Even today, even after so much accumulated evidence of Donald J. Trump’s incapacity and wrongdoing, millions of Americans regard his presidency as exemplary. This cannot be explained in terms of the responsibilities inherent in American politics. What is necessary is to take into account the cultural context from which this concealed president was extracted.
Trump supporters — rich and poor, educated and uneducated — include people who seek to “fit in” above all else. They are the ones who like to chant in chorus and adopt the reassuring but reductive message of political simplification.
Americans who take history and science seriously have reason to worry.
One can draw limited – but still fair – comparisons with the Germany of the 1930s. Then, as now, the virulent formulas under the simplifications were no longer simply expressed sotto voce, like residual “whispers of the irrational”. Although Trump-era politics were never overtly lethal, those at the pinnacle of political power relied on blaming ‘the usual suspects’, i.e. exploitation. ruthlessness of the most fragile and vulnerable scapegoats.
The United States had never “become Nazi Germany” – but that should not be taken as comfort. This is not an all or nothing comparison. If there are clear differences between yesterday and today, there are also very disturbing similarities, even imitations.
Decline may occur not as a “clap of thunder”, but more or less indecipherably, in increments. With Trump gearing up for another race for the White House and a solid majority of Republicans behind him, we Americans are clearly stumbling backwards.
Friedrich Nietzsche coined a very specific term for the paradoxical fusion of privilege with philistinism: Bildungsphilister. An English translation: “Learned Philistine”. Everywhere one looks in the United States today, one finds competent professionals who have been more or less well trainedbut never really educated.
Bildungsphilister is a term that helpfully illuminates Trump’s continued support among so many presumably well-educated and affluent Americans.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump repeatedly said:I like the badly educatedbut – ultimately – a substantial fraction of his support came from less educated people. Here, recalling the indictment of the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers regarding “whispers of the irrational”, it is worth recalling the remark of the Minister of Propaganda of the Third Reich, Joseph Goebbels, that “the intellect rots the brain”.
The truth is always exculpatory. This can be uncomfortable, upsetting, even disconcerting, but it is nonetheless the truth. The phrases “I like badly educated people” and “The intellect rots the brain” mean essentially the same thing – and they can have surprisingly similar consequences.
Many American citizens remain willing to respect a former president who not only shuns reading, but simultaneously belittles history, science, and learning. What does this mean about their ability to understand and maintain a national democracy?
What is likely to happen when there is so little public unease with the obvious illiteracy and ignorance of a national leader? Let us remember that when it comes to the success of negotiations with North Korea, President Trump preferred “attitude” to preparation. When commemorating American servicemen of World War I, he had to ask his aides, “Who were the good guys in this war?“More troubling, he must have been trained in the basics of geopolitics by Vladimir Putin.
How many Americans meaningfully oppose a president who has clearly never read the american constitution? And what should we expect from someone who swears to “respect, protect and defend” a document that he has not read? “We the people…” shouldn’t be troubled?
How did the United States manage to get to such a dismal place? What have been the failures of American education, especially in our vaunted universities?
Even if we should no longer reasonably expect someone in the White House who resembles Plato’s enlightened decision-maker, shouldn’t we still be entitled to someone who manages to read and think seriously?
In the United States, almost no one takes scholarship seriously — and in the political sector, it is most often a handicap; instead, all are measured by a wholly inappropriate standard: We are what we buy.
Nietzsche warned: “Never look for ‘the superior man’ in the marketplace.”
But this is precisely where Trump reveled.
A proudly visceral segment of American society stood up for Trump. They still follow him faithfully because American society at large has been allowed to become an intellectual wasteland.
Louis René Beres, Ph.D. Princeton, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of 12 books and several hundred articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear warfare. His latest book is “Surviving the Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy(Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018)