casino gambling and “branding.” They did not “carry over” to intersecting intricacies of high-politics and diplomacy. Basing his foreign policies on an explicit rejection of intellect[21]  – a rejection continuously affirmed by his various appointments of ill-equipped family members to senior posts –  we have been left with a tortured world of disappearing friends and still-multiplying foes.

               Now, however, with a promising new president elected, American national leadership can begin to offer more than clichés, empty-witticisms or “deals.”[22]  Trump’s assorted trade wars, like his wholly disjointed approach to pandemic disease (“Operation Warp Speed”) became a gargantuan net-negative for the United States. But what is most important now, after so much damage has already been inflicted, is that we avoid similar presidential failings going forward.

               In the end, every society represents the sum total of its individual souls seeking some sort or other of “redemption.” This overriding search is never properly scientific – after all, there can be no discernible or tangible referent for a human “soul” – but some important answers may still lie outside mainstream scientific investigations.[23] These  “subjective” answers ought not be disregarded. At times, at least, they should be consciously sought and meticulously studied.

               In President Donald J. Trump’s deeply fractionated American republic, We the people have cheerlessly inhabited a stultifying “hollow land” of unending submission, crass consumption, dreary profanity and shallow pleasures. Bored by the suffocating banalities of daily life and beaten down by the grinding struggle to stay hopeful amid ever-widening polarities of health and disease, of wealth and poverty, our weary US citizens – people who have had every right to vote,  but not to keep their teeth[24] – grasped anxiously for available lifelines of distraction.

               In 2016, this presumed lifeline was a hideously false prophet of American “greatness.”

               In 2016, legions of Americans unaccustomed to reading anything of consequence were easily taken in by mountains of cheap red hats and by starkly inane political slogans.

               For Donald Trump, prima facie, cynical simplifications represented the planned path to electoral victory. Correspondingly, evident anti-Reason became his primary stock in trade. This nefarious posture quickly became a widespread national “faith.”

               “Intellect rots the mind” said Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1935.

               “I love the poorly educated” said US Presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016.

               There is not much light between these “faith-based” statements. In principle, at least, these  hideous commonalties became de rigueur. Misdirected by incessantly hollow claims of “American Exceptionalism” and “America First,” we somehow managed to forget that world politics is first and foremost a system.  It follows, going forward, that considerations of US security and prosperity be consciously linked to the calculable well-being of other states and other societies.

               In world politics, as in life generally, “We are all in the soup together.”

               There is more. Until now, we 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.[25] 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 – even one used as a primary standard of presidential selection – is a society without adequate visions of survival, meaning or virtue.

               In “Trump World” we have been ignoring almost everything of commendable intellectual importance. Should there remain any sincere doubts about this bitter indictment, one need only look at the current state of American higher education. In many ways, this realm is now just another defiled expression of Nietzsche’s (Zarathustra’s) “marketplace.”[26]

               In Donald Trump’s America, we the people were no longer being shaped by any suitably generalized feelings of reverence or compassion, nor, as has already been demonstrated, by even the tiniest hints of “mind.” Until now, America’s oft-preferred preoccupation, encouraged by the White House and shamelessly unhidden, was a closely- orchestrated indulgence in other people’s lives and (with an even greater enthusiasm) their sufferings. In German, there is even a specially-designated word for this grim pathology of the human spirit.

               It is called schadenfreude, or taking an exquisite pleasure in the misfortunes of others.

               For the most part, this voyeuristic frenzy has been juxtaposed against the comforting myths of American superiority. In the end, however, this particular fiction, more than any other, is apt to produce further collective declension and expanded individual despair. This was the case even when American president Trump chose to wrap himself in the flag, literally, a 2018 Trump embrace of rare and defiling repugnance. Later, on June 1, 2020,  a similarly revolting Trump prop embrace was extended to the Bible, this during a peaceful protest in Washington DC.[27]

               It’s good to have Nation on your side, Donald J. Trump had figured out, but even better to have God on your side. Never were the bitterly grotesque ironies of Bob Dylan’s brilliant 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 urged greater thought and expanding doubt. It is also a very sad credo. Unhesitatingly, it shrieks loudly that social acceptance by the mass or herd or crowd is roughly equivalent to physical survival, and that even the most sorely pretended pleasures of inclusion are worth pursuing.

