the overrriding strategic
DONALD TRUMP, AMERICAN "MASS" AND NUCLEAR WAR
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). This essay first appeared in www.moderndiplomacy.eu
mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible
individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire
and authoritarian tyranny if ever the
constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.
Carl C. Jung, The Undiscovered Self (1957)
than anywhere else, Donald Trump take his decisional cues from
the American “mass.” In present circumstances, this
term references a succession of viscerally compliant private
citizens and a seemingly endless chorus of similarly deferential
public officials. If there should still arise any further doubts
about such a worrisome assessment, one need only consider Trump’s
rancor-filled “rallies” or the undiminished Republican
Senate support for his always-accumulating leadership derogations.
is to be done? Most concerning among these ample derogations
are those actions that would impact a US presidential authorization
of military force. In an evidently worst case scenario, these
impacts could include an actual use of nuclear weapons, either
by the American side or by a pertinent adversarial state (e.g.,
risks and dangers did not arise ex nihilo, out of nothing.
Rather, Donald Trump’s very conspicuous derelictions –
both in the past, and still-impending – are rooted in
a population that disavows two complementary obligations. These
obligations are the reinforcing imperatives of serious analysis
and true learning. “I love the poorly educated,”
exclaimed the successful US presidential candidate in 2016.
“Intellect rots the brain,” shrieked Third Reich
Chief of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels at his own Nazi rallies,
back in 1935 and 1936.
Truth, however inconvenient or embarrassing, is always exculpatory.
Any differences between the purposely dissembling statements
of President Trump and those of Minister Goebbels are minor
at best. Reciprocally, the evident commonalities are distressingly
plain and compelling. Both Donald Trump and his de facto
German philosophical mentor represent champions of public disinformation
seek or sought results without even a scintilla of human empathy
or hint of compassionate intention.
first, these comparisons may seem scandalous, even outrageous,
but upon further reflection, they are not at all un reasonable
or unfair. Indeed, what would be more manifestly unfair or dishonest
is for such tangible and information-based comparisons to be
blithely dismissed or casually overlooked. This is because any
such whimsical disregard could lead, ineluctably, to catastrophic
not a mysterious connection. No sensible US war avoidance policies
can be expected to emerge from a society that is being steadily
weakened by a compliant and obsequious mass culture. In any
such anti-science context, there exists a widespread American
indifference to intellect or “mind.” .
precisely, within the demeaning interstices of United States
mass culture, any such brazen indifference could result in irremediable
misfortunes. These hard-to-imagine outcomes could arrive more-or-less
immediately, or eventually, that is, in various foreseeable
and unforeseeable increments.
these especially portentous prospects, the most worrisome would
be nuclear attack and/or nuclear war.
is more. Though not readily apparent in America’s current
national politics, nuclear violence in variously assorted forms
represents the greatest possible risk posed. No such dire prediction
could be expressed as a true mathematical probability (because
any nuclear war would necessarily represent a unique event),
but the broader connections between generalized American anti-intellectualism
and American national security are recognizably evident.
has never been any specific or general American outcry about
an American president who proudly reads nothing, literally nothing
at all. At his first Republican presidential convention, an
early Trump-selected “speaker” was Duck Dynasty.
anything more be said?
there are always core lessons to be learned. Americans should
look much more carefully behind the news. Everything that we/they
most genuinely need to know is not on television or on the internet.
More generally, “The crowd,” noted the 19th-century
Danish philosopher, Sören Kierkegaard, “is untruth.”
present-day United States, no single characterization could
be more obvious or less contestable.
this mass or crowd-based society, a continuing Trump presidency
– the most patently injurious result of America’s
demeaning orientation to mass- could (sooner or later) become
intolerable. “The best lack all conviction,” warned
the Irish poet W. B. Yeats in "The Second Coming,"
“while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
For now at least for bewildered or beleaguered Americans, this
existential warning remains confined to cerebral poetry.
the stanza deserves a far wider audience,
all relevant assessments be forthright and candid. For the United
States and certain of its allies, a nuclear war is never really
out of the question. At the moment, the most plausible site
for any such unprecedented conflagration would be northeast
Asia (US versus North Korea). Still, in light of a resurrecting
“Cold War” with Russia (“Cold War II”),
preliminary and contagious “sparks” could ignite
virtually anywhere on earth. Most problematic, in this regard,
would be southwest Asia (India/Pakistan)
is more. I have lectured and published widely on these issues
since chairing Project Daniel for Israeli Prime Minister Arik
Sharon back in 2003.
nuclear conflict dangers will obtain in the Middle East even
if Iran should somehow remain non-nuclear. This is the case,
inter alia, because Israel could sometime need to rely
upon nuclear deterrence or actual nuclear weapons use in response
to certain non-nuclear forms of unconventional aggression (i.e.,
biological attack) and/or “only” massive conventional
than likely, this second category of risk would involve assorted
“hybrid” aggressions launched (plausibly, in some
definitive concert with Iran) by Hezbollah.
the size and military capacity of this formidable Shiite militia
exceeds that of many area armies.
us look more closely at these strategic issues. What discernible
linkages exist between mass society and nuclear war? Though
mass thinking or “crowd” thinking (Kierkegaard)
is always “untruth,” Donald Trump is not the most
genuinely root cause of America’s expanding atomic war
perils. He is rather, an “outcome,” a mere result,
though a prospectively devastating result, of larger and far
more deeply insidious national pathologies. More formally, knowledgeable
scientists and philosophers (not this president’s mass
“base”) would identify Trump’s incessantly
demeaning incumbency as “epiphenomenal.”
this does not make them any less dangerous.
is more. Some complementary or corollary concerns are more expressly
legal than military or strategic. In these similarly urgent
matters of US foreign policy making, President Donald Trump,
leading a major world power that remains party to both the Geneva
Convention (1949) and the Genocide Convention (1948), has no
defensible legal right to call openly for international aggression.
But this is exactly what Trump demanded when he first threatened
“total destruction” of North Korea in the earliest
days of his presidency.
the American president intermittently claims (with evident pride)
that he and Kim Jung Un are “in love,” this allegedly
deep affection remains an unreliable basis for nuclear war avoidance.
Moreover, looking ahead dispassionately, the more visible and
credible source of verbal belligerence between Washington and
Pyongyang is the White House.
law, there is no legitimate American right of tu quoque
(Latin for “you too”). Among other historical instances,
this legal defense was rejected at the original Nuremberg Trials
of 1945-1946, and also at the later Tokyo Trials. A significant
portion of Donald Trump’s seemingly endless legal derogations
lies in his sweeping unfamiliarity with all normally recognizable
instances of history and jurisprudence.
now, Donald Trump appears unaware of the basics. International
law remains an integral part of U.S. domestic (municipal) law.
To date, at least, this president has been unable to nullify
Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”)
or any of the several major Supreme Court decisions detailing
binding sources for “incorporation.” Among seminally
core case judgments linking valid international rules to United
States obligations, the most plainly important are the Paquete
Habana (1900) and Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic
anyone reasonably expect that US President Trump or his personal
lawyers would have even a tiny substantive notion about these
landmark American decisions?
a silly question.
sort of essential information is discussed only by the Constitutional
lawyers. Now, unassailably, our vaunted American democracy rests
unsteadily on the retrograde sovereignty of wholly unqualified
persons. Even now, in the Senate leadership of his own party,
only a pitiful few are prepared to say emphatically and unambiguously:
“This emperor is naked, irremediably naked. He has no
metaphoric candor, Donald Trump’s refractory authority
has “slipped back,” to use the illuminating images
of twentieth-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’
Gasset, “through the wings, and on to the age-old stage
of civilization.” This ancient “stage” remains
shabby, shaky and profoundly anti-democratic. Cumulatively,
it does not bode well for a secure American life at any level.
the conceptual heart of our America’s “crowd”
or “mass” problem, the current US president remains
a malignant and determinative “symptom.” Any further
American “slippage” into the presidentially-augmented
mass will have discernible and distinctly palpable consequences.
There are certain obvious and unstoppable reasons for this.
