“Wanting To Know Nothing of Truth”: The Origins of Trump-Inflicted Harms

The true origins of Donald J. Trump’s planned return to power lie in the continuous absence of penetrating citizen thought.

“The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.” -Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971)

From its earliest beginnings, American politics have remained distant from considerations of intellect or “mind.” To be sure, certain forms of American education have always been valued, but only to the extent that they can appear profitable or practical. For the most part, any brief excursions into the world of ideas have been esteemed for reasons of personal status.[1]

               There are variously clarifying details. The true origins of Donald J. Trump’s planned return to power lie in the continuous absence of penetrating citizen thought. Though written about another place and time, German philosopher Karl Jaspers’ succinct observation in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971) is applicable in today’s United States: “The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.” While there is nothing tangible about such a demeaning spirit, it is also anything but benign.

                In these many-layered matters, true meanings are rarely self-evident. What does it really mean for a nation to be “anti-intellectual”? On its face, intellect is “elitist.” Always, it appears impractical, contrived, “highfalutin.” In the United States, even the most casual mention of “intellect” or “intellectual” is met with opprobrium, if not open hostility.

               In further explanation, history will deserve some pride of place. To proceed, over the years,[2] accumulating spasms of anti-reason have infected American politics with belligerent rancor and gratuitously witless howls of execration. The defiling Donald Trump experience is not a new American pathology. It is, rather, merely the latest manifestation of a continuous or ongoing “disease.” The ancient Greek philosopher Plato would have described it as “an ongoing disease of the soul.”

               There is more. With precious few exceptions, Americans celebrate only pragmatic accomplishments and a presumptive common sense. “Don’t bother with abstract or speculative learning,” we are instructed from the start. After all, even the most dedicated citizen excursions into literature, philosophy, art and poetry “don’t pay?” This conspicuously coarse warning becomes even more worrisome when the broadest possible meanings of Karl Jaspers’ “enemy” is uncovered. Much worse than knowing nothing of truth, the philosopher understood, is “wanting to know nothing of truth.”

               Inter alia, this “wanting” ensures national incoherence and very tangible harms.

               It is, therefore, a meaningful distinction.

               It lies at the heart of our baneful and blatantly absurd national politics.

               And still there is more.

               Truth is exculpatory. There are times for every nation when history, science and intellect deserve absolute attention and dedication. Recalling Plato’s parable of the cave in The Republic,[3] our American politics and Realpolitik-driven[4] foreign policies are always just “reflection.” Inevitably, they are mere “shadows” of reality: superficial, epiphenomenal and steeply misleading.[5]

               Increasingly, in the United States, politics offers a deformed reflection of what lies alongside. This sordid politics also reveals a defiling vacancy of “soul.”[6] At times, such wearying vacancies warrant much closer analytic attention than usual. Today, when a previously criminalizing presidency could soon re-emerge as “Trump II,” we are in one of those perilous times.

                Where are we today as a nation? In reply, the crudely simplifying sentiments that first brought Donald J. Trump to presidential power endure unabated. Now, still lacking the refined intellectual commitments of mind needed for decent governance, We the people ought not to display incredulity at the breadth or depth of our next political failures.

We have no right to do so.

There is more. What most energetically animates American politics today is not some valid interest in progress or survival, but steadily-escalating fears of personal insignificance. Though most apparent at assorted political levels, such ego-based apprehensions can also be experienced collectively, by an entire nation. Either way, its locus of origin harbors certain deeply-felt human anxieties about not being valued, about not “belonging”[7] – or, in the poet’s words – about “not being wanted at all.”[8]

                For an intellectual renaissance to “work,” an unblemished candor should be encouraged. Today, ground down by the demeaning babble of half-educated pundits and politicos, We the people are rarely motivated by any real insights or authentic courage. We are now learning to understand just how badly our Constitutionremains battered by dissembling political voices of anti-reason.[9]  

               Truth remains exculpatory. Donald J. Trump still abhors any mind-challenging considerations of law, intellect or independent thought. For the United States, it has already become a potentially “nuclear” combination.[10]

               At the chaotic end of Donald Trump’s White House tenure, the former president’s personal defeat was paralleled by near-defeat of an entire nation. Lest anyone forget, the hideous events at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 were designed to undermine or overthrow Constitutional order in the United States. This once-unimaginable plan failed not because it lacked criminal intent (mens rea), but because its backers lacked all relevant intellectual and historical prerequisites. If there hadn’t been such evident lack of capacity, leaders of the Trump-inspired insurrection could have understood that an SA(Sturmabteilung)-style para-military force would need augmentation by a “respectable” infrastructure of field commanders and organizational bureaucrats.

