Even now, polls suggest that about 40% of Americans regard Donald Trump as a suitable president. In essence, this preference has little to do with job performance and must be explained by the nature of the wider society from which this president was drawn.
For the most part, Americans have forsaken every once-residual aspect of an authentic intellectual life. This near total abandonment of a national “life of the mind” was not fashioned in a cultural vacuum. Rather, it was fostered by an unrelenting barrage of crude and voyeuristic entertainments, most of which now centre on sex, sadism, torture, murder and dreary profanity.
Surely this is not the time to expect a visit from Plato’s “philosopher-king.”
In essence, the incumbent US president is not familiar with the country’s history and does not understand that it deserves its proper pride of place. Few Americans consider that the country’s Founding Fathers, in supporting the right to bear arms, imagined automatic weapons. Even fewer know that the early Republic was the indisputable religious heir of John Calvin, and the philosophical descendant of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. For that matter, only a small number have ever even heard of John Calvin, John Locke or Thomas Hobbes.
In the end, fundamentally basic cultural and educational disfigurements shape presidential selections. Many of this country’s cumulative political ambitions remain bound up with embarrassing simplifications and, accordingly, with stupefying clichés. The appearance of Willie Robertson, a TV star from the reality TV show Duck Dynasty, as a principal speaker before the Republican National Convention was consistent with Trump’s own proud personal aversion to intellect and learning. No one seemed to have any trouble with the convention’s shameless juxtaposition.
The full horror of the Trump presidency begins with the intellectually unambitious American individual, with the flawed citizen “microcosm.” Significantly, the electorate can never rise any higher than the amalgamated capacities of its separate members. “When the throne sits on mud,” observed philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “mud sits on the throne.”
Ultimately, every democracy represents the sum total of its constituent “souls.” In the deeply fractionated American republic, however, We the people – more and more desperate for a seemingly last chance to “fit in” and “get respect” – inhabit a vast wasteland of irretrievably lost human opportunity. Within this largely desiccated society of cheap and abysmal entertainments, Americans have indeed become the “hollow men,” chained to a lifetime of more or less exhausting and meaningless work.
This demeaning fate is often as true for the very rich as for the very poor. Unsurprisingly, for both extremes of wealth and poverty, many American citizens increasingly seek solace by drowning themselves in vast oceans of both alcohol and drugs. Still, even the great seas are not limitless solvents.
In essence, “we the people” now cheerlessly embrace the full range of cultural and intellectual declension. Willingly, we go down in the blithering Trump era without even a murmur of palpable resistance or visible courage. Above all, too many continue to think aggressively against history, bombastically, somehow strangely pleased that few adults care to read or learn anything important. Too many Americans are remotely concerned that Donald Trump never reads. As for the president himself, he is unashamed, even proud of this disposition to eschew books.
Few condemn this attitude. Intellectual endeavors have little cash value and hardly “pay.”
To a significant extent, the presidential debility reflects a society that rejects Emersonian individualism in every conceivable form or nuance. “I belong, therefore I am.” This is not what René Descartes had in mind back in the 17th century, when the philosopher had urged greater private thought and, as essential corollary, greater doubt. Without demurring, this sad credo positively shrieks that social acceptance is equivalent to one’s own physical survival, and that even the most ostentatiously pretended pleasures of inclusion are worth pursuing.
Adrenalised, this crowd-centered American society proceeds imitatively, at the lowest possible common denominator. This is fertile ground for a president whose principal commitments are not to reason, intellect or logic, but instead to rancor, blame and systematic deflection.
For too many young people, learning has become an inconvenient but mandated commodity. And commodities, like the next batch of mass-produced college graduates, exist for one purpose – to be suitably “processed.” For Trump and supporters this represents not an embarrassment or liability, but rather the optimal definition of an American democracy.
Though confronting genuine threats of war, illness, impoverishment and terror, millions of Americans still prefer to amuse themselves to death, resorting to various forms of morbid excitement, voyeuristic “reality shows,” inedible or openly injurious foods, and the distracting repetitions of a persistently vacuous political discourse. Not a day goes without some premonitory sign of impending catastrophe. Still, the numbed country continues to impose upon its exhausted and manipulated people a shamelessly open devaluation of challenging thought and a continuously breakneck pace of unrelieved work and emotional submission.
Soon, even if the nation somehow manages to avoid nuclear war and nuclear terrorism – an avoidance not to be taken for granted in the unraveling Trump era – the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned. Then, the phantoms of great ships of state, once laden with treasures, may no longer lie forgotten. Then, perhaps, we may finally understand the circumstances that could send the compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Freud and Kafka to join the works of forgotten poets, were neither unique nor transient.
In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired about the authenticity of America: “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” The former president, then a professor at Princeton, answered “yes,” but only if citizens refused to stoop and join the injurious and synthetic “herds” of mass society. “Let us remind ourselves that to be human is, for one thing, to speak and act with a certain note of genuineness, a quality mixed of spontaneity and intelligence,” he wrote, adding that this is especially essential during times of shifting standards. “The art of being human begins with the practice of being genuine, and following standards of conduct which the world has tested.”
Otherwise, Wilson had already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, as incapable as the rusty demise of broken machinery.
The Trump presidency is merely the most debilitating symptom of a much deeper pathology. The nation’s underlying disease is a far-reaching unwillingness to think seriously. Left unchallenged at this rudimentary level, such reluctance could quickly transform into the finely lacquered corpse of a once promising American society.
With luck, the Trump presidency will end without catastrophic nuclear war, but even that “happy ending” would represent little more than a temporary reprieve.
Unless citizens begin to work much harder at changing their society’s stunningly deep indifference to intellect and reason, they will recurrently face the dreadful kinds of metamorphoses that Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously termed a “sickness unto death.” The real work for Americans must not begin with politics directly – as all politics are epiphenomenal – but with a distinctly more resolute “fixing” of our individual selves.
This article first appeared on Yale Global online.