Even today, even after so much accumulated evidence of Donald J. Trump’s incapacity and malfeasance, millions of Americans regard his presidency as exemplary. This cannot be explained in terms of any inherent liabilities of American politics. What’s needed is a consideration of the cultural context from which this dissembling president was extracted.
Trump supporters — rich and poor, educated and uneducated — include people who seek above all to “fit in.” These are the ones who love to chant in chorus and to embrace the reassuring but reductionist messaging of political simplification.
Americans who take history and science seriously are right to worry.
One may draw limited — but still-fair — comparisons to 1930s Germany. Then, as now, the virulent formulas beneath the simplifications were no longer merely expressed sotto voce, as residual “whisperings of the irrational.” Though Trump-era politics were never openly murderous, those at the summits of political power relied upon blaming “the usual suspects” — that is, on mercilessly exploiting the most fragile and vulnerable scapegoats.
The United States was never “becoming Nazi Germany” — but this should hardly be taken as a comfort. It’s not an all-or-nothing comparison. While there are clear differences between then and now, there are also some very disturbing resemblances, even imitation.
Decline may occur not as a “bolt from the blue,” but more-or-less indecipherably, in increments. With Trump preparing for another run at the White House and a solid majority of Republicans behind him, we Americans are clearly stumbling backwards.
Friedrich Nietzsche coined an aptly specific term for the paradoxical fusion of privilege with philistinism: Bildungsphilister. An English translation: “educated Philistine.” Everywhere one looks in the United States today, one finds capable professionals who have been more-or-less well trained, but never truly educated.
Bildungsphilister is a term that sheds useful light on Trump’s ongoing support among so 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,” but — in the end — a substantial fraction of his support came from the not-so-poorly-educated. Here, recalling German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers’ indictment regarding “whisperings of the irrational,” one should be reminded of Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ remark that “Intellect rots the brain.”
Truth is always exculpatory. It may be uncomfortable, upsetting, even bewildering — but it remains the truth nonetheless. The phrases “I love the poorly educated” and “Intellect rots the brain” essentially mean the same thing — and they may have disturbingly similar consequences.
Many American citizens remain willing to abide a former president who not only avoids reading, but who simultaneously belittles history, science and learning. What does this mean about their capacity to understand and sustain a national democracy?
What’s likely to happen when there exists so little public uneasiness over obvious illiteracy and ignorance in a national leader? We may recall that in regard to negotiating successfully with North Korea, President Trump preferred “attitude” over preparation. During the commemoration of American servicemen in WWI, he had to ask his aides, “Who were the good guys in this war?” More disturbingly, he had to be schooled in basic geopolitics by Vladimir Putin.
How many Americans meaningfully object to a president who has clearly never read the U.S. Constitution? And what should we expect from someone who swears to “uphold, protect and defend” a document he hasn’t read? Shouldn’t “We the people…” be troubled?
How has the United States managed to arrive at such a dismal place? What have been the failures of American education, most notably in our vaunted universities?
Even if we should no longer plausibly expect in the White House anyone resembling Plato’s enlightened decision-maker, ought we not still be entitled to someone who manages to read and think seriously?
In the United States, almost no one takes erudition seriously — and in the political sector, it’s most often a liability; instead, all are measured by one utterly inappropriate standard: We are what we buy.
Nietzsche warned: “One should never seek the ‘higher man’ at the marketplace.”
But that’s precisely where Trump reveled.
A proudly visceral segment of American society championed Trump. They still follow him faithfully because the wider American society was allowed to become an intellectual desert.
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 war. His newest book is “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018)