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If Trump Returns as President: An Existential Threat to the United States

TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump looks on during a ceremony presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to wrestler Dan Gable in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on December 7, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Credo quia absurdum, “I believe because it is absurd”-Tertullian

There are many reasons to fear Donald J. Trump’s return to the White House, but one remains especially worrisome. It stems from the former president’s conspicuous ignorance of international law and US foreign policy. Among assorted particulars of this debility, a previously failed Trump posture – “America First”  – would likely prove more injurious the second-time around.[1]

Prima facie, its restoration, thoughtless in the most literal sense, would dignify a numbingly vacant US  president’s indifference to science, logic, history and law.[2]

Could it get any worse?

Could anything be more absurd?

Here is a basic answer: Following escalating aggressions by Russia in Ukraine and potentially destabilizing aggressions by China and North Korea in Asia,[3] America needs a leader who can read and think meaningfully. The American White House is not a proper place for foreign policy pretenders, especially a former president who already displayed a pernicious fusion of historical indifference and intellectual incompetence.

 There are also relevant specifics. Any future presidential retrogressions to “America First” would stem from misapplied US cultural underpinnings. These backward steps, absurd steps, would reflect variously intersecting declensions of “mass-man.”[4]  Though Donald Trump remains a celebrated leader  of  the American “mass,” not just a member, he has never actually risen above the capacities of his chorus.  Rather, amid the constant rancor and noisy defilement, he has remained one of mass man’s most fervid exponents.

                From time immemorial, international relations have been rooted in Realpolitik[5] or power politics.[6] Though such traditional patterns of thinking are normally accepted as “realistic,” they actually undermine world law and global order. It follows that any sitting US president should finally acknowledge the lethal limitations of our planet’s global threat system,[7] and recognize, as inevitable corollary, that US power ought never be founded upon delusions of national primacy. 

               “America First” has a pleasing resonance with the Many, with those who like to chant in crowds. But this narrow political resonance does not extend to the Few, to those who would prefer to think as conscious individuals.[8] About the “Few,” German-Swiss philosopher Thomas Mann attributes the downfall of civilizations to gradual absorptions of the educated classes by the Mass, to the “simplification of all functions of political, social, economic and spiritual life.”[9] If nothing else, America’s Trump era was a humiliating period of deliberate and falsifying simplifications. Is it anything less than preposterous to actually seek its return?

 Americans require intellect-based answers, not an endless barrage of silly clichés and partisan rancor. In turn, such answers will call for dialectical (mind challenging) thinking.[10] Analytically, in these calculations, the United States should always be considered as one significant part of the larger world system, the world  system configuration created by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.[11]

Though more or less ignored by global leaders, the “Westphalian” system of international law[12] (a system of institutionalized global anarchy) is destined to fail. Moreover, together with the accelerating spread of nuclear weapons technologies and infrastructures, any such failure would prove remorseless, unprecedented (sui generis would say the logicians) and irremediable.[13] At another level, it would signal the potentially insufferable triumph of anti-reason.[14]

There are also relevant nuances. Grievous world system failure could take place in hard to fathom increments, or with great suddenness, as an unanticipated nuclear “bolt from the blue.” On such bewilderingly unpredictable matters, any US policy resurrection of Donald Trump’s “America First” would prove starkly injurious.

Conceptually, it’s not complicated. In these indispensable calculations, history deserves a much more manifest pride of place. False bravado and belligerent nationalism have never succeeded in any decipherable ways or for longer than brief intervals. Indeed, from an historical standpoint, no observation could be more obvious.

 Plausibly, in a Trump-resurrected future, unsteady expressions of national security policy would be exacerbated by multiple system failures. At times, these failures could be mutually reinforcing or “synergistic.”[15] At other times, they could involve “force-multiplying” weapons of mass destruction. In any case, they could be brought about by the defiling restoration of an absurd presidency.

 Rejecting the banalities of “America First” and its derivative foreign policy deformations, a capable US president should think along clarifying lines of subject-matter interrelatedness. It is preposterous to deny that “America First” would fail US national security obligations. Moreover, any such failure, even one that did not produce catastrophic war or terror, would be degrading to United States.

