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May 21, 2019 7:40 am

Saving America: Donald Trump Is the Symptom, Not the Illness

avatar by Louis René Beres

Opinion

US President Donald Trump awaits the arrival of Swiss Federal President Ueli Maurer at the White House in Washington, DC, May 16, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Carlos Barria.

Despite endless reassurances to the contrary, America’s core problems can never be fixed by ritualized political activity or elections. In essence, no American government — no president, no Congress, no hyper-adrenalized promises of “change” — can ever suitably halt the lethal trajectories that already imperil the United States.

To be sure, there are still ample opportunities for certain incremental reforms within our established political institutions, but these opportunities are severely limited. And they are not capable of reversing our seemingly inexorable drift toward incivility, instability, and eventual chaos.

How did we get here? The explanations (though not the solutions) are unhidden. Driven almost single-mindedly by egocentric considerations of taxation, commerce, and self promotion, our American system of governance has managed to produce an improbable but bitterly corrosive amalgam. Significantly, from this conspicuously toxic fusion of plutocracy with mob rule, no serious societal improvements could ever be expected.

Absolute candor is needed. Our true problem is not really about personalities, parties, or pressure groups. At one ironic level, it’s about a strangely proud culture of illiteracy. Who reads serious books in the United States today? Few if any of our national leaders could plausibly answer “yes” to this illuminating question.

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Even more ironically, this sweeping American lack of intellectual interest represents a tangible political asset.

Evidence? Ask anyone who has ever had to witness a Trump rally. At the apex of our government now sits a leader who openly abhors intellect, and who plainly benefits from this once-unimaginable sentiment.

“Intellect rots the brain” warned Joseph Goebbels, Third Reich Minister of Propaganda, in 1934.

“I love the poorly educated” said presidential candidate Donald J. Trump in 2016.

There is more. Although many Americans remain content with still-lingering hopes to grow their own personal wealth, even the richest among us are palpably deprived. Resigned to a dreary future of suffocating banalities and unsatisfying work, even the financially well-off must now lurch thoughtlessly from one personal forfeiture to the next. In the end, no matter how desperately these cheerless members of America’s “lonely crowd” might try for some tiny dint of negotiable ecstasy, they will fail.

In essence, to use the graphically informal parlance of an earlier generation, they will “get no satisfaction.”

For the most part these days, certain basic American “truths” are now starkly extraneous or conveniently falsified. One prominent casualty of veracity has to do with our universities. Revealingly, the so-called “Trump University” was never just a patently barbarous manipulation of our traditional intellectual standards. To at least some extent, its openly crass and degrading model of “education” was presaged by our more genuine  universities.

As someone who has “lived” in some of our most vaunted higher-education institutions for more than 50 years, I can’t remember a single one where funding and public relations (e.g., rankings) were recognizably less important than learning.

We the people are no longer motivated by any obvious considerations of enduring human value. For the most part, we don’t actively seek equanimity or “balance” as a necessary healing counterpoint to our frenetic lives. Distressingly, we search anxiously and vainly for “opportunities” to buy into a barren life of narrow imitation, a generally unsatisfying existence dedicated to assorted empty pleasures and sustained by whole mountains of cherished chemical diversions.

The numbers are plain and “beyond reasonable doubt.” At every moment, millions of our more-or-less exhausted citizens consume enough alcohol and drugs to suffocate any still-lingering or residual sources of human wisdom. By itself, the so-called “Opioid Crisis” has cost the country several trillion dollars (to apply the narrowly tangible metric of money), and in yet another stunning irony, corresponds to nearly incomprehensible levels of unhappiness.

In candor, we are speaking to a deep and presumptively irremediable level of national despair.

There is more. We Americans are carried forth not by any commendable nobility of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “high thinking and plain living,” but by grievously sorrowful eruptions of personal fear and collective agitation. At times, we the people may wish to slow down a bit and “smell the roses,” but our battered and battering country continues to impose upon its residents the ruthlessly merciless rhythms of a self-winding machine. Left unchecked, the all-too-predictable end of this hideous delirium will keep us from remembering who we once were, and (more importantly) who we might once still have become.

So what is to be done? If politics and elections can never save us, where else shall we turn? What, if anything, can be done to escape the pendulum of our own mad national clockwork? Routinely, we pay lip service to the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but almost no one truly cares about these musty old documents. Now they are invoked only for pretense or ostentation.

Does anyone seriously believe that the current President of the United States has even a tiny scintilla of what is written therein?

There is more. We Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, we likely possessed a unique potential to nurture individuals to become more than just cogs of a compliant crowd or mass. Emerson, after all, had described us optimistically as a people guided by both industry and  “self-reliance.” Now, we prepare to accept any conceivable infringements just in order to “fit in.”

In the end, credulity remains America’s worst enemy. Our still willing inclination to believe that personal and societal redemption can somehow lie in politics and elections describes a potentially fatal disorder. Certainly, many critical social and economic issues do need to be addressed further by our government, but so too must our deeper problems be solved at the individual human level.

In the end, this is the only level for undertaking real change and transformation — the only level that is not merely a reflection.

There is an aptly primal lesson here from the history of the Jews. Since the beginning, the truest essence of Judaism has been its Higher Law, most plainly discoverable in the Torah. In this special tradition, states or commonwealths may come and go, but the Torah — expressing both God’s transcendence and immanence — reigns forever.

What is the lesson? To be sure, throughout the democratic world, including especially the modern State of Israel, politics and elections are deemed critical and sometimes even indispensable. Nonetheless, what is ultimately much more important —  staggeringly more important — are those particularly core human obligations that are defined and determined elsewhere. Significantly, at least in principle, this original and still-enduring Jewish understanding of a Higher Law is expressly codified or presumptively binding within the constitutional foundations of all modern democratic states.

Examined from the specific standpoint of present-day American life and culture, this continuing Jewish wisdom yields at least one unassailable and derivative expectation: To save the Republic, citizens must first learn to look very far beyond tangible politics and elections.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is author of many books and articles dealing with literature, art, philosophy, international relations, and international law. His writings on American life and thought have been published at Yale Global Online; Harvard National Security Journal; Oxford University Press; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Daily Princetonian; The Jerusalem Post; and many others. Professor Beres’ 12th book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield (2nd edition, 2018).

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