Trump, Power, and Desire versus the Law
Much will be said and written about the latest set of indictments handed down against former President Trump. I will leave it to the legal analysts to dissect the minutiae and details of the indictment. I’m a philosopher, so I want to talk about what is behind all of this, what’s really going on with all of this. What are the fundamental principles that underlie these actions, both politically and socially?
In a way, I don’t have a dog in this fight from the political sense of it. I didn’t vote for Trump. I didn’t vote for Biden. I didn’t vote for Hillary for that matter. I’m not a Democrat. I’m not a Republican.
This whole affair is about one man, Trump, who had enough power to try to bring about his desired result, rejecting the actual result, and now there will be a trial as there should be in a fair legal system. And I’ll let the facts speak for themselves. It’s fairly easy to understand why someone who has lost an election—and yes, as for the facts, there is zero evidence at any level that the election in 2020 was stolen away from Trump—it’s easy to understand why someone who has lost, someone who didn’t get what they want, would want that to not be the case and would want to win instead. That’s normal human desire.
As the prosecutor in the case, Jack Smith, said, it is not what Trump said. It is the actions that Trump took that are at issue here. Trump can say whatever he wants; Trump can believe whatever he wants. The reality is that he lost the election. Whether he acted to try to overturn those results, whether he actually did commit treason, because that’s really the issue—treason—is up to a jury to decide.
My question, as a philosopher who tries to understand the causes of injustice, is why Trump’s supporters believe the lie that the election was stolen. Why would a human being believe something against all evidence to the contrary?
I’m slightly apprehensive phrasing it that way, even though that is the correct phrasing of the issue. Because human beings, being how they are, are going to attach to what I just said there about believing something against the evidence, their own issues, their own beliefs of, “Oh, hey, this is true. That’s not true.” Because that’s what humans do.
In my previous podcast, I talked with a scholar, Dr. Eve Poole, who talked about how one of the central aspects of humanity is that we have free will. And of course, having free will means we are free to make mistakes. We are human beings, we make mistakes because we use our free will to sometimes choose the wrong path, make the wrong decision.
What I will add to that is that we very often will let our desires overcome what is in front of us—the evidence that’s clearly in front of us. Descartes talked about that. René Descartes, the philosopher, said that when the will is allowed to rush ahead of the intellect, we will make mistakes. Now, his overly simplistic answer was to just rein in the will and let the intellect rule. Ironically, that was Descartes asserting his desires over how things actually are.
One of the great ironies of being human is that our intellect is not an oracle. It’s a tool. Intellect and logic can be used to reach the truth. The intellect, the tool that the intellect is, can also be used to deny what’s real and what’s the law.
Throughout human history, people who have the power to do so have used that power to manipulate other people into using their intellect to believe things that are not true. We usually correctly refer to this as manipulating people’s emotions or playing on their emotions. But what is too often missed in that discussion is that, yes, those people in power are exploiting people’s emotions in order to get them to intellectually think in a certain way.
The answer to that is not to just remove all emotion. Emotions are a key part of what makes us human, and what makes our life worth living. The philosopher Edith Stein talked about emotions, the power of emotions, and a bit of the peril of emotions, saying that emotions are intentional states but that we should make rational judgments about our emotions. Very importantly, she also said that emotions are intentional states anchored in the I, anchored in our sense of self.
To me, that’s the issue here. The foundational issue beneath all of this Democrats-versus-Republicans playing on emotions and intellectual rationalizations, the fundamental underlying issue, is the continual need for all human beings to anchor their sense of self in something meaningful.
The answer to that problem is not to get rid of the idea of the self as certain Eastern philosophies tried to do. You are a self; you can’t deny your self. You have emotions. You can’t just deny emotions. You have desires. You can’t just deny desires. You are a self, you do have emotions, you do have desires. You do live in a world, and the world does not conform to your desires.
And yet, because we are the human beings who need to anchor our sense of self in a sense of meaning, there is a very natural impulse, when the law of reality goes against our desires, we wish for that law to change and the results to change. When your sports team loses, you kind of wish that your sports team had won instead. When your party or candidate loses an election, you kind of wish that that hadn’t happened.