               “The visionary,” teases Italian film director Federico Fellini, “is the only realist.” But there can be nothing “visionary” about “America First.” Whether in its previous Trump-defined iteration or in a future modified version, this stitched together amalgam of a former president’s clichés would be absurd. Should such a lack of vision find its way back into the American White House in 2024, its multiple and recycled harms could fatally undermine whatever might still remain of American Reason.[16]

               At some point, especially if strengthened and expanded by manipulative resurrections of “America First,” world system failures could become both tangibly dire and irreversible. In the final analysis, it will not help the United States or any other country to tinker “thoughtlessly”[17] at the ragged edges of our “Westphalian” world legal order. At that decisive turning point, any US presidential reaffirmations of “America First” could significantly hasten the onset of a regional or worldwide nuclear war.

               It’s not complicated. “America First” is just mass-defined shorthand for “America Last.” In the longer term, the only sort of foreign policy realism that could make any sense for the United States is a posture that pointed toward much “higher” awareness of global “oneness.”[18] Whether or not we like the sound of such “intellectual” cosmopolitanism, world system interdependence is not a matter of policy volition. It is an incontrovertible fact.[19]

               In its fully optimized expression, such an indispensable awareness – the literal opposite of former US President Donald Trump’s “America First” – would resemble what the ancients called the “city of man.” For the moment, the insightful prophets of any more consciously collaborative world civilization will remain few and far between.[20]  But this lamentable absence, one unimproved even by active intellectual interventions by our “great universities,”[21] does not owe to any witting analytic forfeiture. Above all, it reflects an imperiled species’ stubborn unwillingness to take itself seriously. This means an unwillingness to recognize that the only sort of patriotic loyalty still able to rescue a self-destroying planet is one finally willing to embrace humankind as a whole.

               Any such embrace would represent a new and re-directed focus of patriotic loyalty. Almost by definition, therefore, it would not be discoverable by American mass.

               There is more. Intellectually and historically, “America First” remains misconceived and irrational.[22]  Now, more desperately than ever before, we require a logic-based universalization and centralization of international relations. Though challenging, this complex requirement need not express a bewildering or incomprehensible rationale. But there will still be demanding intellectual prerequisites. In the United States especially, such expectations will almost certainly be unrealizable.

 Nonetheless, it is hardly a medical or biological secret that core factors and behaviors common to all human beings greatly outnumber those that differentiate one person from another. Unless the leaders of all major states on Planet Earth can finally understand that the survival of any one state must be contingent upon the survival of all, true national security will continue to elude everyone. This includes the “most powerful” states and individuals, even if their explicit policy mantras call foolishly for the subject to be “first.”

               What cannot benefit the entire “hive,” warns Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations,can never help the individual “bee.”

 The most immediate security tasks in our Westphalian condition of global anarchy remain narrowly self-centered. Simultaneously, national leaders must finally learn to understand that our planet represents a recognizably organic whole, a fragile but intersecting “unity” that exhibits diminishing options for genocide avoidance[23] and war avoidance.[24] This is the indispensable unity of  human “oneness.”

               It’s finally time for candor. Though clichéd, America is “running out of time.” Quickly, to seize rapidly disappearing opportunities for longer-term survival, our leaders must learn to build upon the critical foundational insights of Francis Bacon, Galileo and Isaac Newton,[25] and on the more contemporarily summarizing observation of philosopher Lewis Mumford: “Civilization is the never ending process of creating one world and one humanity.”[26]

               Whenever we speak of civilization we must also speak of law. Jurisprudentially, no particular national leadership can claim any special or primary obligation in this regard. Nor could any such leadership cadre ever afford to build comprehensive security policies upon the vaguely distant hopes of mass. But the United States remains a key part of the community of nations and must do whatever it can to detach an already collapsing “state of nations” from our time-dishonored “state of nature.”[27]

There is more. Any such willful detachment should be expressed as part of a wider vision for a more durable and justice-centered world politics. Over the longer term, an American president will have to do his or her part to safeguard the global system as a whole. Then, “America Together,” not “America First,” would express a markedly more rational and intellect-based security mantra.[28]

However impractical or fanciful this may all sound, nothing could be more perilous than continuing on a long-discredited “Westphalian” course. “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another,” inquires Samuel Beckett in Endgame, “of seeking justification always on the same plane?” It’s a critical question, one that should now be asked of any sitting or aspiring US president, especially an aspirant who has already demonstrated his consummate unfitness.