Reasonably, no country so openly fearful of independent thought
– no country so fervidly torn between its loud public
proclamations of “exceptionalism” and the silent
estrangements of its grievously unhappy people – can hope
to overcome its screaming declensions.
may continue this nuclear war background analysis. No blustering
affirmations of “America First” can supplant authentic
painfully shallow affirmations, now repeated daily, as if they
were some sort of religious incantation, can only deflect America’s
attention from what remains vitally important. Most urgently,
Trump must better ensure that his seat-of-the-pants strategic
posture toward North Korea (a posture drawn directly from the
commercial worlds of real estate branding and casino gambling)
does not sometime explode uncontrollably. Significantly, such
an obviously unacceptable outcome may at first seem less likely
or worrisome than is actually the case.
not seek the higher man in the marketplace” warned Friedrich
Nietzsche in Zarathustra. As usual, the philosopher’s
underscored wisdom was timeless.
North Korea and the United States enter into any outright hostilities
or even an unintentional nuclear war, the horrors of the earlier
Vietnam conflict will be magnified many-fold. Before anything
decent could ever be born from the rubble of such a conflict,
an army of gravediggers would need to wield the “forceps.”
upon a time in America, virtually every barely-attentive adult
could recite some intuitively Spenglerian theory of decline.
Today, at a very different historical moment – at an especially
acquiescent national juncture where the riddle of human destiny
has been reduced by American public life to vulgar and degrading
entertainments – almost no one can recognize The Decline
of the West. “Logically,” this far-reaching
lack of recognition should be expected whether we are speaking
of a classic historical text written by a once-obscure German
professor or some actual and precipitous historical declension.
else should one now expect of a nation where the 2016 keynote
presidential convention speaker of the victorious political
party was Duck Dynasty.
some respects, it is a very old story. Both frightened and repelled
by any plausible expectations of genuine learning, expanding
masses of Americans proceed blindly and in reassuring lockstep
with crowds of similarly-fearful marchers. Consciously, this
Trumpian “mass,” these obliging “crowds,”
keep a desperate pace with all those other homogenized men and
women who similarly loathe serious thought. Always, identifiably
sizable segments of this submissive crowd coalesce energetically
around a delusionary “pied-piper.”
the present American case, Trump reflects a president who promises
multiple accessible scapegoats in compensation for citizens’
most stubborn fears and personal failures. For the all-too-many
listeners, these seductive promises are convenient, but untrue.
the real American past, which has been “great” only
selectively, certain circumstances have never been quite as
degrading or ominous as today. In the words of Nixon-era White
House advisor John Dean, speaking on CNN in March 2018, “Donald
Trump is Richard Nixon on steroids and stilts.” That’s
quite a telling (and accurate) metaphor.
this is hardly the first time in the past hundred years that
a dissembling political wizard has promised self-blinding followers
some sort of lascivious “redemption” in exchange
for their total political obedience. In an easily best remembered
example, the ultimate costs inflicted by Third Reich wizardry
included the destruction of an entire continent and over100
million souls. The lesson for those Americans still willing
to read and think? It is that there is always a great and unforgivable
price to be paid by societies that wittingly abjure intellect,
history and capable thought.
quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.”
At the very moment when an American president should be focusing
systematically and analytically on prospective nuclear war dangers
from North Korea, China, Russia, and elsewhere, Donald Trump
prefers to lead his chanting crowds in strange and futile directions.
Now, more than ever, these incoherent refrains are not “only”
inane and irrelevant. More portentously, they will drown out
the still-surviving vestiges of any residually sensible American
every presidential election, the American mass more-or-less
indefatigably patronizes itself. The difference in 2016 was
that these results were effectively sui generis; that
is, they were darkly unique in the most regrettable and forseeably
sinister ways. Over time, as we have seen, the palpable consequences
could include nuclear/existential harms.
remedy? Above all, it must be founded upon a meaningfully prior
understanding: No society, including allegedly “exceptional”
ones, can coexist together with mindlessly chanting crowds that
masquerade as democracy. Unless we can finally display some
sincere willingness to oppose the shrill and yelling American
mass – a crowd that increasingly becomes a corrosive solvent
of social conformance and intellectual mediocrity – Americans
will continue to find too little air to breathe. Inevitably,
at some point in the declining Trump years, there will be no
air to breathe at all.