               Ironically, therefore, the Trump-engineered January 6, 2021 horror at the Capitol was thwarted because of a president’s disdain for learning and erudition as well as law and personal courage.

               Credo quia absurdum, said ancient philosopher Tertullian: “I believe because it is absurd.”

                To fully understand the Trump presidency’s self-inflicted declensions, Americans should look beyond “reflections,” that is, beyond transient personalities and daily news. Even now, in these United States, a willing-to-think individual citizen remains little more than a quaint artifact of prior imagination. Even now, more refractory than ever to courage, intellect and learning, an obeisant American “mass” displays no decipherable intentions of  taking itself seriously.[11]

               “Headpieces filled with straw…” is the way poet T S Eliot would have characterized present-day Americans. He would have observed, further, an embittered American “mass,” a “herd” marching insistently backward, cheerlessly, wittingly senseless and in pitiful lockstep toward future collective declensions.

                What’s next for America’s Trump-imperiled Republic?[12] Looking behind the news, our self-battering country still imposes upon its exhausted people the hideously breathless rhythms of a vast and uncaring machine.Once again, we witness, day after day, endless lines of trains, planes and automobiles transporting weary citizens to another robotic workday, a day typically bereft of decent pleasure and too-often filled with yet another inventory of American mass shootings.  

               “I think therefore I am,” announced Descartes, but what exactly do we Americans “think?” Answers should come quickly to mind, but they mostly concern access to mountains of drugs or oceans of alcohol. Even now, We the people lack any unifying sources of national cohesion save for celebrity sex scandals, sports team loyalties and inane conspiracy theories.

               As for the more than seven million people stacked cheek to jowl in America’s medieval prisons, two-thirds of those released will likely return to their former lives of crime. Simultaneously, the most senior and recognizable white collar criminals – in part, Trump-era sycophants who managed to transform personal cowardice into a de facto ideology – can look forward to lucrative book contracts and to immunity from criminal prosecutions.

                There is more. We the people inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once upon a time, we displayed a discernible potential to nurture individuals to become more than “mass,”  “herd” or “crowd.”[13] Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson described the United States as a nation animated by industry and “self-reliance,” not by moral paralysis, fear and a very bitter “trembling.”  Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would have urged Americans to “learn to live upon mountains” (that is, to becomewillfully thinking individuals),[14] but today a grievously broken nation remains grudgingly content with even the tiniest of “elevations.”

               In Zarathustra, Nietzsche warned promising civilizations not to seek the “higher man”[15] at the “marketplace,” but that is precisely where America discovered Donald J. Trump. What could have gone so badly wrong? Trump, after all, was very rich. How could he possibly not have been smart and virtuous? Don’t these traits always go hand in hand? Isn’t it just as Reb Tevye remarks in Fiddler on the Roof, “If you’re rich they think you really know”?

                Until January 6, 2021, most Americans could not have understood Vladimir Lenin’s concept of a “useful idiot” or its time-specific corollary that an American president could become the visible marionette of his Russian counterpart. But truth is exculpatory. The sordid derelictions that Americans were forced to witness at the end of the Trump presidency resembled The Manchurian Candidate on steroids. Now, millions of voters would encourage such egregious derelictions again.

               Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               The true enemy faced by the United States is not any one individual person or ideology; nor is it any one political party or another. It is We the People. To further recall Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “The worst enemy you can encounter will always be you, yourself; you will lie in wait for yourself in caves and woods.” So we Americans remain, even today, poised fixedly against ourselves and against our own survival, more or less wittingly battered by a re-aspiring president’s inane thoughts and criminal forfeitures.

