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Monday, June 5, 2017

Donald Trump–A Philosophical President

Most Americans if asked would name Thomas Jefferson as the President with the best understanding of philosophy.  He after all turned to the writings of Rousseau, Locke, and others of the Enlightenment to help frame the Declaration of Independence.

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In one short paragraph, Jefferson stated the fundamental unalterable philosophical principles which would guide the affairs of both the governing and the governed.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
It would be an apostasy, then, to include Donald Trump in the same discussion.  How could this vaudevillian, this Hollywood and Las Vegas clown, this braggadocio and outrageously arrogant and self-absorbed man ever be compared to Thomas Jefferson?

Obviously not. In fact there are probably no two Presidents more unalike.  Considerations of God, moral behavior, and the place of man within society were paramount to Jefferson.  It was impossible for him to think outside a morally principled, intellectual context. 
The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. ... Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error (Query XVII of Notes on the State of Virginia).
Donald Trump is unapologetically anti-intellectual, and if he has ever considered the philosophical dimensions of his campaign promises or policies as President, he has never let on.  He has used his intelligence in other more direct and practical ways – how to gain advantage over equally aggressive and ambitious competitors; how to understand the aspirations and fears of consumers; and how to master the arts of finance, economics, and social behavior.

‘The Art of the Deal’ is a long way from Preamble; and Trump’s positions on war and peace a far cry from Jefferson’s Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms; yet philosophy is not only a matter of academic reflection.  More importantly it does not take a philosopher to affect philosophy.

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The Trump political revolution is far more radical than that of Ronald Reagan who reversed decades of liberal, interventionist policies.  “Government is not the solution”, Reagan said. “Government is the problem”; and with that one statement this former B-actor, savvy politician, but no intellectual changed the way America considered governance and civil society.

The individual was to be once again at the heart of the Republic and government only a handmaiden.  If there was to be any collective in American society, it would be private enterprise – that network of enterprising, ambitious individuals linked together in a free market system.  Socialist conventions of community and organizations by class and race were discredited in favor of the God-given rights and abilities of the individual.

It did take a Schopenhauer or Kant to understand that the Soviet Union was a threat to the West not because of its aggressive militarism, but because of its ‘Godless Communism’.  No regime which arrogates to itself a moral authority which only comes from God and neuters the God-given individualism of its people can possibly stand.

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In the same way, Donald Trump is effecting an even more profound reversal in progressive liberalism.  His stands against the Eastern Establishment, the swamp of inbred, incestuous Washington politics, and the corrosive, debilitating nature of political correctness are fundamental.  He envisions no gradual change in political and civil behavior, but an immediate, drastic return to bare-knuckle laissez-faire. 

Although The Gunfight at OK Corral has become a cliché for idealistic Wild Western frontier justice and a reactionary call for  anti-social and anti-progressive dismantling of the liberal social system, it is at the heart of American political culture.  Or at least has been.  According to conservatives, this Western six-gun justice is precisely what is missing from an over-regulated, overly moralistic, overly intrusive government.

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What could be more philosophical? The argument over individualism and progressive paternalism is at the heart of today’s political debate even though it has not been framed in that way.

Similarly what could be more philosophical than the place of individual faith within a secular society?  Jefferson and the Founding Fathers understood the issue absolutely.  The new nation would never suffer under a religious monarchy and religious minorities would never suffer the discrimination and torture they did in Europe.  Yet the role of faith and belief in God was never questioned.  The same Enlightenment philosophers who insisted on rationality equally insisted that it should be used in the search for God.

This delicate balance, say conservatives, has tipped dangerously in favor of the secular.  Abortion, for example, is discussed primarily within a civil rights context; and has been adjudicated in favor of the mother who has an absolute and unquestioned right to make any and all decisions concerning her body.  Moral and philosophical questions, especially those dealing with the origin of life, potentiality, and Biblical injunction are routinely dismissed.

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Gender issues have also been largely restricted to a secular, judicial context. There may be no question of equal civil rights for gays, but there certainly is a moral and religious one as well.  Those who take their inspiration and moral judgment from the Bible cannot possibly ignore the persistent focus on human procreation and family and its relevance to Genesis and the Christian Trinity.

Free speech has been cast in a secular, political context as well.  Most critics look first, foremost, and exclusively to the First Amendment for guidance.  Yet the all elements of this Amendment have a more profound basis.  The freedoms of expression – speech, religion, assembly – are not just constructs of a secular civil society, but fundamental to man’s spiritual nature.   There is no way, said Jefferson and his colleagues, that anyone can follow a path to spiritual enlightenment or salvation without the freedom of personal expression.

The debate about the closing of the American mind, the stifling of free speech, and the paternalistic sheltering of collective groups has in fact little to do with politics and everything to do with philosophy.

So, is Donald Trump a philosopher after all? In the strictest sense of the word of course he is not.  He is no reflective thinker, no intellectual, no academic. He has written nothing even vaguely reminiscent of philosophy; has never referred to Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Hume, Socrates, or Mill; and mentioned the Founding Fathers only in a patriotic, nationalistic way.

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Yet if his principles and policies are at root profoundly philosophical and address far more than secular, civic issues, he may not be a philosopher per se but a man who will be remembered for engineering a fundamental moral and philosophical restitution.

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