For the moment, there is no need for detailing any further analytic or intellectual particulars. There are, of course, bound to be many. Always, these will need to  be  held together by coherent and comprehensive (science-based) theory.[29]

               In The Plague, Albert Camus instructs: “At the beginning of the pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric…It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth – in other words – to silence.” As long as the nation-states in world politics continue to operate as glib archeologists of ruins-in-the-making – that is, as “political prisoners” of a vastly-corrupted philosophic thought – they will be unable to stop the next series of catastrophic wars.[30]

               Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               Until now, certain traditional expectations of balance-of-power world politics may have been more-or-less defensible. Nevertheless, soon, from the essential standpoint of longer-term options and global security survival prospects, an American president should open up this nation’s latent security imagination to more visionary and intellect-based forms of foreign policy understanding. Resurrecting the “everyone for himself” extremity of former president Donald J. Trump’s “America First” would represent a US policy move in the wrong direction. No move could conceivably be more wrong.

It could never make sense for the United States to construct security justifications along the incessantly brittle lines of belligerent nationalism.[31]

               “America First” remains a self-defiling national mantra, nothing more. Recently championed by an American president who was proudly detached from historical or analytic understanding, it ought never be allowed to reappear in United States foreign policy. To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with any sensible manifestations of American patriotism, but these primacy-oriented (zero-sum) manifestations could never be reconciled with any dignified human survival.

Portending inevitable failure and existential peril, an “America First” redox would be anything but sensible. At the same time, the United States remains a nation shaped and dominated by “mass,” and this ill-fated hegemony must be suitably countered before we could ever expect a sustainable and law-based American foreign policy.[32]

How shall this counter-friction be accomplished?[33] How shall the requisite efforts be undertaken? How shall beleaguered Americans stave off a continuing and no longer tolerable triumph of absurd political choices?

The answer to these interrelated questions is not until Americans begin to value genuine intellectual achievement more highly than continuously demeaning and anesthetizing amusements.[34] For the moment, we remain an amusement society. Such vacant societies can’t last, even during pre-nuclear epochs. Ipso facto, their members become ghosts of any tangible doing, thinking or feeling. Quickly, they must descend to vita minima, human lives emptied of themselves, unstable, visceral, incompetent.

There remains one final clarification. In this elucidated context, “genuine” references an achievement that bestows no monetary rewards, but is still taken as valuable. In this challenging calculation, a purposefully heightened American regard for “mind” will seem impractical or even unimaginable. Nonetheless, it could represent all that still stands between American democracy and naked barbarism.[35]

Then the visionary will emerge as the only realist.

[1] On his first time around, then president Donald J. Trump sought to pretend that he had solved the North Korean nuclear problem by having the right “attitude” toward Kim Jong un. (“We fell in love”). On such absurd explanations, Americans may consult the early declaration of Sophocles’ Antigone: “I hold despicable and always have, anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.” (See speech of Creon, King of Thebes).

[2] See, by this writer, at JURIST:  Louis René Beres, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/01/louis-rene-beres-second-trump-impeachment/

[3] Such aggressions are (and could be) augmented by “crimes against humanity.” These Nuremberg-defined crimes are defined as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population before or during a war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated….”  Charter of the International Military Tribunal, Aug. 8, 1945, Art. 6(c), 59 Stat.  1544, 1547, 82 U.N.T.S.  279, 288.

[4] The elucidating term “mass man” is taken from Jose Ortega y’Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (1930). In further clarification, Swiss psychologist and philosopher Carl G. Jung says in The Undiscovered Self (1957): “The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.”

[5] An earlier book by this author deals with these issues from an expressly American point of view. See: Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington Books, 1984). Throughout history, geopolitics or Realpolitik have often been associated with personal immortality. In his posthumously published lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.” The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from mere principle of action to a sacred end in itself, drew its originating strength from the doctrine of sovereignty advanced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially conceived as a principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent a specific metamorphosis, whence it became the formal or justifying rationale for international anarchy –  that is, for the global “state of nature.” First established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty came to be regarded as a power absolute and above the law. Understood in terms of modern international relations, this doctrine encouraged the notion that states lie above and beyond any form of legal regulation in their interactions with each other.

[6] For the political philosophy origins of such core assumptions, see classic comment of Thrasymachus in Bk. 1, Sec. 338 of Plato, The Republic: “Right is the interest of the stronger.”