                Geopolitically, there are many specific examples of what should be feared. To wit, North Korea presents significantly more of a nuclear threat today than before Donald Trump’s self-declared “romance” with Kim Jung Un.[16] This potentially existential threat (especially if it were to become synergistic when joined with coinciding dangers from Russia, China or Iran) was not diminished because Kim and Trump “fell in love” at the Singapore summit. To deal with growing nuclear threats across the world,[17] national leaders must first conceptualize their overriding task as one of “mind over mind,” not just “mind over matter.” Most assuredly, as Donald Trump was fond of saying, a task about “attitude.”

               There exists a conceptual “bottom line” on all these issues. In spite of our proudly clichéd claim to “rugged individualism,” we Americans are shaped not by any exceptional personal or national capacities, but by rote patterns of persistent imitation and humiliating conformance. Amusing ourselves into oblivion with variously illiterate and cheap entertainments, our endangered American society fairly bristles with annoying jingles, insistent hucksterism, crass allusions and telltale equivocations. Surely, we ought finally to inquire: “Isn’t there more to this long-suffering country than abjured learning, endless violence and a narrowly manipulated commerce?”

                “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” observed  Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman, but now, generally, the self-deluding American Selfis created by stupefying kinds of “education,”[18]  by far-reaching patterns of tastelessness and by a pervasive national culture of ceaseless rancor and self-defilement.

                There are other mentionable difficulties. Only a rare “few” could ever redeem courage and intellect in America,[19] but these quiet souls remain determinedly well hidden, even from themselves. Among other inconspicuous assets, these rare individuals eschew any engagements in frenetic or agitated self-advertisement, whether on television or online. Still, our redemption as a people and aa a nation can never be generated from among mass, herd or crowd. There is a correct way to fix this fractionating and anti-intellectual country, but not while We the people stubbornly inhabit pre-packaged ideologies of anti-thought and anti-reason.[20]

               Going forward, we Americans should finally insist upon expanding the sovereignty of a newly courageous and virtuous[21] citizenry. In this admittedly immense task, basic changes will be needed at the microcosmic level; that is, at the society-shaping level of the individual human person.  Following the German Romantic poet Novalis’ idea that to become a human being is essentially an “art” (“Mensch werden ist eine Kinst“), the Swiss-German author/philosopher Hermann Hesse reminds us that every society is a cumulative expression of unique individuals. In this regard, Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung goes further, claiming, in The Undiscovered Self (1957),  “Every society represents the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.”[22] One again, as in earlier references to Sigmund Freud, the inherently “soft” variable of “soul” is identified and  acknowledged.

               Looking to history, science and logic, it would be easy to conclude that the monumental task of America’s intellectual and moral reconstruction lies far beyond its normal capacities. Nonetheless, to accede to such a fatalistic conclusion would be tantamount to individual and collective surrender. Such a concession would be unconscionable, and lethal. Far better that the citizens of this sorely imperiled country (1) grasp for any still-residual sources of national and international unity; and (2) exploit this universal source for both national and international survival.

               This essay has been considering the effects of an “unphilosophical spirit” which “wants to know nothing of truth.”[23] During the past several years, unhidden efforts have mounted to question the “cost-effectiveness” of an American college education. By definition, this is a manifestly shallow criterion of success. These mostly misconceived efforts ignore that the core value of any university degree lies not in its projected purchasing power, but in disciplined learning for its own sake. It follows that when young people are asked to calculate the value of a college degree in narrowly commercial terms, they are being asked to ignore both the special pleasures of a real education (e.g., literature, history, art, music, philosophy, etc.) and the palpable benefits of authentic learning.

               The core problem of American decline is less that its people don’t know what is true than that they don’t want to know what is true. Even now, even when the risks of a nuclear war are rising over potentially intersecting crises in Ukraine, Russia, North Korea and Iran, Americans remain too easily charmed by a suffocating politics of gibberish. To rescue this imperiled American democracy from a population that still insists upon its own defilement, We the people will require eleventh-hour nurturance by a more genuine philosophical spirit. Recalling philosopher Karl Jaspers,[24] this is a spirit that would openly reject any witting destruction of “mind” by always-insidious forces of “anti-reason.”[25]

               Should Donald J. Trump be returned to the presidency in 2024, this defiling spirit could prove irreversibly lethal.

