in praise of folly
THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Emeritus Professor of Political Science
and International Law (Purdue University). He is author of many
books and articles dealing with international politics. His
columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington
Post, The Jerusalem Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press).
In 1509, Desiderius Erasmus, the famed Renaissance humanist,
published In Praise of Folly. Here, the narrator, dressed
as a court jester, argues that she is humankind’s greatest
benefactor. Nursed, acknowledges Folly, by Drunkenness and Ignorance,
her very closest followers include Self-Love, Pleasure, Flattery,
and Sound Sleep. Later, however, in Chapter 31, the long parade
of blemished souls upon whom she gleefully confers special “benefits”
shifts dramatically, from the once alluring, young, and “hot-blooded,”
to the old, pitiful, and grotesque.
time, there is more to learn. As all remaining illusions are
mercilessly stripped away by Erasmus, Folly continues to offer
unreservedly high praise for Ignorance and Lunacy. Ultimately,
as her satiric banter turns to “acid,” Folly concisely
sums up her contrived frivolity with an approving citation to
the ironic (and iconic) words of Sophocles: “Ignorance
always provides the happiest life.”
the Trump presidency is plainly symptomatic of just such a recalcitrant
Folly. At its core however, the truest cause of America’s
perilous leadership affliction lies less in the personal debilities
of a conspicuously unsuitable president than in the surrounding
political culture – that is, in the larger society that
had somehow “allowed” such a vacant and crude candidacy
to be taken seriously in the first place. In essence, the all-too-palpable
decline of the American presidency reflects an electorate that
stubbornly refuses to think.
to its bare rudiments of meaning, and understood in terms of
the philosopher Nietzsche’s still-valid general observation,
America’s now potentially existential “Trump problem”
can be illuminated by a classic aphorism from Zarathustra: “When
the throne sits on mud,” warns Zarathustra, “mud
sits upon the throne.”
reality, of course, it’s not just about Donald Trump.
Today, no U.S. president could seriously hope to make America
great again (whatever that might mean). Ultimately, as Swiss
psychologist, Carl Jung, had understood earlier, every society
must more-or-less reflect the sum total of its individual “souls”
seeking some form of “redemption.”
for present-day American society, this measureless total points
less to any recoverable “greatness,” than to further
visceral imitation, limitlessly blind submission, and a truly
desperate abhorrence of meaningful thought.
President Donald Trump’s America, the life of the mind
is already becoming an even shorter book. More than anything
else, even in the vaunted universities, Americans increasingly
loathe any tiny hint of intellect, and, just as resolutely,
all imaginable forms of intelligent entertainment.
than anything, too-many Americans now prefer the phrase, “I
follow,” to a once-still commendable, “I think.”
More than anything, let us be candid, too-many in Trump’s
America most dearly love to yell in an obliging chorus. It scarcely
matters that this preposterous dialectic is generally devoid
of any ascertainable fact, reason, or logic. Until now, at least,
all that has ever really mattered is that such a grotesque colloquy
could permit a gratefully rancorous chorus to chant in ominous
unison: “Trump, Trump, Trump.”
make America great again!” At best, and on every imaginable
level of discernment, this vacant pledge remains the resuscitated
and thinly refashioned slogan of 1933 German National Socialism.
Plainly, such a potentially murderous claim can never signify
anything of foreseeable national improvement. It is, rather,
the easily recognizable omen of a still-plausible national declension.
American society nurtured by any authentic considerations of
learning could ever consider such a glibly illiterate promise
to reveal more than humiliating self-parody.
President Donald Trump has his own very special heroes. In addition
to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, who still openly celebrates
ongoing crimes against humanity in Syria and elsewhere, Trump
has praised former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for his “effective
treatment” of “terrorists,” mass murderer
Muamar Khadafy, for having kept Libya “well-ordered,”
and Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte for “cracking
down” on illegal drugs. In this most revealing pantheon
of personal preferences, Mr. Trump, inter alia, has been proudly
specific. For example, he has at times expressly advocated torture,
and also killing the families of alleged terrorists.