               There is more to explain. A push-button metaphysics of “apps” now reigns supreme in America. This immense attraction of smart phones and correspondingly bewildering social networks stems in large part from a barren society’s machine-like existence. Within this increasingly robotic universe, every hint of human passion must be shunted away from any still-caring human emotions, and then re-directed along certain uniform and vicariously satisfying pathways.

               Jurisprudentially, although international law obliges the United States to oppose all crimes of genocide and related crimes against humanity  and despite the fact that this binding international law is an established part of the law of the United States[28] – Donald J. Trump remained silent on war crimes. This silence obtained, moreover, whether the egregious derelictions were committed by America’s allies or by its adversaries. These terms of relationship must now be bound together because  it had become substantially unclear exactly who was friend and who was foe.

               When this American president first defended Russia’s Vladimir Putin against the advice of America’s intelligence community, we ought already to have known we were in real trouble. Significantly, during his tenure, Donald J. Trump has never backed off this unsupportable priority. Why hasn’t this humiliating sycophancy not been subjected to any serious public scrutiny?

               There is more. When Trump said of North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un “We’re in love,” we ought have then suspected that an American president’s alleged plan for “denuclearization” was hopelessly without merit. From the start, the plan lacked any conceivable semblance of analytic foundation.

               There is more pertinent detail for us to consider. Across this Trump- beleaguered land, our once traditionally revered Western Canon of literature and art has increasingly been replaced by more “practical” emphases on job preparation, loyalty-building sports and “branding.”  For most of America’s young people, even before the pandemic, learning has become an inconvenient and thoroughly burdensome commodity.

               Beware, warns Zarathustra, of seeking virtue, fairness or justice at the marketplace. This is a place only for commerce,  for trading, for buying and selling. It is a venue designed only for “deals.” It is never a proper place for identifying potentially suitable 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 president who actually read and wrote serious books) answered “yes,” but only if we would first refuse to join the misdirecting “herds” of mass society.

               Otherwise, President Wilson had already understood, our 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 had understood, the care of individual “souls” should be the most insistent national responsibility. Conceivably, there could sometime emerge a betterAmerican Soul,”but not until we could first agree to shun several inter-penetrating seductions of mass culture. These are rank imitation;  shallow thinking;  organized mediocrity; and a manifestly predatory politics  focused on  ethnicity, gender, race and class.

               Any such far-reaching rejection will not be easy. It will take time.

               Still, newly liberated from the degrading shackles of a Trump presidency, hope may no longer have to sing softly, in a determined undertone, sotto voce. Soon it will be able to re-emerge without excuses, increasingly reasonable and newly purposeful.

                The alternative could be unseemly and injurious. It would be for us not to have learned something useful from the defiling Trump Era; that is, to continuously embrace a rancorous orientation toward intellect and politics. In broad conceptual and generic outline, this orientation was described earlier by Sören Kierkegaard. The 19th century Danish philosopher invoked what he famously called  “a sickness unto death.”[29] For the moment, at least, “We the people” have managed to negotiate an eleventh hour escape from this all-consuming “sickness” – from the enduring horror of Donald J. Trump’s bitter presidency – but there remains one overriding obligation.

                It is to render this essential  escape from darkness to enlightenment[30] more conspicuous, more welcome, more durable and more permanent. The American public’s retreat from Reason did not begin with the bilious Trump presidency, and it will not end abruptly with the upcoming presidency of Joe Biden. Nonetheless, we can, as a society, take steps to get beyond the ruthless ignorance of Trump-era governance and to acknowledge the singularly incomparable benefits of thought[31]. With the electoral defeat of Donald J. Trump we have already made a necessary beginning, but that is all that we have accomplished thus far.