[1] See by this author, Louis René Beres, on the philosophy of Adam Smith: https://horasis.org/glorifying-riches-americas-relentless-distortion/

[2] For an early and classic assessment of American anti-intellectualism, see Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

[3] See by this writer at Oxford University Press: Louis René Beres, https://blog.oup.com/2011/08/philosopher-king/

[4] For philosophical background of Realpolitik, see, by this author, Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order, Lexington Books, 1984; and Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy, Lexington Books, 1983. Regarding this background in law or jurisprudence: “Right is the interest of the stronger,” says Thrasymachus in Bk. I, Sec. 338 of Plato, THE REPUBLIC (B. Jowett tr., 1875).  “Justice is a contract neither to do nor to suffer wrong,” says Glaucon, id., Bk. II, Sec. 359.  See also, Philus in Bk III, Sec. 5 of Cicero, DE REPUBLICA.

[5] See by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Horasis (Zurich): https://horasis.org/looking-beyond-shadows-death-time-and-immortality/

[6] Freud was always darkly pessimistic about the United States, which he felt was “lacking in soul” and a place of great psychological misery or “wretchedness.” In a letter to Ernest Jones, Freud declared unambiguously: “America is gigantic, but it is a gigantic mistake.” (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (1983), p. 79.

[7]The extent to which some young Americans are willing to go to “belong” can be illustrated by incidents of college students drinking themselves to death as part of a fraternity hazing ritual. Could there be anything more hideously pathetic than a young person who would accept virtually any measure of personal debasement and risk in order to “fit in”?

[8] “It is getting late; shall we ever be asked for?” inquires the poet W H Auden in The Age of Reason. “Are we simply not wanted at all?”

[9] Said candidate Donald Trump in 2016, “I love the poorly educated.” This strange statement appears to echo Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels at a Nuremberg rally in 1935:  “Intellect rots the brain.”

[10]See, by this author, Louis René Beres, at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: https://thebulletin.org/biography/louis-rene-beres/  

[11] “The mass-man,” we may learn from Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930), “has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.”

[12] In this connection, cautions Sigmund Freud: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”

[13] “The crowd,” said Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” Here, the term “crowd” is roughly comparable to C.G. Jung’s “mass,” Friedrich Nietzsche’s “herd” and Sigmund Freud’s “horde.”

[14] See by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Modern Diplomacy:  https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/12/01/living-on-mountains-antecedents-of-a-dignified-and-secure-world-order/

[15]We can reasonably forgive the apparent sexism of this term, both because of the era in which it was offered and because the seminal European philosopher meant this term to extend to both genders.

[16] See by this writer, Professor Louis René Beres, at e-Global, The University of California: https://globalejournal.org/index.php/global-e/february-2020/limits-long-distance-romance-risks-catastrophic-war-north-korea

[17] For accounts by this author of nuclear war effects, see: 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); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018).

[18] In an additional irony, these already unsatisfactory kinds of education will be supplanted by even more intrinsically worthless forms of learning. Most notable, in this regard, is the almost wholesale shift to “online education.”

[19] The term is drawn here from the Spanish existential Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, especially his classic The Revolt of the Masses (1930).

[20] “There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”

[21] As used by ancient Greek philosopher Plato, the term “virtuous” includes elements of wisdom and knowledge as well as morality.

[22] Carl G. Jung eagerly embraced the term “soul” following preferences of Sigmund Freud, his one-time mentor and colleague. Also, says Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957): “The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.” American readers should detect in this last clause the seditious events of January 6, 2021.

[23]Although this present consideration is offered as a pièce d’occasion, it has much wider conceptual applications and implications.

[24]Jaspers notes elsewhere, in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time: “The masses have followed the magician again and again. The fraud has been perpetrated by the promise of absolute knowledge…An aura of magical efficacy has been produced.” In the United States today, the sway of a presidential “magician” endures.

[25] In a book by Stanley Corngold, The Mind in Exile: Thomas Mann in Princeton (Princeton University Press, 2022), the author states: “Mann cites the absorption of the educated classes by the masses, the simplification of all functions of political, social, economic and spiritual life.”  Thomas Mann calls this process “Barbarization.” In some respects, his argument is reminiscent of an earlier work by Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (1930), especially Ortega’s chapter on “The Barbarism of Specialization.”

Prof. Louis René Beres
Prof. Louis René Beres
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.