Trump had the very human—childish but human nevertheless—desire to not have lost the election. His followers who voted for him and supported him for whatever their reasons desired that he had not lost the election. Desiring those things is very human, that’s okay. Wishing that things weren’t the way they are, that’s okay, and sometimes a very positive thing.
But using your intellect and your free will to try to assert your desires over the law, over what is real, that’s where the problems start. That’s where injustices start. Trump is in no way new. He is not at all unique. His followers aren’t new. This is not a unique phenomenon.
Again, history records many instances of people in power playing on people’s emotions to get them to intellectually believe something that’s not true. I say these are the causes of injustice because the actual injustices that we see time and again in history are when one group of people who have the power to act on their desires do act to deny the law, deny reality, in such a way that denies the reality and rights of other people. That’s the core of injustice. It is desiring and intellectually rationalizing that your desires are more important than other people’s desires.
Although I do not wish to go into the specifics of the indictments against Trump, one particular indictment speaks very strongly to this. It’s the charge conspiracy against rights to conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in the free exercise or enjoyment of their rights or privileges secured to them by the law. The legal theory from the prosecution is that Trump acted to conspire to deprive voters of their right to vote and have their votes count. In essence, what that charge is saying is that Trump said and intellectually justified his desire to not lose the election.
Again, he can say what he wants, he can whine and pout and cry about it. But if, as the indictment accuses him of having done, he did act to overturn the election, then that is depriving everyone who voted of their rights to have their vote counted, because their votes being counted is guaranteed in the Constitution. It’s the law; it’s the reality.
You can’t just say, my sports team lost; therefore, we’re going to adjust the score so that my sports team won. You can’t just say, we lost the election; therefore, we’ll just adjust the vote totals so that we won the election. You can’t just say, we don’t like those people over there; therefore, we’re going to ignore the law and discriminate against those people.
Yes, this conspiracy to deny rights is a legal concept. But it applies ethically to so much of what human beings do. Certainly, what rights human beings have, what privileges they have, and where those privileges and rights intersect with other people’s privileges and rights are all very complicated and tricky questions, which is why philosophers and legal scholars continue to debate and discuss. And we as a society continue to evolve in our thinking about what rights human beings have. And how do we balance the rights of individuals within the larger society? Complexities aside, the basic issue is clear and sound. Do you have any right to deny the rights of others? No, of course not. And that is especially the case, if the only basis for your actions is that you want it to be otherwise than how it is.
And yet . . . and yet, if you look at many of the injustices that people commit, and you ask the simple question, why did they do this? What were they trying to accomplish? I put it to you that you will find that the core cause was the perpetrators’ desire for their desires to be more important than other people’s rights.
And when you question further as to why the perpetrator had this desire, you will find in almost every case of injustice that the perpetrator was trying to buttress their sense of self with a sense of meaning—a sense of meaning that comes at the cost of other people’s rights and privileges. If we turn all those questions onto ourselves, and look at our past actions, we will regrettably find that it’s also true of us, and the things that we have done that were unethical and unjust.
We’re human beings, we have emotions, we have a sense of self, we want to have that sense of self grounded in meaning. If we don’t get the meaning that we desire, we will be tempted to just manufacture recognition. Trump is unique only in that he somehow managed to amass the power to act in this way of manufacturing recognition for himself.
We all deserve to be recognized for who we are. We all deserve to have our desires, to have our sense of self—and a healthy sense of self. And no one has the right to deny that to us. That includes no one having the right to say to Trump supporters that they’re not allowed to support him. Or, to be fair and balanced, no one has the right to say to Biden’s supporters that they don’t have the right to support him. Neither side has any right to let their desires overcome the realities. But both sides do it anyway because, sadly, that’s what human beings do.
We’ve tried disparaging, demeaning, diminishing, and even destroying political opponents for centuries. It’s never worked. It’s never made the world a better place. The answer to injustice is not to try to eliminate those you dislike. There probably isn’t a simple answer for ending injustice. But if there is an answer, it lies far more in working with the law of reality then in trying to assert your desires as law.