Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

R.W. Emerson, D.J. Trump, Inconsistency, and the Folly of Transcendentalism

              Ralph Waldo Emerson at Age 75

             Ralph Waldo Emerson at Age 75

Yes, I know, the title of this week's essay is a bit off-putting and cumbersome.  But please, do read on; the essay is hopefully better than the title.  Back in 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the father of American Transcendentalism, published an essay entitled Self-Reliance, best known for the line "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . ." Self-Reliance contains the most thorough statement of Emerson’s emphasis on the need for individuals to avoid conformity and false consistency and instead follow their own instincts and ideas. Although not nearly as well known, that which follows "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . ."  provides the clarity one needs to better understand what Emerson was getting at:

". . . adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."

One has to wonder what Emerson, "The sage of Concord," would have made of '45, the "Emperor of Inconsistency," the man who takes great pride in being both inconsistent and unpredictable.  Would Emerson have put a giant disclaimer at the beginning of Self-Reliance . . . something to the effect of "What follows is both well and good for the likes of Socrates, Copernicus, Newton and the gang but definitely not when it comes to Trump?" Or would he simply have given up entirely on Transcendentalism - the philosophy which emphasizes the inherently unknowable character of reality - and and do something totally inconsistent . . . like become, say,  a wino?

'45's penchant for inconsistency and unpredictability were on full display during the European leg of his recently concluded 10-day foreign jaunt.  In his address to NATO, '45 pushed around leaders of the 28-member nations on their contributions to the trans-Atlantic alliance.  Besides demonstrating a lack of understanding as to precisely how the 68-year old alliance works (member nations do not make payments to the United States), '45 returned to the "America First" meme he used to great applause (or  consternation) and acclamation ( or stupefaction) during the presidential campaign. One will recall that during the campaign, the future POTUS repeatedly stated that NATO was "very obsolete," and then, once he had spent a mere 82 days in office, declared NATO rehabilitated. Moreover, he took credit for transforming it into "a modern, cost-sharing, terrorism-fighting pillar of American and European security."  Last month, when '45 hosted António Guterres, the new UN Secretary General, he announced “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”  And yet, in his speech in Brussels the other day, in addition to chastising the 27 other leaders for not spending enough of their national budgets on defense, made the historic, unpardonable mistake of not explicitly endorsing Article 5 of NATO's founding document.  (n.b. The article, known as the collective-defense clause, stipulates that an attack on any member is an attack on all. It was invoked for the first - and only - time in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.)  Needless to say, this went over like the proverbial lead balloon.  Grading '45's Brussels appearance, one international relations specialist noted: "Diplomatically, the speech was inept at best and deliberately insulting at worst." 

Then, there was the issue of climate change. Meeting in Taormina, Sicily, leaders of the G7 - the world's most exclusive geopolitical club -  issued their 2017 declaration pledging commitment to the 195-nation Paris accord on climate change.  In an announcement that one reporter said "hearken[ed] to a characteristically reality TV cliffhanger," '45' issued a Tweet in which he stated "I will make my final decision on the Paris Accord next week!"   Former Goldman Sachs executive - and current chief economic adviser - Gary Cohn told reporters that the president "continues to study" the Paris agreement. Throughout the presidential campaign the future '45 threatened several times to pull out of the Paris climate accords, a groundbreaking agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. All along he has been fairly consistent in calling steps to cut climate-warming emissions bad for business. He’s even called climate change a Chinese hoax “to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”  But as of yesterday - according to his latest Tweet - he isn't sure precisely what he's going to do.  One wonders who he's going to be speaking to and what he's going to be reading in the next couple of days in order for him to make up his mind.  If, as expected, '45 pulls the U.S. out of the climate accord, we will then become one of just three countries on the planet who don't care about saving the planet - the other two being Syria and Nicaragua. 

Taking "a couple more days" to study up on climate change prior to making a decision fraught with consequence for both the future of Planet Earth and America's global leadership is akin to cramming for a final exam consisting of precisely three "no-brainer" questions:

  1. What is your name?
  2. Do you want to pass the test?
  3. Would you prefer to receive an "A+" or a "C-"?

To pull out of the Paris Accord would be tantamount to answering :

  1. "I can't for the life of me remember."
  2. "I want to fail."
  3. "Can I opt for an 'F-'"?

About the only constant in 45's otherwise life of inconsistency is the pursuit of wealth and celebrity. Towards those ends, he has spent a lifetime associating almost exclusively with the hyper-wealthy (witness the president's Cabinet).  For '45 and many of his ilk, the question of climate change - like those of healthcare, the defunding of education and much of the social safety net, and being accountable to such "inanities" as the law and the federal tax code - is based on their peculiar worldview:

  •  If you are richer than Croesus you don't have to worry about health insurance: you can afford it no matter what the cost.  
  • You don't have to care public vs. charter schools; you can afford the best prep schools in the land.
  • You don't have to give a fig about the social safety net: you've never "committed the crime of being poor" (a sarcastic expression found in Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry).  
  • You don't have to worry about the legal system; you can afford the best attorneys in the land.

Two things, however that no amount of wealth can defend against are catastrophic illness and a seriously deteriorating global climate.  And yet here, our notoriously inconsistent president seems to be horribly consistent: wealth is the best - indeed the only- safety net against reality.  In this one instance, Emerson was correct: a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

For everything else concerning '45 and his utter love affair with inconsistency, Emerson may well want to rethink the entire self-reliance-is-at-the-heart-of-Transcendentalism school of thought and admit - at least in this case - its total folly.  

'45 is definitely no Socrates . . . nor Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, or Newton.  And without question, he is absolutely no "pure and wise spirit."

Just a rich, aging man-child who is whistling in the dark.

129 days gone, 1,328 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone