Donald Trump: It Can Happen Here
Times are changing. In 1960, when I was still in high school, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States. Immediately and intelligently, the new president challenged an entire generation of young Americans to think beyond stifling policies of narrow self-interest or gratuitous antagonisms. Back then, we (“young people”) were animated by such innovative programs as the Alliance for Progress and (especially) the Peace Corps.
These novel inspirations were multiple, even “electric.”
But let’s switch to the present moment.
What can this country’s youth possibly discover in their current president’s grimly corrosive visions, proposals, and fearful expectations? The answer is anything but inspiration.
Today, rather than encourage the American people toward affirmatively broad forms of human cooperation — nationally and internationally — Donald Trump discovers safety in a “beautiful” barrier wall of steel slats and concertina wire. This strange presidential aesthetic is replicated on the international stage, where we have regressed as a civilized nation with once-dignified and purposeful leadership to ineffectual global belligerence.
“The times they are a-changin’” sang Bob Dylan, but the Trump era transformations are hardly what the epoch-defining troubadour had in mind.
The Trump presidency cheerlessly wages constant and relentless war against intellect. “I love the poorly educated,” exclaimed candidate Trump.
His rallies are self-affirming. Rally attendees love to chant in chorus. It matters not that the chants are uniformly incoherent or just plain nonsense. All that matters is that complicated issues of economics and security be simplified to demeaning clichés and empty witticisms.
The key to the dissembling American leader’s apparent “success” lies in his carefully contrived simplifications.
Surrounded by the like-minded and drawing comfort from the collective howl, each rally member may abandon any sense of personal responsibility amid Trump’s escalating shrieks of execration against a myriad of “enemies” — most notably the press, universities, and desperate refugees from “shithole countries.”
This president won’t ever trouble himself with science, history, or tangible fact. By favoring a national ethos of raw emotion and determined anti-reason, he continually forces American political and social life toward triumphant absurdity.
The result can only be chaos and war.
The writer Sinclair Lewis prophesied in his 1936 novel that it can happen here.
And it’s worth noting that the German people of the 1930s were not in any recognizable way deviant, inferior, different, or unique. Rather, like the people of the United States today, they were, for the most part, ordinary.
Karl Jaspers, the 20th-century Existentialist philosopher who rigorously examined questions of German guilt after World War II, also studied the deeper and more generic issues involved. In his immensely valuable Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952), Jaspers explained that an authoritarian leadership must always depend upon a docile citizenry, one that willfully seeks the simplest possible answers and can reassuringly blame one or several accessible scapegoats.
Always, in the obligatory public exhibitions of such needed scapegoating, the objective is to organize the faithful, stifle the opposition, and preserve “law and order.”
And what better way to maintain “law and order” than to highlight allegedly undesirable minorities wishing to “invade” or “storm” a country’s borders.
The end of all this Trump delirium is to prevent Americans from substituting genuine thought for unhesitating loyalty.
The Founding Fathers, most of them anyway, were suspicious of “the people” en masse. Jefferson, writing against mob rule in his Notes on Virginia, said that there should be a plan of elementary schooling by which “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.”
The last thing we need today is a president whose willfully incoherent policies only confirm the Founding Father’s worst fears.
The times are certainly changin’ — but it’s anything but propitious. Dylan’s classic mantra was meant for much better things.
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).
A version of this article was originally published by The Hill.