Trump Fascist Part V: Reason and Empiricism – The Art of the Deal
The third key philosophical premise that characterizes Donald Trump is his contempt for both reason and empirical truth. It is an indicator of fascism – again not a sufficient condition for labeling a fascist, but a necessary one. I will offer an alternative example of an argument that uses neither reason nor a reference to empirical fact to support a decision, but the conversation does not reveal or suggest fascism. I outlined the character of DT ignoring the use of reason and empiricism in my previous blog. Neither objectivity nor rational discourse is a measure for what is real. Reality is created by the spirit of a powerful personality who lays down his vision for the world.
This morning I will explore the implications of this proposition and its negative effects by analyzing the debate between Moses and God on Moses’ plea to be allowed entry into the promised land that is contained in this week’s parshat, parashat va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11). I will compare it to the arguments that Trump presented to both the President of Mexico and to the Prime Minister of Australia in his conversations with each one in turn.
It should be recalled that this shabat is referred to as “Shabbat Nachamu,” (my wife’s Hebrew name is Nechama), the sabbath of comfort or solace. We may also ask what comfort the words of Moses and God bring? Compare it to the continuing discomfort resulting from Donald Trump’s words and actions.
Usually, or, at least, very often, commentators on this parshat focus on the rule of law as discussed in the version of the Ten Commandments put forth in Deuteronomy as distinct from previous iterations. Or they choose the Shema, the declaration of the oneness of God for further discussion and analysis. They may take apart Moses’ narrative of the whole Exodus story and compare it to earlier iterations.
I choose to focus on the issue of entry into the land and the debate between God and Moses asking what rationalism and empiricism, the use of logic and the reference to the real world to falsify and confirm beliefs, have to do with that debate. The argument between God and Moses will be the source of the revelation.
The opening of parashat va’etchanan read this shabat begins with Moses pleading to be allowed to enter the promised land. Now Moses was not and never had been a narcissistic Alpha Male. His first concern had always been the security and survival of his people, not his own, a commitment that went back to his striking of the Egyptian guard and then being forced to flee Egypt and his life of privilege. He initially also always insisted that he was undeserving of the task of leading his people. Based on his own self-knowledge, Moses recognized that he was not an Alpha Male and seemed ill-equipped to lead his people given the Egyptian example. He was not even able to deliver a coherent speech.
Further, while developing great skills as a practitioner of the magic arts, he remained both the ultimate realist and rationalist. On the latter, it was he who accepted the advice of his non-Israeli father-in-law to decentralize the political leadership and judicial system based on Jethro’s reasoning, even though there was no evidence yet available that a decentralized system was more effective than a centralized one. Jethro’s experience counted, no matter the non-Israelite source. It was he who recognized after the spies returned from Canaan that the issue was not the fearsome might of the peoples there and the strength of the walls around their cities, but the will to win among his own.
A very different Moses emerges at the end of his life in complete contrast to the beginning. This text of Deuteronomy begins as follows:
Do not fear them, for it is the LORD your God who will battle for you.”
וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְהוָ֑ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying,
אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֗ה אַתָּ֤ה הַֽחִלּ֙וֹתָ֙ לְהַרְא֣וֹת אֶֽת־עַבְדְּךָ֔ אֶ֨ת־גָּדְלְךָ֔ וְאֶת־יָדְךָ֖ הַחֲזָקָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר מִי־אֵל֙ בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם וּבָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה כְמַעֲשֶׂ֖יךָ וְכִגְבוּרֹתֶֽךָ׃“O Lord GOD, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!
אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּ֗א וְאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן הָהָ֥ר הַטּ֛וֹב הַזֶּ֖ה וְהַלְּבָנֽוֹן׃Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.”
וַיִּתְעַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה בִּי֙ לְמַ֣עַנְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֵלָ֑י וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֤ה אֵלַי֙ רַב־לָ֔ךְ אַל־תּ֗וֹסֶף דַּבֵּ֥ר אֵלַ֛י ע֖וֹד בַּדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃But the LORD was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The LORD said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!
עֲלֵ֣ה ׀ רֹ֣אשׁ הַפִּסְגָּ֗ה וְשָׂ֥א עֵינֶ֛יךָ יָ֧מָּה וְצָפֹ֛נָה וְתֵימָ֥נָה וּמִזְרָ֖חָה וּרְאֵ֣ה בְעֵינֶ֑יךָ כִּי־לֹ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֥ן הַזֶּֽה׃Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.
וְצַ֥ו אֶת־יְהוֹשֻׁ֖עַ וְחַזְּקֵ֣הוּ וְאַמְּצֵ֑הוּ כִּי־ה֣וּא יַעֲבֹ֗ר לִפְנֵי֙ הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְהוּא֙ יַנְחִ֣יל אוֹתָ֔ם אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּרְאֶֽה׃Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage, for he shall go across at the head of this people, and he shall allot to them the land that you may only see.”
Moses could have offered many arguments to God on why he should be permitted to enter the promised land. He deserved such a reward after all his labours and sacrifices. Refusing to allow his entry was unjust and disproportionate if the reason for that refusal was his failure to invoke God when he struck the rock with his rod to bring forth water in the exodus across the Sinai. Even if you add to that all his other failures of commission and omission as a leader of his people, denying him the right to enter the land appears to be an extraordinary punishment totally out of proportion to any accumulation of his small sins.