               Embracing apt imagery of education and learning, we ought to think of this new post-Trump opportunity for hope as merely an indispensable start. It essence, it is best considered as an historic American commencement. Reminds Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”


[1]Under law, Donald J. Trump; remains with full presidential powers until Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. During this brief remaining tenure, Trump retains, inter alia, full Constitutional authority as commander-in-chief. See, in this regard: by Louis René Beres, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/07/louis-beres-simultaneous-nuclear-election/ See also, by Professor Beres: https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/10/08/nuclear-decision-making-and-covid19-impairments-existential-perils-of-the-trump-presidency/

[2]This term will be explained more fully later on in the text, as an express referent to pertinent writings of political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

[3]See, 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).

[4]It was Juvenal (Satires, X) who coined the Latin phrase panem et circenses, forever stigmatizing the decadence and desolation of ancient Rome.

[5]We 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.”

[6]Ironically, the Founding Fathers of the United States were 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 properly be viewed in their 18th century context.

[7]Prospectively, 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).

[8] In a similar vein, Spanish 20th century thinker Jose Ortega y’Gasset says in The Revolt of the Masses (1932): “The mass man has no use for reason. He learns only in  his own  flesh.”

[9]Says 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….”

[10]In 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.

[11]An 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?”

[12]In 1965, the Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, lamented in Who Is Man?: “The emancipated man is yet to emerge…”

[13] 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.

[14] Reference here is to American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in the 19th century called famously for “plain living and high thinking.” Plainly, and meaningfully, virtually no one in the Trump orbit has even heard of this country’s most esteemed school of philosophy. Like their “master,” they typically “learn only in their own flesh.”

[15]See: 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.

[16] The belligerent nationalismof Donald Trump has 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).

[17] See, by Professor Beres: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2017/07/Beres-president-trump-impeachment1/

[18] 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”?

[19] C’est beau, n’est-ce pas, la fin du monde?” queries French playwright Jean Giraudoux. See: Sodome et Gomorrhe  II, 2

[20] See especially Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952).

[21] 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).

[22]In 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.”

[23] 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.

[24] 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.

[25]This 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.

[26]See, by Professor Beres, at The Daily Princetonian:  https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/06/a-core-challenge-of-higher-education

[27]See, by Professor Beres at JURIST: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/06/louis-beres-secret-service-trump/  

[28] In the words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).The specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

[29] 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) about the “horde.”

[30] See Immanuel Kant’s long famous imperative, “Dare to know!,” in What is Enlightenment (1784).

[31]As already revealed at the opening paragraphs of this essay, these benefits should call to mind the very relevant oeuvre of political philosopher Hannah Arendt, especially The Human Condition(1958); Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963); and The Life of the Mind (1978).

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.

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Americas

Was Trump better for the world than Biden, after all?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Joe Biden and the State Department just approved a major deal with the Saudis for 500mln in choppers maintanance. Effectively, the US sold its soul to the Saudis again after the US intelligence services confirmed months ago that the Saudi Prince is responsible for the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Biden administration is already much more inhumane and much worse than Trump. Biden doesn’t care about the thousands of American citizens that he left behind at the mercy of the Taliban, the Biden administration kills innocent civilians in drone strikes, they are in bed with the worst of the worsts human right violators calling them friendly nations. 

Biden dropped and humiliated France managing to do what no US President has ever accomplished —  make France pull out its Ambassador to the US, and all this only to go bother China actively seeking the next big war. Trump’s blunders were never this big. And this is just the beginning. There is nothing good in store for America and the world with Biden. All the hope is quickly evaporating, as the world sees the actions behind the fake smile and what’s behind the seemingly right and restrained rhetoric on the surface. It’s the actions that matter. Trump talked tough talk for which he got a lot of criticism and rarely resorted to military action. Biden is the opposite: he says all the right things but the actions behind are inhumane and destructive. It makes you wonder if Trump wasn’t actually better for the world.

