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US President Donald Trump during a rally in Lansing, Michigan. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP

A Spinozist and Toynbeean attempt to salve the wounds of the Trump presidency

In the early afternoon of 8 November 2016 in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma) the results of the 2016 United States presidential election became available through radio and television broadcasts. A then 12- or 13-year-old Burmese girl, my former neighbour in Yangon, learned about it at an international school. From what her mother told me, she forbore her tears and her composure until she arrived back home from school. And then she cried inconsolably and non-stop for about two hours.

If Trump’s election in 2016 triggered a sense of sorrow and such an emotional response in a 12-year-old youngster in far away Burma/Myanmar (an overwhelming majority if not almost all of the approximately 63 million voters who opted for Trump would not know anything about the country) one can imagine the sense of despair felt at least by a significant minority of approximately 65 million Americans who voted against Trump in 2016. And though many perhaps nearly all polls are again (like in 2016) predicting up to 87 per cent chance that Joe Biden will win the 2020 quadrennial American presidential election, history may, sadly, repeat itself in that Biden would not.

I have just read the New York Times ‘End this National Crisis’ 17 October 2020 editorial. Trump’s actions as President were and are at the very least a blot on the international scene as well, I might add as a non-American. I am sure this view would be shared by at least several million non-Americans around the world. Still, a pessimist that I am and taken what had occurred in 2016, Trump’s re-election may still occur in 2020. Perhaps like in 2016, in the 2020 election, while losing the popular vote, Trump might scrape through in the all-pivotal ‘electoral college vote’. The anomalies of the electoral vote system are such that some pundits – like the documentary film-maker Michael Moore – have predicted that Trump might lose to Biden by as much as 5 million nation-wide in popular votes but he still might be re-elected again.

If one tries to hit the ground with one’s hand one will surely hit it, goes a Burmese saying. Likewise, especially even if Trump loses both the electoral and popular vote it is certain that he and his cohorts will use every legal (or barely legal) and political trick, shenanigans, underhanded, evil methods by hook or by crook (a crook that he was and is) to continue to stay in office.

And (as of time of writing 18 October 2020) whether or not litigation regarding the election were to be decided by the United States Supreme Court like it was in the year 2000 cannot be predicted. Nevertheless such a scenario is within the bounds of possibility. If the litigation regarding the results of the election were to reach the US Supreme Court it is ‘as sure as one’s hand hitting the ground’ that at a minimum the (In)Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh  should (as of 18 October 2020, as it seems very likely) Barrett be already on the Supreme Court they will (repeat will) side with Trump whatever the legal and political issues that could emerge in the  hypothetical (but not unlikely) scenario would be.  

The late President Gerald R Ford’s stated in a speech as a newly sworn-in President on 9 August 1974 (after the late President Richard Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate ‘affair’) that ‘our long national nightmare is over’.

But even if Trump were to leave office at the end of his first term, to us (I would use the words unabashedly) liberals and progressives the long national (and international for those of us non-Americans concerned for the welfare of fellow world citizens) nightmare would not be quite over. The New York Times in its editorial wrote that "it would take years to undo the damage he had done". If Trump were to continue in office for a second term, the nightmare would continue and intensify.

A Spinozist attempt at ‘solace’

Now, what philosophical solace can be obtained especially if Trump (somehow or the other) continued in office? Even if he does not, what philosophical solace can be found to salve the wounds caused by his presidency? (It is up to Joe Biden and others if he were to be elected and assume the Presidency not only to ‘drain the swamp’ but try their best to negate the absolute putridness of Trump’s actions of the past four years).

In either scenario, arguably, the writings of Spinoza (24 November 1632-21 February 1677), the 17th century Dutch philosopher, just might (not?) give some solace.

Spinoza categorised two ways or modes of viewing the world or the human condition, using the Latin phrases (Spinoza is proficient in Hebrew, Dutch and Latin but he wrote most of his work in Latin) sub specie durationis (viewing it from the view point of duration, temporality) and sub specie aeternitatis (viewing it from the view point of eternity). Not elaborating on what ‘eternity’ means, entails or ‘covers’ in the context of Spinoza’s philosophy, this writer’s humble take would be that a certain mode of thinking and cognition, so to speak, is necessary for people to overcome or transcend the almost overwhelming tendency of viewing things only from the perspective of duration, time or more appropriately temporality. For the purpose of this article and limited space here this elaboration from philosopher Thomas Nagel (born 4 July 1937) may suffice:

.. humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed... Without developing the illusion that they are able to escape from their highly specific and idiosyncratic position, they can view it sub specie aeternitatis—and the view is at once sobering and comical."

