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Trump and Faust: What They Destroy

Donald Trump, like Goethe’s Faust, has rejected reason.  Faust felt that, having studied everything (including “regrettably, theology”), he had dried up his own juices.  He had enjoyed nothing  and discovered nothing.  Hence, he was open to the Faustian wager: a bet that all the tricks of Mephistopheles could not get him to relish the moment and desire it to stay.

Trump, ever the flamboyant showman and serial liar, seeks systematically to defund and even destroy the laws and institutions created to make for a better life—health care, public schools, environmental protection, nuclear arms control,  freedom of expression, scientific research.  To assist in this task he has chosen cabinet officers who (with a few exceptions) know nothing about their assigned responsibility and who deny the cautions and guidelines generated by scientists worldwide.  However there is one huge difference between Trump and Faust: While Trump organizes his life—even the presidency–to make money, Faust cursed “Mammon who promises treasures that spur us to daring feats or lures us to slothful pleasures with sumptuous cushions and smooth sheets!”

The cynical billionaire and the aging scholar are highly critical of what passes for life.  Having studied the stars and tried alchemy, the disillusioned Dr. Faust thought himself duped by echoes of a happier day. He cursed everything that encircles the soul and enfolds it with illusions, with blinding spells, and with flattery. Like Trump’s disdain for science and for reliable reporting (“Fake News”), Faust “cursed most of all the high adherence to some opinion that ensnares the mind”—the “blinding appearance that holds our senses confined!” Faust cursed the “the grape’s sweet juice deceiving!” He denounced “Love’s supreme, delicious thrall!” He placed a curse on “Hoping! on Believing! And cursed Patience most of all!” Anxious to meet his campaign promises, Trump also seems to reject patience as well as science.

Goethe’s drama has spirits of the earth chastise Faust for despising what is good.  Their words could apply directly to the Trump presidency and, by extension, to his supporters and fellow-travelers everywhere:

Woe! Woe!
You have shattered
The beautiful world
With your powerful fist.

The world is smashed, downward hurled!
A demigod has broken it to bits!
We carry

The ruins into the Void
And bemoan the beauty lost and gone!

Goethe’s spirits expressed hope that change was possible.  They urged Faust to rebuild the shattered world:

Raise it up  again
From within your bosom!
Begin a new way of life with a clear mind
And play new songs.

Even Mephistopheles urged Faust to change. ”Cease your brooding grief that, like  a vulture, eats your life away.” Join humanity and learn that “you’re a man among mankind.” Faust did change. Having exhausted his experiments with sensual pleasure, at the end of his life  Faust harnessed his powers to construct dikes to protect lives and farmlands from rising tides. Even God (der Herr) was impressed and sent angels to transport Faust to heaven.

Unlike Goethe’s Faust, Trump at 71 is unlikely to change.  Perhaps some of what Trump is destroying can be rebuilt.  But many lives, institutions, scientific knowledge, and environmental quality are being damaged—some beyond repair. If some Herr watches all this, he is unlikely to approve the ruination of creation.

With Trump we have an unheavenly kingdom. Ignorance. Impetuosity. Avarice.  Thin skin. No ideas, fixed ideas, false ideas.  What a combination in and around a White House where the president can fire nuclear weapons in less than fifteen minutes and destroy much of civilization in an hour!  

To rebuild what can be rebuilt, Americans and their like-minded partners will have to raise up their worlds—and much of  the entire world—and begin new ways of life with clear minds and new songs.

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Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He wrote Complexity Science and World Affairs (SUNY Press, 2013).

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