Americans would only then discover, is a bad way to die.
mass society, not just the United States, loves to chant deliriously
and in some form of stupefied chorus. “We the people”
continue to seek comforting resonances of “exceptionalism”
in pitifully shallow slogans, raw commerce and blatantly vacuous
political promises. Oddly enough, this elusive search for happiness,
amid its convulsive shrieking and imitation, would be less perilous
if it did not issue from a depressingly terminal ailment.
more precisely, is the underlying malady? If Donald Trump is
“merely” a symptom, what is the country’s
true national pathology? The correct answer has much to do with
understanding current war threats from North Korea or even Russia.
This answer is logically antecedent to discovering hopeful solutions
to still-growing existential threats.
the most sorely critical “illness” levels of national
despair, politics and government have become pretty much beside
the point. In America’s battered landscape of clichéd
wisdom, mass shootings, copycat violence and dreary profanity,
there remains, at bottom, a recalcitrant and metastasizing sickness
of the soul. Ironically, America’s national debility of
personal surrender to crowds lurks mainly undisguised. Conspicuously,
it is most easily detectable in Donald Trump’s proudly
flaunted hatreds of intellect, individualism and real learning.
observed T.S. Eliot, in a still-unheeded warning, “Our
dried voices, when we whisper together, Are quiet and meaningless.”
their very deepest levels, American politics and government
remain determinably extraneous to whatever is genuinely important.
The bewildered nation’s expanding ocean of personal addictions,
now too vast for remediation by any normal reformist strategies,
is already deep enough to drown entire libraries of a once-sacred
an earlier and foundational American national history, both
liberals and conservatives read Lucretius, Cicero, Grotius,
Vattel, Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and (later) Blackstone.
Excluding the eighteenth-century English jurist, whose refined
thoughts were to become the starting point of all American jurisprudence,
Thomas Jefferson read them all.
does US President Donald Trump read or write?
facie, this is a silly question.
just a few years ago, I had been a university professor for
almost 50 years. For the most part, my students were less interested
in exhibiting any high-thinking than in acquiring high net worth.
Given a presumptive opportunity to earn impressive incomes without
continuing their formal education, an overwhelming majority
would have unhesitatingly grabbed at the “offer.”
How do I know this?
as an “experiment,” I occasionally asked them.
year to year, the grimly anti-intellectual results never changed.
our once still-ascendant American intellectual history, some
time shortly after the literary ascendancies of Ralph Waldo
Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a spirit of accomplishment
earned commendably high marks . Then, more often than now, young
people strove to rise originally, not by incessantly craving
expensive and unnecessary goods, but as the still-confident
proprietors of an exemplary American Self. Though Emerson and
his fellow New England Transcendentalists had taught the flip
side of “high thinking” must be “plain living,”
current US citizenry generally seeks private wealth above any
other barely competing objectives.
could possibly be more obvious.
is true, at least in principle, for the poor and disregarded
as well as for the very rich.
America, the truly telling question is implicit. Why bother
to read or study literature? It has no cash value. Furthermore,
as the current president can readily attest, it has no believable
place in the acquisition of personal political power. Indeed,
Americans now live in a land where visible intellectual deficits
have become an unimpeachable political asset.
the end, US President Donald Trump – however destructive
his presidency eventually becomes – must remain a symptom.
On its face, with precious few exceptions, wealth is always
taken as America’s final and quintessential form of personal
validation. Many years back, economist Adam Smith concluded
that wealth is most eagerly sought not because of any intrinsic
purchasing power, but on account of its incomparable capacity
to elicit envy. Later, Emerson expressed a very similar idea
when he incautiously advised that any “foolish reliance
upon property” is the inevitable result of “a want
the end, the transient warmth of an American mass or crowd promises
each US citizen a concocted but still-comforting defense against
loneliness. This reassuringly seductive mass quickly and expansively
defiles whatever is pleasingly wondrous, gracious and generous
in American society. Already anticipating this lamentable development,
Charles Dickens had observed, back in 1842: “I do fear
that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by
this country (USA), in the failure of its example to the earth.”
was “spot on.” Americans have protected their political
freedom from the most visible and invidious kinds of oppression,
though even this key protection is now subject to reasonable
doubt. At the same time, they have wittingly sacrificed the
coequal obligation to become authentically fulfilled persons.