[7] In his seventeenth-century classic of political philosophy, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes points out succinctly that while the anarchic “state of nature” likely never existed between individual human beings, it nonetheless defines the usual structures of world politics, patterns within which nations coexist in “the state and posture of gladiators….” This “posture,” expands Hobbes, is a condition of “war.”

[8] This brings to mind Hermann Hesse’s “herd” and Soren Kierkegaard’s “crowd.” “The crowd,” observed the Danish philosopher, “is untruth.”

[9] See Stanley Corngold’s the Mind in Exile: Thomas Mann in Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2022 (ix; Preface).

[10] Dialectical thinking originated in Fifth Century BCE Athens, as Zeno, author of the Paradoxes, was acknowledged by Aristotle as its inventor. In the middle dialogues of Plato, dialectic emerges as the supreme form of philosophic/analytic method. The dialectician, says Plato, is the special one who knows how to ask and then answer vital questions.

[11] See Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty Years War and created the now still-existing self-help “state system.” See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119, Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.

[12] Any system of international law is ultimately deducible from Natural Law. According to Blackstone, each state and nation is always expected “to aid and enforce the law of nations, as part of the common law, by inflicting an adequate punishment upon offenses against that universal law….” See: 2 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 4, “Of Public Wrongs.” Lest anyone ask about the significance of Blackstone, one need only point out that Commentaries represent the original foundation of United States law.

[13] For scholarly accounts by this author of nuclear war effects, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018).

[14] See, by this author, Louis René Beres, at The Hill:  https://thehill.com/opinion/campaign/3571679-resurrecting-trump-reason-and-anti-reason-in-american-politics/

[15] On the meanings of synergy in strategic calculation see, by this author, at Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School:  Louis René Beres, https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/

[16] On such reason, by this author, see Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (1984).

[17] By “thoughtlessly” is meant the literal absence of thought, not “just” a   lack of empathy or consideration. In the language of modern political philosophy, this is the meaning used by Hannah Arendt in her classic works Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil and The Life of the Mind.

[18] The history of western philosophy and jurisprudence includes variously illustrious advocates of global unity, interrelatedness or “oneness.” Most notable among them are Voltaire and Goethe. We need only recall Voltaire’s biting satire in the early chapters of Candide and Goethe’s oft-repeated comment linking belligerent nationalism to the declining stages of civilization. One may also note Samuel Johnson’s expressed conviction that patriotism “is the last refuge of a scoundrel;” William Lloyd Garrison’s observation that “We cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government…Our country is the world, our countryman is all mankind;” and Thorsten Veblen’s plain comment that “The patriotic spirit is at cross-purposes with modern life.” Similarly, straightforward sentiments are discoverable in writings of the American Transcendentalists (especially Emerson and Thoreau) and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, all too Human. Let scholars also recall Santayana’s coalescing remark in Reason and Society: “A man’s feet must be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world.” The unifying point of all such cosmopolitan remarks is that narrow-minded patriotism is not “merely” injurious, it is also de facto “unpatriotic.”

[19] Sigmund Freud notes: “Wars will only be prevented with certainty if mankind unites in setting up a central authority to which the right of giving judgment upon all shall be handed over. There are clearly two separate requirements involved in this: the creation of a supreme agency and its endowment with the necessary power. One without the other would be useless.” (See: Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers, cited in Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis, University of Denver, Monograph Series in World Affairs, Vol. 10 (1973-73), p, 27.) Interestingly, Albert Einstein held similar views. See, for example: Otto Nathan et al. eds., Einstein on Peace (New York: 1960).

[20] The best studies of such modern world order “prophets” are still W. Warren Wagar, The City of Man (1963) and W. Warren Wagar, Building the City of Man (1971).

[21] See by this author, Professor Louis René Beres, at the Princetonian:https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/06/a-core-challenge-of-higher-education

[22] In authoritative studies of world politics, rationality and irrationality have now taken on certain precise meanings. A state is presumed rational to the extent that its leadership always values national survival more highly than any other conceivable preference or combination of preferences. Conversely, an irrational state is one that does not always display such a specific preference ordering. On expressly pragmatic or operational grounds, ascertaining whether a particular state adversary is rational or irrational must inevitably become a problematic task.