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Biden’s worrisome construct of security and self-defense in the first year of his term

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Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe

US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy is failing so far. He can’t get the Iran nuclear diplomacy on track. The Afghanistan withdrawal was a disaster seen by all, placing an unusually high number of weapons and armaments in the hands of the Taliban and leaving everyone behind, to the point that one wonders if it was intentional. The US military has been able to accomplish far more impressive and bigger logistics tasks in the past, so when they want to they can do it.

More worrisome, however – and because it is also oriented towards future impacts – is Biden’s construct of vital concepts such as security, international peace and self-defense which has already displayed a consistent pattern during the first year of his term. The signs are already there, so let me bring them out to the surface for you.

Treating a counter-attack in self-defense as an original, first-move strike

This is a pattern that can be noticed already in Biden’s reading of what constitutes defense. It first struck me in a place where you might not think of looking. It originated from the criticism of the previous Trump administration’s support for the destructive Saudi Arabia campaign on Yemen, leaving Yemen as the biggest famine and disaster on the planet. To avoid the same criticism, the Biden administration decided to do what it always does – play technocratic and legalistic, and hope that people won’t notice. On the face of it, it looked like Biden ended US participation by ending the “offensive” support for Saudi Arabia. Then in the months after the February decision, reports started surfacing that the US actually continues doing the same, and now most recently, some troops from Afghanistan were redirected towards Yemen. Biden didn’t end Yemen; he set up a task force to examine and limit US military action only to defensive capabilities, which sounds good to a general observer. It reminds me of that famous Einstein saying that all the big decisions were to be taken by him and all the small decisions were to be taken by his wife, but there hasn’t been one big decision so far. So see, it just turns out that everything falls under defense, ask the lawyers. Usually no one would object to the well-established right to defend yourself. The problem with that is that the US is actually in Yemen. Treating any counter-strike and any response to your presence as an original, first-move attack is not only problematic but it also simply doesn’t work in legal terms. It goes along the lines of “well, I am already here anyways, so your counter-response in self-defense is actually an attack and I get to defend myself”. If the issue was only with terrorist or rebel organizations (because let’s face it, who cares about the Houthies in Yemen?) I don’t think we would be discussing this. But as you guessed it, this approach can already be traced as a pattern in Biden’s thinking and the way he forges alliances, draws red lines and allows things to happen, and it stretches to areas that most people definitely care about such as a possible military conflict between the US and China.

Let’s take the newest development from today. The US just announced that it has entered into a trilateral partnership with the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, which is encirclement of China par excellence. Where it gets interesting is that the trilateral partnership is purported to be only for “advanced defense capabilities”. The equivalent of this is someone from another city squatting at the door step in your apartment, inviting two others to join, and then when in the morning you push them and step on them to go to work, the squatters claiming that you attacked them and calling the police on you in your own apartment. This is Biden’s concept of self-defense: since I am already here in your space, you are attacking me.

The US is trying to start something with China but it doesn’t know how to, and China seems completely unconcerned with the US.  Chinese leader Jinping doesn’t even want to meet Biden, as became clear this week. China doesn’t care about the US and just wants to be left alone. They already said that in clear terms by reading it out loud to Wendy Sherman last month. Biden didn’t have to ask for a meeting in that phone call this week because he already knew the answer. Wendy Sherman got a clear signal on her China visit that the US president won’t be getting that coveted red carpet roll-out any time soon.

So the story says that the US is going all the way to the other side of the world and staging military presence there but only to defend itself. The US has no choice but to move in to defend all the US citizens at risk in the Indian Ocean — that’s the stand-up comedy line of the week. It is staging military presence right at China’s doorstep — if not in Chinese waters, and the idea is “yes, that’s your turf but now that I’m here, if you push me to leave, you are attacking me”. This is the strategy of narcissists and those that are looking to point the finger to their opponent when they just don’t have anything, so they stage something. China is in the long-term game, playing against itself. The US is that number 2 that’s trying to create provocation. In the Indo-Pacific, the US is biting more than it can chew. China is not a big mouth or one to throw around military threats. That’s the US style: “be very careful, we might bomb you if you don’t do what we say”. A dog that barks doesn’t bite. On the other hand, China is more like a Ferrari — it will go from 0 to 200 in seconds and then it will go back to its business. The US and Biden will be left whimpering but no one will jump to save the US from its own folly because self-defense in the US packaging is not even bought by the US government itself. Even they don’t buy their own packaging. So why should anyone else?