More openly deploring a life of some greater meaning and purpose
than this one of calculated imitation and sterile accumulation,
Americans now routinely substitute reality shows for real literature
and a reality show “wizard” for capable national
should they expect?
it any wonder that America already stands on the precarious
brink of irremediable nuclear confrontations?
America’s sorely blemished democracy, a declining system
of governance driven by what political “elite” theorists
had long called the “iron law of oligarchy,” those
individual Americans who would still choose disciplined thought
over fitting-into the crowd must accept related kinds of “punishment.”
Usually, these sanctions are delivered as some form or other
of social or professional ostracism, but sometimes they are
meted out in corollary examples of “aloneness.”
“The most radical division,” observed Spanish existentialist
Jose Ortega y Gasset in 1930, “is that which splits humanity
. . . those who make great demands on themselves . . . and those
who demand nothing special of themselves . . .”
reality, American democracy and its closely corresponding presidential
elections represent an inelegant and simultaneously lethal masquerade.
Again and again, they seek to cover-up and legitimize what has
been constituted and consecrated by a backward-looking mass.
Now, at long last, it is high time for such perilous camouflage
in the inert American mass to yield to something better.
Now, in America, even after such a patently catastrophic presidential
selection in 2016, the people may have been granted one graspable
last chance for being-challenged-in-the-world.
the end, creating proper American governance is not all that
complicated: Only those few individuals who would dare to reject
an insistently demeaning amusement society can offer this imperiled
nation any enduring hope. What next?
proceed, there are pertinent corollaries. The strength and courage
of America’s desperately-needed “inner-directedness”
can never lie only in holding an advanced degree, in engaging
with others during periodic electoral contests or in advancing
various intentional contrivances of language. In America, the
indispensable qualities of individual authenticity must be sought,
instead, in the potentially complementary powers of intellectual
independence, social justice and spontaneous empathy.
last power cannot be taught. Nonetheless, it can be encouraged
by stepping back from a declining American culture that values
endlessly crude consumption over intelligent erudition and independent
Smith, in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the
Wealth of Nations (1776), saw in capitalism not just an
admirably rising productivity, but also a required foundation
for political liberty. He also understood that a system of “perfect
liberty” – one that we might presently call an ideal
democracy – could never be based upon smug and facile
encouragements of needless consumption. The inexorable laws
of the marketplace, he had reasoned, demanded a suitable disdain
for all vanity-driven buying.
Adam Smith, the main problem of any dangerously orchestrated
hyper-consumption was neither economic nor political, but psychological.
was, in other words, a problem of unresisted absorption into
the mass or crowd.
Adam Smith, contrary to very widespread misunderstandings of
his complex thought, “conspicuous consumption,”
a phrase that would later be used more explicitly and engagingly
by sociologist Thorsten Veblen, must never be taken as evidence
of economic or political progress. It follows that while the
crowd call of American democracy may remain loud, crass or even
alluringly persuasive, "We the people" must still
keep up the struggle against the suffocating mass, purposefully,
and, above all else, as genuine individuals.
Americans could finally lay bare the essential ingredients of
a democracy that would offer more than the sum total of individual
souls fleeing desperately from themselves.
perhaps, Americans could avoid re-electing a president who stands
in chaotic opposition to sensible foreign policies of nuclear
war avoidance, and who substitutes ad hominem attacks
for any minimally intelligent diplomacy. Then, determinedly,
the American nation could choose its presidents from among candidates
who can understand that the United States is part of a much
wider world. This means from those aspirants who could acknowledge
that “America First” represents a potentially irreversible
triumph of mass.
the end, if ever the American constitutional State should succumb
to what Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung euphemistically called
a “fit of weakness,” such triumph could hasten the
nation’s most utterly lethal declensions. A nuclear war
would resemble any other terminal illness in at least one overarching
respect. This is that the only “cure” would lie