“The crowd,” observed the 19th-century Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard, “is untruth.”
In these United States, nothing could possibly be more apparent or confirmative. Here, the presidency of Donald Trump — the most starkly injurious result of our mass society — may now bring us closer and closer to a full-blown nuclear war in Asia.
As for any dramatically planned talks with North Korea, they are effectively “stillborn.” Still, Trump is not the core cause of our myriad ills. He is actually a devastating result — “only” the most conspicuous symptom of a much larger and deeper underlying pathology. The philosophers would correctly clarify that Mr. Trump’s endlessly sordid presidency is merely “epiphenomenal.”
Some related or corollary issues here are also jurisprudential. In these urgent matters of law, President Trump, representing a global superpower that remains a principal party to the Geneva Conventions (1949) and the Genocide Convention (1948), had no conceivable legal right to call openly for the “total destruction” of another country — as he did with North Korea.
There is more. Although Trump is plainly unaware of such vital incorporations, international law remains an integral part of US domestic (municipal) law. To date, at least, this president has been unable to nullify Article 6 of the US Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”) or several major Supreme Court decisions. Among the judicial judgments that link binding international rules to the United States, the most important and recognizable are the Paquete Habana (1900) and Tel-Oren vs. the Libyan Arab Republic (1984).
But that is all for the Constitutional lawyers. Ultimately, even in the bitterly crude politics of President Donald Trump, the truth is exculpatory. Above all, this truth will reveal that our vaunted American democracy rests unsteadily on the retrograde sovereignty of manifestly unqualified persons. To wit, absolutely nowhere in the senior Congressional leadership is anyone yet prepared to say emphatically and unambiguously: “This emperor is naked. He has no clothes.”
Donald Trump’s refractory authority has “slipped back,” to use the illuminating images of 20th-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, “through the wings, and on to the age-old stage of civilization.” In essence, this ancient “stage” remains shabby, shaky, and profoundly anti-democratic. It does not bode well for American life at any level.
At the very heart of our persistent “crowd” problem, the current president is always just a nefarious and injurious symptom. Still, any further American “slippage” into a presidentially-augmented mass will have discernible and palpable consequences.
Indeed, no country so openly fearful of informed and independent thought — one so fervidly torn between its deafening public proclamations of exceptionalism and the hideously twisting estrangements of its unhappy people — can realistically hope to survive its declensions.
To get right to it, no blustering affirmations of “America First” can supplant authentic thought. They can only deflect our attention from steadily vanishing oases of domestic tranquility, and, simultaneously, bring us incrementally toward prospectively unprecedented escalations of war-planning in Korea. Such deflections, it should now be perfectly obvious, are a revealingly key objective of President Trump.
Should North Korea and the United States explode into outright nuclear war, the horrors of Vietnam will be replicated and magnified in literally just a few fleeting moments of surreal (and potentially genocidal) barbarism. Before anything decent could ever be born from the rubble of such a conflict, only an army of impertinent gravediggers could wield the “obstetrical” forceps.
Once upon a time in America, every barely-attentive adult could recite at least some intuitively Spenglerian theory of decline. Today, at a very different historical moment, and at an acquiescent national juncture when the entire riddle of human destiny has been reduced by American public life to insistently vulgar and degrading entertainments, no one can even recognize The Decline of the West. This lack of recognition is to be expected whether we are speaking of a classic historical text written by a once-obscure German professor, or more broadly, of an actual, tangible, and precipitous historical declension.
It is, of course, a very old story. Frightened and also repelled by any expectations of genuine learning, masses of Americans now proceed blindly and in stubbornly reassuring lockstep with the swollen legions of other fearful marchers. Hence, they keep pace together with those other homogenized mass men and mass women, who similarly loathe serious thought, and who just as cheerlessly embrace some vacant but reassuringly supportive “crowd.”
At times, certain sectors of this crowd coalesce energetically around a pied-piper president who conveniently promises accessible scapegoats for their multiple fears and personal failures.
But in the past, it has never been as degrading and as ominous as it is today. In the words of John Dean, speaking on CNN in March 2018, “Donald Trump is Richard Nixon on steroids and stilts.”
