Absurdity, Trump and the American presidency - opinion

Trump’s simplifying cultural context offered millions of Americans an ill-founded kind of reassurance.

 FORMER US PRESIDENT Donald Trump during his first post-presidency campaign rally in Ohio, earlier this year. (photo credit: SHANNON STAPLETON/ REUTERS)
FORMER US PRESIDENT Donald Trump during his first post-presidency campaign rally in Ohio, earlier this year.
(photo credit: SHANNON STAPLETON/ REUTERS)

It is difficult to imagine. The United States, despite its vast reservoir of intellectual and capital resources, harbors stubborn preferences for restoring a previously failed presidency. How can any such absurdity be explained?

At one inconspicuous level, the answer lies in the seemingly eternal comforts of political simplification. Always, Donald Trump made light of complexity and preparation. For his many supporters, whisperings of conspiracy or the irrational represented a welcome counterpoint to any challenging obligations of serious thought.

There have been more or less reasonable comparisons of Trump-era governance with the Third Reich. Even under Trump, however, the United States was never actually “becoming Nazi Germany.” While there are vital differences between then and now, there are also variously disturbing forms of resemblance and imitation. One is the significant absence of an educated middle and upper class with meaningful intellectual orientations.

Nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche anticipated this absence and coined a useful term for the generic problem. This German word was “Bildungsphilister.” When expressed in its most lucid and coherent English translation, it means “educated Philistine.” To wit, wherever one looks in the United States today, there are capable professionals who have been more or less trained but never really educated.

Now, “Bildungsphilister” is a term that could shed additional light on Trump’s uninterrupted support among many of America’s presumptively well-educated and well-to-do. During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump several times commented: “I love the poorly educated.” In the end, however, a substantial fraction of Trump’s voter support came from the not-so-poorly educated. One should be reminded here of an earlier defiling remark by Third Reich propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels: “Intellect rots the brain.”

 Former US President Donald Trump speaks during a rally to boost Ohio Republican candidates ahead of their May 3 primary election, at the county fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio, U.S. April 23, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/Gaelen Morse) Former US President Donald Trump speaks during a rally to boost Ohio Republican candidates ahead of their May 3 primary election, at the county fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio, U.S. April 23, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/Gaelen Morse)

Any apparent distance between “I love the poorly educated” and “Intellect rots the brain” is not as substantial as might first appear.

Even today, millions of Americans remain willing to abide a former president who not only avoids reading altogether, but who simultaneously belittles history, medicine, science and learning. What does this curious juxtaposition mean about American citizen capacities to sustain a national democracy? It’s a silly question.

How did we get here?

How has the United States managed to arrive at such a historically perilous place? What have been the related failures (both particular and aggregated) of American education, most notably in the country’s universities? It’s a discomfiting but sensible question.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra warns prophetically: “One should never seek the ‘higher man’ at the marketplace.” But the generally intellect-free marketplace was precisely where a proudly visceral segment of American society first championed Trump. What else should the nation have expected? The United States, after all, is a society where almost no one takes erudition seriously.

Learning is valued, but only as a sine qua non for climbing the “ladder of success.”

There is more. America’s previous president was not “merely” marginal or misguided. Quite literally, he represented the diametric opposite of Plato’s philosopher king and Nietzsche’s “higher man.” Convincingly, at both its moral and analytic core, the Trump administration celebrated a wretched inversion of what might once have been ennobling in the United States.

Historical context

How many Americans have ever paused to remember that the Founding Fathers who framed the Constitution’s Second Amendment were not anticipating automatic weapons? How many citizens genuinely understand that the early American republic was a religious heir of John Calvin and a philosophical descendant of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes? How many “successful” US lawyers have ever heard of William Blackstone, the English jurist whose learned Commentaries form the common-law underpinnings of America’s current legal system?

Human beings are allegedly the creators of their machines; not the other way round. Still, there exists today an implicit and grotesque reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate and potentially fatal pantomime between users and the used. Nowhere is this prospective lethality more apparent than among the self-deluding but endlessly loyal supporters of former president Trump. In essence, they still follow him faithfully because the wider American society was allowed to become an intellectual desert.

Trump’s simplifying cultural context offered millions of Americans an ill-founded kind of reassurance. Metaphorically, it provided them with a ubiquitous and useful “solvent,” one capable of dissolving almost anything of any substantive or enlightening consequence. In fairness, this demeaning American dissolution began before Trump, but it absolutely flourished during his witting affiliations with Bildungsphilister.

Soon, even if America should somehow manage to avoid both nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, the swaying of the national vessel could still become unendurably violent. Then, phantoms of great ships of state once laden with silver and gold may no longer lie forgotten. Then, perhaps, Americans will finally understand that the circumstances that could send the compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Freud and Kafka to join the works of properly forgotten poets were neither unique nor insignificant.

In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired tellingly about the “authenticity” of Americans. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked.

The US and Princeton University president answered “yes,” but only if the citizenry could first refuse to cheer the injurious “herds” of mass society. Otherwise, as Wilson had already understood, an entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of broken machinery, more hideous even than the biological decomposition of an individual person.

In Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952) philosopher Karl Jaspers observes: “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.”

In every society, and this includes Israel, the scrupulous care of each individual human “soul” is ultimately most important. Looking ahead, there can be an “improved” human soul, but not before citizens of all countries can finally acknowledge a prior obligation. This is the planet-wide responsibility to overcome any politics of absurdity and anti-reason.

The writer (PhD, Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law.