Moses could have insisted that his people needed him. At that moment, it was highly risky to change leaders just when the real confrontation with the enemies of the tribes of Israel was about to begin. As the mediator between the people’s trust in God, he could have argued that he was indispensable. Moses could have insisted that since he had kept his part of the bargain, God should keep His and allow his entry. Finally, with the conquest of Sihon and Og and the settling of one-and-a-half tribes on the east side of the Jordan, Moses could have argued that the Israelites were already in the Promised Land. They were already in Canaan for the defeated peoples were Canaanites.
However, Moses offered none of these arguments or others he could have used. Moses does not try to reason with God nor offer evidence for God acceding to his request. Instead, he “entreated” (וָאֶתְחַנַּן) God to allow his entry. As Rashi wrote, “חִנּוּן [and its derivatives] in all cases is an expression signifying [requesting] a free gift. Even though the righteous may base a request on the merit of their good deeds, they request only a free gift of the Omnipresent.”
Moses also appears to flatter God. With God’s greatness and his mighty hand that no god in heaven or on earth can equal, it was totally within God’s power to grant such a request. Are the remarks of Moses similar to Donald Trump’s pleas, first to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, not to talk publicly about Mexico not paying for the wall because that was politically embarrassing to DT given that he had run and won on such a platform? Are the remarks of Moses akin to DT’s discussion with Prime Minister Turnbull of Australia? After all, with both DT alternated disparagement with flattery.
The context of the first conversation was DT signing an executive order to begin construction of the wall on the Mexican border without any agreement that Mexico would pay for it and Nieto cancelling his trip to Washington when DT kept insisting that Mexico pay for the wall. Threats by DT were injected – tariffs, restrictions on imports and refusal to meet with the Mexicans in the future if they failed to accede to his request. There were also promises, but insulting ones – we will send our boys to help fight the tough hombres. Whereas Nieto made his requests in terms of the mutual interests of both countries, DT’s emphasis kept returning to the effects on his image.
DT’s other reference was to his great election victory – “the large percentage of Hispanic voters” and 84% of the Cuban-American vote – both lies – and that “no one got people in their rallies as big as I did” – 25,000 to 50,000. DT also used insincere flattery of Nieto as “smarter” and “more cunning” combined with insults. “You have not done a good job of knocking them [the drug dealers] out.”
Finally, there is the insistence of DT’s absolute authority to impose taxes and tariffs on Mexican goods coming into the USA independent of any vote in Congress – another lie. “I am sort of in this bad position because the deal that they are making is not nearly as good as the deal I could impose tomorrow – in fact this afternoon. I do not have to go back to Congress or to the Senate. I do not need the vote of 400 people. I have the powers to do all of this.”
The conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was much testier. DT insisted that the Australian PM break the agreement that the US had made to take in 2,000 asylum seekers on humanitarian grounds that had been interned in islands off Australia since the deal was so antithetical to the platform on which DT had run. “The deal will make me look terrible.” “This is going to kill me;” “that will make us look awfully bad;” “I look like a dope.” The references and arguments are all addressed to his own image and not the best interest of America or the mutual interests of both parties, let alone a set of higher ethical and political ideals. Instead, DT insists the deal is stupid and hangs up on Turnbull.
Contrast these conversations with the one Moses had with God. First, Moses entreated God. He granted right from the start that it was within God’s absolute power to grant such a request. His reference to God’s omnipresence should be viewed in this context, not as flattery, but as a sincere recognition that if a deal is to be made, the other, but especially God, has the right and power to decide on what He will do. With all his flattery and insults in dealing with other leaders of countries in the free world, DT never grants such an acknowledgement, but veers between putting the other down and self-aggrandizement as he boasts about his own powers.
There is also a contrast between the substance of the requests. Moses asks to be allowed to cross over and at least see the land on the other side of the Jordan, and, as a tack on, Lebanon. DT asks to keep migrants and drug dealers at home in Mexico and to keep the manufactured goods flowing so freely across the border at home. DT asks Turnbull to keep the refugees. Moses asks to keep the border open for him to cross. DT asks to close borders lest the image of himself that he has created and projected be damaged. The first constitutes religious respect. The latter is out-and-out self-idolatry, in this case, when one envisions oneself as the idol.
Does God respond to Moses with reason? Not at all. He just says, Shut up! Nor does God offer any empirical evidence for his decision – such as, given the strength and position of their enemies, why Joshua is now more fit to lead the Israelites. God just delivers the decision from on high. Don’t bring up the issue again. But there is a twist. God offers Moses compensation. He throws a bone. Moses will be allowed to see the land but not enter it. In return, Moses will pass the role of leader formally to Joshua so the leadership transition will go smoothly. Moses was instructed to pass on to Joshua his gifts of strength and courage.
And Moses accepts. That is the art of the deal when the object is not the protection of one’s own image, not narcissistic idolatry, but the primacy of service to the nation. All three examples of efforts to change the mind of another (1 by Moses and 2 by DT) begin with a sense of deep disappointment. All ask for a change of mind. But Moses is other-directed – towards God and towards his people. Donald Trump, while claiming to express the interests of Americans and to be the voice of his followers, is clearly almost exclusively interested in boosting and boasting about his own image. None of his arguments are sincere and some are outright lies.
Not all arguments and pleadings are settled by reason and a reference to facts. In the Moses example, this was definitely not the case. But in such instances, the use of a plea rather than a threat, the recognition of the other rather than the focus on the self, the willingness to accept a half measures instead of bullying to get what one wants even if one only wants half the pie in the first place, offer guidelines for the art of the deal, practices that DT seems to totally lack.
It is also an acceptance of one’s mortality as well as the acceptance that one fulfills one’s mission in life, not by accomplishing the goals set out, but by doing one’s best to advance those goals. There are consolation prizes in life and these are sufficient. There is no need to aspire towards immortality. But that is a message that will have to be saved for another blog.