Yet, worldwide, this is not the first time in the past 100 years that a totally vacant political wizard has obligingly promised his followers “redemption” in exchange for blind obedience. In a best remembered previous example, the ultimate cost inflicted by the Third Reich embraced the destruction of an entire continent and more than 100 million souls.
Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.” At the very moment when an American president should be focusing systematically and analytically on nuclear dangers from both North Korea and Russia, Mr. Trump prefers instead to lead his chanting crowds in strange and futile directions: “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Now, more than ever, this irrelevant refrain is not only inane, but it very intentionally drowns out the last vestiges of any residually sensible American thought.
To be sure, in every presidential election, the American crowd indefatigably patronizes itself. The difference in 2016 is that the results were effectively sui generis; that is, they were darkly unique in the most regrettable and foreseeably portentous ways.
The remedy? No society, including allegedly “exceptional” ones, can co-exist together with a chanting crowd that masquerades as democracy. Unless we finally display a sincere willingness to oppose the shrill and yelling American mass — always a dreadful solvent of social conformance and intellectual mediocrity — we Americans will continue to find too little air to breathe.
Inevitably, at some point in the Trump years, there will be no air to breathe at all — and asphyxiation, we will then finally discover, is a particularly bad way to die.
Every mass society, not just our own, loves to chant deliriously and in a stupefied chorus. “We the people” continue to seek a comforting resonance in shallow slogans, raw commerce, and blatantly vacuous political promises. Oddly enough, this always-elusive search for happiness, amid convulsive shrieking and ceaseless imitation, would be decidedly less perilous if it did not proceed, at its very heart, from a bewildering and ultimately terminal ailment.
What, precisely, is this underlying malady? What, in essence, is our true national “pathology”?
The answer has much to do with understanding current war threats from North Korea or even Russia. Indeed, it is logically antecedent to discovering any real solutions to these threats.
At the most critical “illness” levels of national despair, politics and government have become pretty much beside the point. In this battered land of clichéd wisdom, mass shootings, copycat violence, and dreary profanity, there remains, at the bottom, a recalcitrant and metastasizing sickness of the soul.
Ironically, our national debility of personal surrender to crowds lurks mainly unhidden and undisguised, most notably in its proudly flaunted hatreds of intellect, individualism, and learning.
“Alas,” observed T.S. Eliot, in a still-unheeded warning, “Our dried voices, when we whisper together, Are quiet and meaningless.”
Alarmingly, at their very deepest levels, politics and government remain determinedly extraneous to whatever is truly important. America’s expanding ocean of personal addictions, now too vast for normal reformist strategies, is already deep enough to drown whole libraries of a once-sacred poetry.
In an earlier and foundational American national history, both liberals and conservatives read Lucretius, Cicero, Grotius, Vattel, Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rousseau and, later, Blackstone. Excluding the 18th-century English jurist, whose refined thoughts were to become the indisputable starting point of all American jurisprudence, Thomas Jefferson read them all.
Until a few years ago, I had been a university professor for almost 50 years. For the most part, my students were clearly less interested in high-thinking than in high net worth. Given a presumptive opportunity to earn impressive incomes without even continuing their formal education, an overwhelming majority would have unhesitatingly grabbed at the offer.
In our later national history, sometime shortly after the once-celebrated literary ascendancies of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a spirit of accomplishment earned commendably high marks. Then, more often than now, young people strove to rise originally, not by incessantly craving expensive and mostly unnecessary goods, but as the confident proprietors of an exemplary American Self.
Although Emerson and his fellow New England Transcendentalists had taught that the flip side of “high thinking” must always be “plain living,” our current citizenry seemingly seeks private wealth above absolutely any other competing objectives.
This is true, at least in principle, for the very poor and disregarded as well as the already very rich.
So why read or study literature? Plainly, it has no cash value. And as our current president can readily attest, it has absolutely no credible place in the acquisition of personal power.
Still, President Trump is merely a symptom. With few exceptions, wealth is taken on its face as America’s final form of personal validation. Many years back, economist Adam Smith concluded that wealth is most eagerly sought not because of any intrinsic purchasing power, but rather on account of its unique capacity to elicit envy.
