American philosophy can shed light on our current crisis. It helps to see Donald Trump as an Emersonian individual. He is brash, self-assured and unafraid to proclaim himself “a very stable genius.”
Genius is a central idea for Ralph Waldo Emerson. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson wrote, “To believe our own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius.” Defenders of the status quo will not agree. But that’s to be expected. Emerson said, “to be great is to be misunderstood.”
Nor will the masses understand the variable moods and shifting stories of the genius. We might demand a consistent story from our genius-in-chief. But Emerson said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. … With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”
An Emersonian genius overturns conventional wisdom and re-creates the world in his own image. Emerson cites Socrates and Jesus. The world crucifies radical revolutionaries. But history will be the judge. Today’s foolishness may look like heroism tomorrow.
Conceiving the president in Emersonian terms helps us understand his relentless and unrepentant attitude. Ordinary people are “timid and apologetic.” But Emerson said, “let us never bow and apologize.” The Emersonian individual never compromises and never expresses regret. He believes that the world should turn in his direction. Emerson says, “genius looks forward.” It never looks back.
Genius is tenacious. Where a normal person would resign in the face of adversity, our president doubles down. He has lately refused to admit that the House impeachment inquiry is constitutionally legitimate. His followers admire his tenacity. This audacity creates the “magnetism” that Emerson saw in the self-reliant genius.
But Emersonian individualism is only one aspect of the American soul. While we admire genius, we also distrust it. James Madison and his colleagues explained in the Federalist Papers that our system was intended to prevent ambitious individuals from usurping power. Madison said, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
Checks and balances limit individual genius in order to prevent despotism. And rather than celebrating individual genius, the Federalist Papers speak of “the genius of the people.” The Constitution focuses on “we the people.” We are not to be ruled by individual genius.
Policy and law are not dictated by a single individual who sees himself as the sole source of wisdom. Rather, our government requires checks and balances. Laws and policies must survive an arduous process of argument, critique, and contestation. This involves all three branches of government – and it includes the mechanism of impeachment.
This system is set up to defend liberty and prevent its destruction. The founders knew that so-called geniuses were typically not as wise as they believe themselves to be. Madison explains, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” We are not angels. And so we need limited government.
But some men think themselves better than the rest. John Jay – another Federalist author – warned against “brilliant appearances of genius and patriotism, which, like transient meteors, sometimes mislead as well as dazzle.” Impeachment is the remedy for such dazzling displays of self-inflated ego run amok.
The president and his supporters would disagree that Trump is a transient meteor. In a statement about withdrawing troops from Syria, the president said, “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”
In this one sentence the president shows his Emersonian spirit as well as the peril Madison warned against. The danger occurs when a self-proclaimed genius claims the singular power to destroy and obliterate. The president’s supporters will cheer this on. They see him as a genius worthy of the power of the presidency, willing to act upon his unparalleled intuition. But the president’s detractors will invoke the founder’s worries about ambition run amok.
In a speech at the Constitutional Convention, Madison warned, “All men having power ought to be distrusted.” Our tradition celebrates the self-trusting genius. But we also distrust him. As our current crisis deepens, we will be forced to pick sides in an old debate that is deeply rooted in the American tradition.