Treating embarrassing discoveries and things that don’t go my way as a threat to international peace

This one is a big one. With this one, Biden is playing with the queen, namely action under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter in the name of international peace and security. A threat to international peace and security is grounds for action under Chapter 7 which includes military action, and it’s never to be spoken lightly. Words have consequences. The UN Security Council rarely specifies grounds for action under chapter 7 for threats to international peace and security but it’s enough to take a look at the practice: resolutions were passed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, in response to 9/11, against Kaddafi who was marching toward Benghazi to wipe out the people in 2011, in relation to genocide, etc. Grounds for a threat to international peace can’t be “because I don’t like the way things are turning out for me”.

Peace and security are not like beauty – in the eye of the beholder. There has to be an actual or imminent attack and actual military action or violence. Loose interpretations of threats to peace and security are a sign of weak leadership.

Leaders who construct dissent and criticism as terrorism in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, as I have argued about the FBI previously in the left media, are weak leaders. In smearing Martin Luther King, the FBI argued national security. As director Oliver Stone said in Cannes this summer, when he was investigating the JFK assassination, every time he was getting close, he heard “national security”. 

You can see a lot about the character of a nation by the way it constructs security, and notice traits such as narcissism, weakness, cheating. The Biden Administration has to know that a threat to international peace and security can’t be “things that make my government look bad”. In 2001, the world followed the US in Afghanistan because there was an actual military attack. The world won’t follow the Biden administration on a bogus threat to international peace that can best be summed up as a major embarrassment for the US government. Suggesting a link is a threat to the fabric of international society. Not only is it a sign of national narcissism but also a sign of arbitrariness and authoritarianism. Treating criticism and the exposure of US government crimes as if it were a military attack is what horror movies are made of. What’s next? Droning journalists?

Treating issues which are a subject to treaties, rules and negotiations as a threat to international peace  

The Biden security construct stretches to various regions, including my own. This first struck me with Biden’s executive order regarding the Western Balkans when he tied blocking these countries from EU accession to a threat to international peace, which carries significant consequences. If a country, let’s say Bulgaria, is exercising its lawful right to veto EU processes, hypothetically, based on Biden’s understanding, the US could table a resolution for Chapter 7 action to punish an EU member-state for blocking the accession of an EU candidate because that’s a threat to international peace. That could hypothetically lead to military action against an EU country making use of its veto. Biden doesn’t have a veto in the EU. Do you know who does? Bulgaria. So until Biden becomes an EU country he doesn’t have a say.

Biden was visibly irritated that the process of EU accession has been stalling for quite some time, especially with N. Macedonia and Albania at the EU’s doorstep, so he decided to give it a go. Let’s not forget that the Balkans are a favorite Biden region and this goes back to the 1990s. I have written about it before: Biden is stuck in the 2000s when if you mentioned the Western Balkans the words international peace were a guaranteed association. Not anymore. Negotiations, rules and voting are the peaceful and reasonable way to resolve issues, agree or even not agree in some situations, and are the opposite of war and aggression. Treating these ways as a threat to peace is just the rhetoric of those who can’t get their way. But it’s also indicative of a worrisome trend with Biden that anything that the US government doesn’t like can be dressed as a threat to international peace, which carries the most significant of all consequences in the international arena.