Later, Emerson expressed a similar idea, when he incautiously advised that “foolish reliance upon property” is the inevitable result of “a want of self-reliance.”
In the final analysis, the transient warmth of an American crowd still promises each citizen a concocted but convenient defense against loneliness and anomie. Yet, this reassuringly seductive mass quickly defiles whatever is wondrous, gracious, and generous in this or in any other society.
Anticipating this lamentable development, Charles Dickens had already observed of the US, back in 1842: “I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country, in the failure of its example to the earth.”
Dickens was “spot on.” We Americans have protected our political freedom from the most visible and invidious kinds of oppression, although even this key protection is now in some reasonable doubt. At the same time, we have wittingly sacrificed our coequal obligation to become authentically fulfilled persons. More openly deploring a life of greater meaning and purpose than one of calculated imitation and sterile accumulation, we routinely substitute reality shows for real literature, and now a reality show personality for capable national leadership.
Is it any wonder that we stand on the literal brink of prospectively irremediable nuclear confrontations?
In our sorely blemished democracy, a system of governance driven by what political “elite” theorists long called the “iron law of oligarchy,” those individual Americans who would still choose disciplined thought over “fitting-in” must accept corresponding kinds of “punishment.” Usually, these sanctions are delivered as some form of ostracism (social or professional), but sometimes also in certain corollary examples of enforced “aloneness.”
“The most radical division,” observed Gasset in 1930, “is that which splits humanity … those who make great demands on themselves … and those who demand nothing special of themselves.”
In reality, our democracy and its closely corresponding presidential elections represent an inelegant and lethal masquerade. They cover up and legitimize what is actually constituted and consecrated by the backward-looking crowd. Now, at long last, it is high time for such camouflage in the inert American mass to yield to something else. Now, in America, even after a catastrophic presidential selection, we may have been granted a very last chance for being-challenged-in-the-world.
In the end, only those few individuals who would dare to reject an insistently demeaning amusement society can offer America any enduring hope.
The strength and courage of our desperately-needed “inner-directedness” can never just lie in holding an advanced degree, in engaging with others during assorted electoral contests, or in various well-intentioned contrivances of language. The indispensable qualities of individual originality must be sought, instead, in the potentially complementary powers of intellectual independence, social justice, and spontaneous empathy.
This last power cannot really be taught. Nonetheless, it can be encouraged by stepping back from a culture that values endlessly crude consumption over necessary erudition and independent thought.
Adam Smith, in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), saw in capitalism not just an admirably rising productivity, but also the required foundation for political liberty. He also understood that a system of “perfect liberty” — what we might presently call an ideal democracy — could never be based upon a smug and facile encouragement of needless consumption. The inexorable laws of the marketplace, he reasoned, demanded a suitable disdain for vanity-driven buying.
For Smith, the main problem of a dangerously orchestrated hyper-consumption was not economic or political, but psychological.
It was, in other words, a problem of unresisted absorption into the crowd.
To Smith, contrary to very widespread misunderstandings of his complex thought, “conspicuous consumption,” a phrase that would later be used more explicitly by sociologist Thorsten Veblen, must never be taken as evidence of economic or political progress. It follows that while the call of the crowd in American democracy may remain loud, crass, or even alluringly persuasive, we the people must somehow keep up the struggle against the suffocating mass — purposefully, and, above all, as authentic individuals.
Then, perhaps, we Americans could lay bare the essential ingredients of a democracy that would offer much more than the sum total of individual souls fleeing desperately from themselves.
Then, perhaps, we could avoid electing another president who stands noisily in opposition to any sane foreign policies of nuclear war avoidance, and who foolishly substitutes injurious ad hominem attacks for intelligent diplomacy. Then we could determinedly choose our presidents from among candidates who already recognize that America is part of a much wider and intersecting world, ones who could acknowledge that “America First” represents little more than the intellectual death rattle of a rapidly waning and self-destructive civilization.
At that point we could finally understand why Kierkegaard is still our most timely mentor: “The crowd is untruth.”
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Algemeiner