Syria after the latest chemical attacks, certain corollary questions
should now be brought to the surface. Does President Trump even
know that the law of war (aka the law of armed conflict), comprised
of codified and customary norms designed to protect all noncombatants
from deliberate harms, is prima facie the law of the United
States? Could Mr. Trump ever hope to understand Article 6 of
the U.S. Constitution, the “Supremacy Clause,” or
the several related U.S. Supreme Court decisions (especially
The Paquete Habana, 1900 and Tel Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic,
1984 ) that unambiguously reinforce and widen Article 6 incorporations?
Russian-supported war crimes in Syria is not merely a matter
of selective presidential whim or caprice. It’s the law.
International law is an integral part of the law of the United
States. It’s written in the Constitution, and in several
authoritative judgments of the country’s highest court.
One can’t disavow international law without simultaneously
rejecting U.S. law.
in Trump’s America – even when the administration
is being widely challenged on multiple dimensions of policy
malfeasance – the U.S. public inhabits a society so numbingly
false that even its melancholy has become contrived. Wallowing
in the dim twilight of near-irresistible conformance, Trump’s
stubborn loyalists cheerfully display an infinite forbearance
for shallow thinking, and, at the same time, a literally endless
affection for starkly belligerent and degrading amusements.
American “life of the mind?” Where is classic American
theatre in the 21st century? Who is even left to read real literature?
To answer, one need only look at what fellow passengers are
reading on airplanes, trains, or cruise ships these days. Is
it any wonder that an inherently ridiculous candidate like Donald
Trump could somehow have actually gained the presidency?
years ago, I visited Fanning Island, in the faraway Republic
of Kiribati. Although the people who came out to meet us were
astoundingly poor, and without any modern conveniences (including
electricity or indoor plumbing), they seemed genuinely better
off and more content than the millions of disaffected Americans
who are now struggling to stay alive amid far more impressively
modern social media and technologies. To be sure, Mr. Trump
has sought to capitalize on this disaffection, but neither his
concocted diagnoses nor his prescribed therapies, can ever make
any conceivable sense.
the mid-nineteenth century, the American thinker Ralph Waldo
Emerson had called wisely upon the nation to embrace “plain
living and high thinking.” For President Trump, the preferred
mantra might now just as well be the exact opposite.
living and high thinking?” Such an imperative is certainly
not in this president’s fragile architecture of American
greatness. Instead, in this not so sturdy construction, citizen
aspirations would be driven by what Thorsten Veblen (The
Theory of the Leisure Class) had imaginatively called “pecuniary
commonly, Americans are now more apt to describe this “envy”
as “conspicuous consumption.”
American citizenry can be lonely in the world, or lonely for
the world. Somehow, however, the country’s insistently
crass culture has managed to produce both. Before a more sustainable
America could ever be born from such a bifurcated loneliness,
someone other than a lascivious presidential gravedigger would
first need to wield the forceps.
is not an inspiring expectation. Nonetheless, truth is always
exculpatory. And truth alone can save our imperiled citizenry
from the retrograde and manifestly lethal “insights”
of President Trump.
Americans inhabit one society that could have been different,
perhaps even exemplary. Once, America possessed a unique potential
to nurture individuals to become more than a docile mass, more
than an obedient herd, more than a cowardly crowd that yearns,
above all, to chant together. Then, Emerson had optimistically
described Americans as an enviable people, spurred on most famously
celebrate myself, and sing myself,” exulted the most purely
American poet, Walt Whitman, but, today, an American Self remains
under multi-pronged assault by a repressively vast mediocrity.
restore Americans, as a nation, to long-term health and prosperity,
and to ward off any such morbid supplication, the citizenry
must first learn to look far beyond its futile obsession with
public amusements and simplistic explanations. Only when such
a required swerve of consciousness has become an irreversible
gesture could the United States even hope to deflect the prospectively
lethal embrace of grimly determined presidential “Folly.”