Treating lawful counter-measures as a threat to national security

Perhaps the best and most fascinating example of lawful counter-measures I ever heard was brought by Andrew Clapham at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Here is the story. The UK issued unlawful sanctions on a country. In response, lawful counter-measures by that country targeted jam exports because a jam factory in Scotland was the key to turning the elections. The targeted counter-measures worked, hit jam exports, discontent people in the region voted the other way and the government that put in place the sanctions to begin with was ousted. This was a brilliant example that you hit where it hurts and you do it lawfully. Counter-measures don’t have to be identical. The US likes to put tariffs on Louis Vuitton bags in retaliation when it deals with France, for example. In the Trump trade wars, Europe would hit bourbon and jeans exports as a counter-measure. You hit their signature product. Not all counter-measures are illegal and count as an attack. International law is full of examples.

Similarly, lawsuits against a government are a lawful counter-measure. This area reveals another part of Biden’s worrisome construct of national security. A threat to sue the US government cannot in and of itself be a threat to national security. Tortured reading of what is national security is a sign of weak leaders, narcissists, those on the losing end, or straight up losers – or all of the above. 

Treating lawful counter-measures as a cause for self-defense is not only a sign of a wrong understanding of self-defense, but is the ultimate sign of narcissism. Usually those who attack know better and brace for impact in anticipation of the counter-measures. Narcissists, on the other hand, cry that they are being attacked when they receive a counter-strike in response. Strategists know better.

Mistreatment of whistleblowers, critics and opponents as spies and as a threat to national security

This one is an easy one. Only losers treat whistleblowers and critics as spies and as an automatic threat to national security. Take the treatment that Gary Stahl has received at the hands of the Biden Administration and the FBI, for example. Again, the US government doesn’t get to construe a huge embarrassment (in what will soon be revealed to shows the true criminal nature of the US government) as a threat to international peace. This is a problem for America. Not only doesn’t China plan to attack militarily the US any time soon over what’s to come, but China is largely unconcerned with the US and would like to be left alone. Any talk about a risk of military conflict could only mean that it is the US that plans to attack because they are embarrassed they got caught red-handed and the world will see the US government’s true nature. Talk of threat to international peace has a very high threshold. No one cares about how America would feel – that’s your problem, not an issue of international peace. 

The Biden concept of security is that of an ugly, pretentious, old woman who is told she can’t enter because her ticket is not valid. She then throws a feat screaming she was attacked, beaten and insulted, expecting everyone to be on her side. But the world simply doesn’t care about the problems of this pain-in-the-ass anymore. The US government will have to try much harder if they want to present the issue as anything close to security and self-defense, let alone a threat to international peace. That tune is old and there are no buyers. 

The US surely thinks very highly of itself if they think that a scandal like that is worthy of a military conflict but literally no one else sees the US as this important anymore. This scandal will matter only to America in what it reveals about all the layers of the US government across rank, institutions and administrations. That’s it. It ends there. Any talk of Chapter 7 threshold is war mongering and no one will care. 

People talk about the Biden doctrine on Afghanistan but the Biden doctrine that will be sealed in history will be something along the lines of “Anytime I get caught, it’s a threat to international peace and security.” This is how Biden will be remembered in history: for creative writing endeavors in the security field and no substantial foreign policy achievements. 

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Biden’s credibility restoration plan

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Although damages of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan cannot be easily undone, by taking a series of wise steps, Biden can send a strong signal that America is coming back.

Joe Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan has shattered his reputation as a safe haven for allies. This is while, he pledged to restore U.S. leadership after Trump by confronting China’s and Russia’s growing totalitarian ambitions, restoring historic alliances with European allies, and ending the never-ending conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

But he is not the only President whose decision has eventually damaged the United States’ global reputation. Donald Trump’s capitulation deal with the Taliban, Barack Obama’s indolence in Syria, and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq have all tarnished the United States’ credibility around the world. The question now; however, is no longer whether Biden and his predecessors should have acted differently. It’s how the United States can minimize the damage.

Biden should begin by speaking the truth. So far, the President has failed to admit the failure of his withdrawal plan. Biden ought to be straightforward with himself, the American people, and the whole world.

