We Were Warned

“People accustomed to knowing they know everything worth knowing resent having to turn away from the mirror” (Lewis Lapham).

Art historian Jacob Burckhardt in 1889 bewailed what afterward became a cherished conservative term of abuse, “terrible simplificateurs”. This memorable epithet, smacking of supreme erudite scorn, demands a closer look in President Donald Trump’s USA for all the barbed ironies it actually contains. Burckhardt ably fulfilled the checklist for card-carrying conservatives enamored with an organic status quo, ancient institutions, and lower orders who were revolting solely in their tastes. What he foretold was an age overrun by ambitious apparatchiks who “descend upon our old Europe and make short work with voting rights, sovereignty of the people, material well-being, industry, etc. and will stand upon small ceremony”. Burckhardt, make no mistake, prized elite ceremony above all the crude annoyances of democracy. These new barbaric experts would accelerate accumulation of wealth to fantasized levels but in doing so would ruin, as he saw it, harmony among the classes. Next would gallop in wily demagogues to sort it all out. “For this will be the inevitable end of the state based on rule of law,” Burckhardt anticipated, “once it has succumbed to mere numbers and the consequences”.

Little wonder that this hoary old term revived with the mind-boggling election of Donald Trump. No one likes “mere numbers” more than he, evidently because they are so easy to play around with. In today’s usage “terrible simplifiers” is synonymous not only with authoritarian twits braying to the masses but also with utopian social engineers who decide for everyone else what is good for them. The engineers’ remedies (pace Veblen) are imposed one-size-fits-all formulas; hence, free market utopians, flat tax advocates and states’ rights proponents, however much they fancy themselves fastidious Burkean conservatives, are ideal candidates for the “terrible simplifiers” label too. Their ardent mission is to harness the state to serve the neoliberal market, Mirowski finds, and their revered freedoms do not include the freedom to criticize the purity of the marketplace. Neoliberals employ politics, in other words, to abolish politics and so relegate power to private actors who, being on intimate terms with the market, really do know best. If neoliberalism isn’t utopian social engineering, then what is? Here we glimpse the compulsive schematizing state juggernaut that James C. Scott dourly analyzed, and which is repudiated as much by the anarchist left as by the anarchist right.

Kurt Jacobsen and Alba Alexander, Donald Trump, American political economy and the “terrible simplificateurs”, RWER No. 79

Burckhardt, best known as a historian of the Italian Renaissance, coined the term ‘the terrible simplifiers’ to describe the demagogues who—in his dark vision of what the 20th century would bring— would play central roles in the future (Dru 2001: 230). Events amply fulfilled Burckhardt’s predictions of a cataclysmic 20th century, of the rule of terrible simplifiers, men who Burckhardt’s colleague at the University of Basel, Friedrich Nietzsche, called power-maniacs (Gewaltmenschen), and John Maynard Keynes referred to in 1936 as ‘madmen in authority’.

Reinert 2009, DESA Working Paper No. 88

America’s Founders and Abraham Lincoln warned us of the danger of elevating a demagogue such as Donald Trump to the highest office in the land and the virulent nature of the “angry mob” of sycophants easily manipulated by such demagogues making up the political base of such right-wing populism as we are witnessing today at the heart of the GOP:

In an 1838 address to the members of the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln warned that since American democracy could never be overthrown by a foreign invader, the only enemy to be feared was one within: undisciplined passion. Pointing to several recent examples of frontier lynchings, Lincoln deplored “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of the Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.” (….) Lincoln warned the young men of his home town that during the generations to come ambitious demagogues would seek to prey upon the passions of the people, unless these were kept under stern control. “Passion has helped us” in rallying the people to the cause of the Revolution, Lincoln acknowledged, “but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy.” He cautioned: “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.” Only by the control of passion could American democracy keep from degenerating into anarchy or demagogy. When Lincoln declared that America would stand or fall by “the capability of a people to govern themselves,” he meant this in both a political and a psychological sense.

Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (pp. 142-143). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Hay were the authors of The Federalist Papers:

No document relating to the Constitution of the United States has received more attention than The Federalist Papers. The papers were written in 1787–88 for the purpose of persuading the people of the state of New York to elect a convention that would ratify the proposed Constitution of the United States…. The authors of The Federalist—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—were practical men, writing under intense pressures, with a strong sense of the campaign strategy they were pursuing. They submerged their individual differences in the collective persona of Publius, who for our purposes may be treated as a single author (Howe 2009, 78-79)…. What Publius fears is that “a torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose,” frustrating all attempts at rational discourse. He himself will engage in rational argument, without impugning the motives of individuals…. However he may feel provoked, Publius will take his stance with Prospero in The Tempest:

“Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part.” (Howe 2009, 85)

“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason,” and the more numerous the assembly, “the greater is known to be the ascendancy of passion over reason.” Once dominated by passion, an assembly became a “mob.” (Howe 2009, 86) (….) Publius complained that the Anti-federalists’ rhetoric suggested “an intention to mislead the people by alarming their passions, rather than to convince them by arguments addressed to their understandings.” (….) Publius’s line of argument was not unprecedented: the seventeenth-century English classical republican theorist James Harrington had argued that government should be designed to maintain the supremacy of reason over passion, and had blamed passion for the degeneration of monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, or democracy into anarchy….. The Federalist quoted Jefferson with approval: “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” (….) The demagogue is a sinister figure in The Federalist. He lurks ready to exploit the passions and create a faction. He is the natural enemy of the statesman, who has virtue and the common interest at heart. The Constitution, Publius argues, will provide a context within which the statesman can defeat the demagogue. Fittingly, he both begins and ends his series of letters with warnings against demagogues.

Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (pp. 90-95). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

This very generation is witnessing with the rise of Trumpism an insidious form of right-wing populist extremism and “faction” that seeks to gratify “private passion by public means.” This is the exact kind of “faction” (i.e., the elevation of personal bias and opinion into absolutist totalitarian rhetoric) our Founders feared; the collective expression of “some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Factions stem from passions writ large inflamed by ambitious demagogues, as we witnessed during Trump’s many campaign rallies were he regularly incites violence, boasting he could murder someone in the street and the “angry mob” would still vote for him. Hamilton warned that in this form, passions become more dangerous than ever: “a spirit of faction” can lead men “into improprieties and excesses for which they blush in a private capacity.” (Howe 2009, 95)

Donald Trump’s demagoguery directed at his ignorant base is aimed at inciting their passions and is bent upon ripping apart the social fabric of our society and tearing down our democratic institutions. The GOP has mainstreamed extremism, and by so doing has signaled the death of any semblance of classical principled conservatism. In the words of the 18th Century Irish statesman Edmund Burke, “All drapery of life is to be rudely torn off… Their liberty is not liberal. Their [anti-science] is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.” By elevating license over liberty, zealotry and extremism over moderation and reason, the GOP has set America on a course Lincoln warned us would happen when we lost our ability to reasonably govern our own passions and prejudices. Trumpism is an existential threat to the very existence of America’s Constitutional form of government and balanced separation of powers. Time is swiftly running out and if we don’t augment our political discourse with a heavy dose of wisdom we will plunge ourselves over the cliff into another “dark ages” of the interregnum of wisdom bearing witness to the inexorable consequences of confusing license for liberty.

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