The president sounded the trumpet for Western civilization and values as he read from his teleprompter in Poland last week. David Brooks of The New York Times and PBS Newshour, a frequent and vocal critic of the current occupant of the White House, applauded him for appealing to "some of the things that are finest about Western civilization, artistic creativity, rights of minorities, equality for woman" while noting that whether he lives by these standards is another matter, whereby Brooks demonstrates a gift for understatement. My takeaway is that the speech is further evidence that Donald Trump, like many of his allies of the Republican persuasion, was born with a genetic condition that renders him incapable of recognizing irony.
Western civilization has strands and roots more diverse than is commonly acknowledged by its defenders on the right. Like all great cultures the West has been influenced by and borrowed and, yes, appropriated from innumerable other cultures. Ex nihilo nihil fit is a principle that goes back to the ancient Greeks in the shimmering dawn of what we call Western civilization. Trump exhibits no sense of this whatsoever and not a clue about the giants on whose shoulders this civilization and culture stand.
This is a man who takes pride in paying as little tax as he can manage when not avoiding taxes altogether, saying that is what businessmen are supposed to do and it makes him smart. We need not get into how far he pushes the envelope on the legal niceties of the tax code and what shenanigans may have transgressed those niceties to search in vain for any moral imperative that guides his actions. His duty is to enrich himself and indulge a monstrous ego, the two going hand in tiny hand.
Contrast this with Socrates, who while waiting for his sentence of death to be carried out was urged by his friends to flee Athens to save himself from the injustice that was being done to him. Other cities would take him in. Individuals of wealth and means would aid and protect him. His friends were convinced that he was throwing away his life when he might save it.
Socrates was swayed by none of their arguments. He could not abandon the principles he used to hold simply because of what happened to him, however unjust it might be. Among these principles:
...the really important thing is not to live, but to live well...and to live well means the same thing as to live honorably or rightly...
I won't present the argument in detail here. It is laid out in Plato's short dialogue Crito (11 pages in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. by Edith Hamilton & Huntington Cairns, Princeton Univ. Pr., 1961). What matters for our purposes is that at the end of the line Socrates concluded that to flee would be to act wrongly, so he stayed and accepted his sentence.
What could be more un-Trumpian? When has Donald Trump ever based a decision on whether he would be acting rightly or wrongly as opposed to considerations of self-interest and personal gain? That Trump's considerations of self-interest are by Socratic principles simplistic, short-sighted, the consequence of ignorance, and not truly in his interest at all is another matter, something that he has demonstrated through the actions of a lifetime that he is unable to comprehend.
Western civilization is a weave of many threads and divergent strands of thought, not all of them in harmony. For Socrates and many of his Greek contemporaries it is the laws and constitution of a well-governed state that make possible the higher forms of human society. From Aristotle we find it expressed in these terms:
The state comes into existence for the sake of life and continues to exist for the sake of good life.
At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.
Now what makes for a well-governed state and how injustice perpetrated by the state is to be resisted and addressed remains problematic. There is a libertarian fringe, maybe more than a fringe, that holds any restriction on individuals by the state is unjust, a principle that makes the state untenable.
Good grief. Once again I get sidetracked, venturing into deep water and grasping after wisdom that is beyond me. Let's just say that far from being a champion of Western civilization and values Donald Trump is representative of a contemporary school of thought whose starting point is a radical individualism that poses a greater threat to the Western tradition than any violent, off-brand Islamic sect or the poor and oppressed who illicitly crossing the southern border with the hope of making a better life for themselves and their families.
Memo from the Editorial Desk
The concluding sentence was revised slightly after this piece was initially published.
Brooks and Marcus on Trump meeting Putin, Republicans diverging on health care, PBS Newshour, July 7, 2017
Steve Eder and Patricia Cohen, Does Donald Trump Pay Taxes? Here’s What We Know, The New York Times, September 27, 2016
Rebecca Kaplan, Donald Trump: "I pay as little as possible" in taxes, Face the Nation, August 2, 2015
Trump's speech in Warsaw (full transcript, video), CNN, July 6, 2017