From T. Nagel ‘The Absurd’ (1971) 68 (2) Journal of Philosophy, pp.716-27.

In the first chaotic Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, Biden rightly called him a clown (this writer would add that this should be seen in the most derogatory sense of the word). To detach ourselves from the ‘tyranny of the here and the now’, not to be too upset by the clownish, despicable antics, motives, actions, shenanigans, statements, lies and – dare I say it – evilism of the man whose actions, as the New York Times editorial stated, “outstripped decades of presidential wrongdoing in a single term”, a Spinozist philosophical detachment may be necessary but – at least for this writer – may not be sufficient. Trying to look at the Trump presidency through the 'lens' (Spinoza did earn his living, in his latter years, by making and polishing lens) of sub specie aeternitatis would require formidable indeed almost herculean endeavours emotionally, intellectually, philosophically. 

Taken the extreme distaste of Trump personally and politically by this writer, it would be extremely hard "to escape from our own highly specific... position based on sub specie durationis" (quoting from what Nagel wrote) especially if Trump were to continue as President for a second term.

An attempt to ‘understand’ from a Toynbeean perspective

Arnold Toynbee (14 April 1889 - 22 October 1975) was a historian who was born more than 256 years after Spinoza and died almost 300 years after Spinoza passed away in February 1677.

An obituary of Toynbee appeared in the 3 November 1975 issue of Time magazine. The last sentence of the obituary reads:

Toynbee felt that there was a kind of intellectual provincialism, too, in what he called 'the dogma that 'life is just one damned thing after another,' for he himself had 'a lifetime conviction that human affairs do not become intelligible until they are seen as a whole'.

Replace the phrase the dogma that ‘life is just one damned thing after another’ with the scenario of the continuation of Trump presidency. If the Trump presidency continues and even if it does not, what solace, what ‘salving of the wounds’ so to speak can we derive from Toynbee’s broad human history perspective?

In his decades long work on ‘A Study of History’ Toynbee surveyed around 4000 or more years of human history covering '21 civilizations’. Hence, if one tries to take a broader (historical) perspective going back a few thousand years, how does the Trump presidency ‘factor in’ from Toynbee’s perspective? As stated, Toynbee had indirectly exhorted us to see ‘human affairs as a whole’ so that they can become ‘intelligible’.

Perhaps arguably from a Toynbeean perspective the Trump presidency (continued or otherwise) is only a ‘blip’. Can a Toynbeean perspective, attitude or standpoint as elaborated above help salve our wounds? As with the 12 year old Burmese girl and perhaps thousands if not tens of thousands of people the world over who literally shed tears regarding Trump’s victory in 2016, can Toynbee’s exhortation metaphorically help wipe those tears?

It is more likely than at any other time in modern United States history going back 100 years or more that even if the president lose the electoral and popular votes in the election he would not only refuse to concede but may well resort to all means including foul ones to stay in office.

In that bleak, foreboding and yes despicable but likely scenario neither Spinoza’s sub specie aeternitatis nor Toynbee’s ‘seeing things as a whole’ is of practical help or use. For the activists, lawyers, volunteers etc among the Democrats and Joe Biden supporters, it is only through immersing (in) sub specie durationis (aspect of duration, temporality) that the intricacies and technicalities of the ‘here and the now’ (rather than ‘eternity’ or ‘viewing human affairs as a whole’), that these very possible Trumpian evilisms, have to be faced and – if possible with some luck and sans the Supreme Court – have to be overcome.

Only if such efforts from an aspect of duration (to quote Spinoza again in English translation) fail then the Spinozist and Toynbeean perspectives come into the picture, so to speak, ‘as a whole’ to provide solace in regards to the second term of a Trump presidency and the further damage wounds it would continue to inflict.

Should the much better scenario of Trump almost forced (though not, one hopes, through physical or military force) to leave the presidency were to occur then the Spinozist and Toynbeean perspectives might somehow come in handy for those of us to retrospectively salve the wounds caused by the Trump presidency.

(As far as the US election related matters ‘from an aspect of duration’ are concerned, this article has a ‘cut off’ date of 18 October 2020.)

Dr Myint Zan is a retired professor of law who taught at universities in Malaysia, Australia and the South Pacific.

The book that Zan edited, Legal Education and Legal Traditions: Selected Essays, has recently been published in Springer Link. The book includes eight chapters, one of which, written by Zan, deals in part with the philosophy of history of Toynbee and a brief contextual comparison with an aspect of Spinoza’s philosophy.

This article commemorates (in part) the 45th anniversary of the passing away of Toynbee on 22 October 2020.

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