"On Trump: to the Gods all things are beautiful"

Ronald Tiersky January 2017

About Trump: to the Gods all things are beautiful

Thus said Heraclitus,

"To the Divinity, all things are beautiful, good and right, but men, on the other hand, deem some things right and others wrong."

This is not a usual American way of thinking. But the ancient Greek philosopher, a pagan not a Judeo-Christian, is wise counsel in orienting oneself during these first weeks of the Trump administration.

At ground zero in American politics, that weird planet called Washington, D.C., President Trump is a whirlwind, the Congress, especially Republicans, hangs on for dear life in the storm, while in the country at large, an unprecedented wave of opposition to a new president could become a tsunami.

This is the world of men. The Great Trump Experiment has quickly become a matter of right and wrong, good and evil, truth and untruth. There is consternation in the land.

Astonishingly for American politics, it's the effect of a single individual, Donald Trump alone, not some clique or cabal or even the Republicans' double majority in Congress. The arrival in the highest office of a single oddball neurotic individual, half-disengaged even from his supporters, has upended everything. It's just as he intended. Suddenly we have a kind of monarch. He's just what the Founding Fathers didn't intend.

But so far it's arguably within the Constitution. The fact is he's the president, legitimate by election and with all the authority of the office.

In terms of policy, the Excellent Experiment of Donald Trump is a combination of the ludicrous, the ominous and the plausible. Analysis should not, in other words, be ideological. It's not all bad or all good.

It's possible that a president with the bullying instincts of New York real estate could promote American economic interests by tilting a balance. Using tariffs, perhaps only threatened, as a cudgel against countries such as Mexico and China with huge trade surpluses with the U.S. Conceiving of foreign and trade policy in general as discrete deals rather than multilateralist doctrine--transactional policymaking--could produce results. Drop the TPP in favor of bilateral trade deals in which America's huge economy always gives it the advantage. Pressure and shame American companies to produce at home ("buy American, hire American").

Geopolitically, abandon the idea that American power and global reach means that the country always has to lead in every major international crisis. In the intractable Middle East, for example, let the regional big powers pacify Syria since the Obama administration was either unable or unwilling to do the dirtiest work. Instead, participate in creating safe zones and bank on the contradictory interests among Russia, Turkey and Iran to create a postwar balance of power.

Trump's instinctual, half-formed and poorly expressed conception of international affairs may well coalesce into a comprehensible strategic approach as his presidency settles in. If it needed a name now, it might be called No more Mr. Nice Guy, a crude formulation that he might endorse.

But go back to Heraclitus, the pagan pre-Judeo-Christian conception of human affairs. Seen by the Greek Gods, who are not moralistic deities, the Trump Experiment, rich and rattling around, is already beautiful. It's a fascinating aesthetic experience, original, some combination of courageousness and recklessness.

The Human Comedy is always a mad spectacle of our species' appetites and frailties. Read the Bible, or Dante, Shakespeare or our own pagan, Tom Wolfe, whose books detail what he calls the lurid carnival of American life.

From such a viewpoint, how beautiful to see fundamental mechanisms of the American political life suddenly in motion, basic premises questioned, the strutting actors on our political stage obliged to inspect and defend their usual ways of doing and saying things. Suddenly Washington is no longer humdrum, no longer the normal self-interested humming of politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists playing their parts.

From this regard, compare Trump and Obama. Objectively, Trump is both the anti-Obama and the return of Obama. Unlike the latter, Trump is uncouth and hard-nosed, but also charismatic and wanting to write his name huge in the history books. Objectively speaking, not making a moral judgment, the international demonstrations against Trump are equivalent to those in favor of Obama eight years ago. People around the world are, ipso facto, mesmerized by America's presidential elections. And rightly so because the U.S. is the world's Superpower and other countries always have a stake in our presidencies.

The potential of America's power is felt everywhere. Even as Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and the Ayatollahs of the world flex their muscles, they keep a wary eye on Washington. Because Trump is unpredictable and a force. Secretly, they must be quickened to face this new player at the table.

At home, Trump's actions have sharpened the contradictions. Hundreds of thousands of protesters thronged the streets in the days after the inauguration and hundreds of protestors still show up at a thousand places around the country, calling themselves The Resistance.

Thomas Jefferson's often-quoted words naturally come to mind:

"...what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion."

Jefferson might have added, what government preserves legitimacy if it does not resist the protests against it, if it does not defend its right to govern by virtue of election? If resistance to power is praiseworthy so is resistance to the resistance. Trump loves to mix it up. The protestors, the Democratic Party and the courts should stay the course. The Gods are of course delighted.

Even the gaffes are beautiful. Sean Spicer's hilarious press briefing arguing the size of the inauguration crowd. The lie that millions of people voted illegally. The flurry of half-baked executive orders such as the travel ban, sprung on the country, not excluding the government officials supposed to enforce them.

But notice this: the war between Trump and his opposition is anything but nihilism. From the point of view of the Gods--and indeed from the contestants' point of view as well--it's thrilling. This is real politics, not the feeling that nothing matters, that no fight is worth making. In fact, America is once again energized. And this energy, chaotic as it can be, is a kind of optimism. Ask Senator Bernie Sanders.

So hat's off to Donald Trump, really. He resurrects the worst and best in Americans. On one hand a susceptibility to demagogy. But also a new generation (including lots of legal immigrants) learning that a free country is not something to be taken for granted. You have to work at it.