[23] For pertinent characterization of “genocide-like crimes,” seem by this author, Louis René Beres, “Genocide and Genocide-Like Crimes,” in M. Cherif Bassiouni, ed., INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL LAW: CRIMES (Dobbs Ferry, NY:  Transnational Publishers, 1986), pp. 271 – 279.

[24] Because war and genocide are not mutually exclusive, either strategically or jurisprudentially, taking proper systemic steps toward war avoidance would plausibly also reduce the likelihood of “crimes against humanity.”

[25] Regarding science in such matters, Niccolo Machiavelli joined Aristotle’s plan for a more scientific study of politics generally with various core assumptions about geopolitics or Realpolitik. His best known conclusion, in this particular suggestion, focuses on the eternally stark dilemma of practicing goodness in a world that is generally evil. “A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything, must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.”  See: The Prince, Chapter XV. Although this argument is largely unassailable, there is also a corresponding need to disavow “naive realism,” and to recognize that, in the longer term, the only outcome of “eye for an eye” conceptions in world politics will be universal blindness.

[26] We may think also of the corresponding Talmudic observation: “The earth from which the first man was made was gathered in all the four corners of the world.”

[27] In law, states must judge every use of force twice: once with regard to the underlying right to wage war (jus ad bellum) and once with regard to the means used in actually conducting war (jus in bello). Following the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the United Nations Charter, there can be absolutely no right to aggressive war. However, the long-standing customary right of post-attack self-defense remains codified at Article 51 of the UN Charter. Similarly, subject to conformance, inter alia, with jus in bellocriteria, certain instances of humanitarian intervention and collective security operations may also be consistent with jus ad bellum. The law of war, the rules of jus in bello, comprise: (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules. Codified primarily at The Hague and Geneva Conventions, these rules attempt to bring discriminationproportionality and military necessity into all belligerent calculations.

[28] During his presidential tenure, very little attention was directed toward Donald J. Trump’s open loathing of science and intellect. Ironically, the Founding Fathers of the United States were intellectuals. As explained by distinguished American historian Richard Hofstadter: “The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.” See Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 145.

[29] “Theory is a net. Only those who cast, can catch,” This pertinent metaphor is generally attributed to Novalis, the late 18th-century German poet and scholar. See, for example, introductory citation by Karl R. Popper, in his The Logic of Scientific Discovery(1959). Ironically, Novalis’ fellow German poet, Goethe, had declared, in his early Faust fragment (Urfaust): “All theory, dear friend, is grey. But the golden tree of life is green.” (Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, Und grűn des Lebens goldner Baum.)

[30] For the crime of aggression under international law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, adopted by the UN General Assembly, Dec. 14, 1974. U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 UN GAOR, Sup (No. 31), 142, UN Doc A/9631 (1975) reprinted in 13 I.L.M., 710 (1974).

[31] While in office, Donald Trump instructed his Secretary of State and Attorney General to denounce the International Criminal Court’s then-planned investigation of alleged US war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan. Inter alia, this directive was a fundamental contradiction of America’s obligations to national and international law. Significantly, these are not ipso facto discrete system alternatives. In the words used by the U.S. Supreme Court in The Paquete Habana, “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction, as often as questions of right depending upon it are duly presented for their determination.  For this purpose, where there is no treaty, and no controlling executive or legislative act or judicial decision, resort must be had to the customs and usages of civilized nations.”  See The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900).  See also:  The Lola, 175 U.S. 677 (1900); Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (per curiam) (Edwards, J. concurring) (dismissing the action, but making several references to domestic jurisdiction over extraterritorial offenses), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1003 (1985) (“concept of extraordinary judicial jurisdiction over acts in violation of significant international standards…embodied in the principle of `universal violations of international law.’”).

[32] See, by this writer, at Oxford University Press:  Louis René Beres, https://blog.oup.com/2018/04/american-people-hamilton-trump/

[33] On the concept of “friction,” see Carl von Clausewitz, On War, and by this author, Louis René Beres, US Department of Defense, US Army War College: https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/friction/

[34] Americans must finally cease making themselves into what C.G. Jung calls a “quantité négligible,” a creature who is a “conscious, reflective being, gifted with speech, but still lacking all criteria for self-judgment.”

[35] See, by this author, Louis René Beres: https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/09/13/american-democracy-and-the-barbarism-of-specialisation/