Biden’s policy should, of course, vary depending on the area and global conditions. To promote its interests in the Indo-Pacific area, the United States should station a few ambassadors, including a Navy or Coast Guard attaché, in the Pacific Island countries of Tonga, Tuvalu, and Kiribati. In addition, a considerable number of troops currently stationed in Afghanistan should be redeployed to the Pacific. Finally, Biden’s administration should engage with U.S. defense contractors to speed up the transfer of military equipment to Taiwan. Getting Taiwan its armaments swiftly would be a powerful show of support as a steadfast ally, as well as provide modern platforms to prevent a Chinese amphibious invasion.

The Biden administration should also do all in its power to rebuild relations with European partners. For the very first time, NATO invoked Article 5, which identifies an assault on one member as an assault on all. Since then, soldiers from a variety of countries have fought and died alongside US troops. Nonetheless, Biden decided to leave Afghanistan without consulting the governments of these countries, leaving them to plan emergency rescue efforts for their populations. Close allies of the United States are understandably enraged. America’s behavior is being chastised in Paris, Berlin, and the British House of Commons on both sides of the aisle.

Last month, at a meeting of regional leaders in Baghdad, Macron made it clear that, unlike the Americans, he was dedicated to remaining in the Middle East. “Whatever the American choice is,” he stated in public remarks in Baghdad, “we will maintain our presence in Iraq to fight terrorism as long as terrorist groups function and the Iraqi government requests our assistance.” It was a clear example of Macron’s idea of “strategic autonomy,” which implies European independence from U.S. security policy, and an attempt to use the United States’ humiliation to underline that Europe and Washington were not always on the same page. At an emergency G7 summit, Mr. Biden is said to have turned down allied requests to extend the August 31 deadline for exit.

The Biden administration’s recent decision not to penalize Nord Stream 2 pipeline participants has enraged Europeans as well. Poland and Ukraine underlined their worries in a joint statement about the ramifications of choices taken on the pipeline without the participation of nations directly impacted, claiming that Nord Stream 2 poses both geological and ecological risks to Europe.

As a result, whether it’s diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime, humanitarian aid for the Afghan people, or any other major issue, the US should not take any more action without engaging partners. Mr. Biden should also dispatch senior members of his national security team to Europe and other regions of the world to reinforce America’s commitment to their security.

As to the Middle East, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, in a Foreign Affairs article described “America’s opportunity in the Middle East,” suggesting that diplomacy may work where previous military interventions have failed. The United States’ involvement in the area is frequently portrayed in military or counter-terrorism terms, and as a binary option between going all-in or going all-out. Instead, Sullivan advocated for a strategy that relied more on “aggressive diplomacy to generate more long-term benefits.”

Accordingly, the President and his team in Vienna should get the new Iranian administration back to the negotiating tables and rejoin the JCPOA and ease the tensions in the Middle East. Also, the United States should do all possible in Afghanistan to secure the safe transit of Afghans who qualify for U.S. visas to the Kabul airport – and to keep flights flying until they are able to leave. This should apply to both Afghans who dealt closely with the United States’ military, and to those who engage with U.S. media and humanitarian organizations and must get visas from a third country. In addition to ensuring that the United Nations and humanitarian groups have the resources they need, the United States should cooperate with its Security Council allies to guarantee that the Taliban does not hinder the free flow of help.

Moreover, to follow any influx of jihadists to Afghanistan, intelligence agencies will have to rededicate resources and increase surveillance. They must be pushed to coordinate their efforts on the Taliban in order to keep the most threatening groups under control. The United States could set an example by agreeing to accept a fair share of any displaced Afghans. Neighboring countries like Iran and Pakistan, which already have millions of Afghan refugees, are closing their borders.

Biden may not be able to prevent all of the disastrous repercussions of the Afghan catastrophe, but he must act now before the harm to U.S. interests and moral stature becomes irreversible. By taking these steps, he can send a strong statement to the world that he has learned his lessons and that America is coming back.

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