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Trumpism and the Wisdom of Dumbledore

Max Stearns

The following exchange between Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and Harry Potter, from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in the J.K. Rowling series, always stuck with me:

“I, meanwhile, was offered the post of Minister of Magic, not once, but several times. Naturally, I refused. I had learned that I was not to be trusted with power.” "But you'd have been better, much better, than Fudge or Scrimgeour!" burst out Harry. "Would I?" asked Dumbledore heavily. "I am not so sure. I had proven, as a very young man, that power was my weakness and my temptation. It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well. I was safer at Hogwarts.”

I realize that Rowling, the author of these remarkable novels, written for children, yet so much more, has come under fire for her evident lack of insight respecting persons who are trans or gender non-binary. Indeed, even respecting Dumbledore, a character she later proclaimed a gay man, Rowling drew appropriate fire for failing to allow him—and the children reading her books in their formative years—a meaningful romantic relationship, casting him as an elder monk and leaving all to wonder if she imagined a gay man’s great magical achievements must come at such personal expense.

This post is less about Rowling’s wisdom or shortcomings than about the wisdom of the magical character she created. To be sure, creating a wise character requires wisdom, and imperfect authors often exhibit profound insight. Part of the human condition is realizing that we are all flawed. There is no shame in that. Indeed, Rowling’s insight is that the greatest wisdom to be had often involves recognizing one’s personal flaws and responding appropriately. That is the wisdom of Dumbledore. Dumbledore has so much to teach, not only about magic, but also about judgment. In this final volume in the Harry Potter series, we learn that Dumbledore’s most poignant lesson doesn’t involve magic at all. That final lesson resonates, or should, with those who, for the past five years, the Trump era, succumbed to the temptation to gain or hold power and influence in whatever capacity they could.

I have in mind two groups, political appointees in the Trump administration, and legal scholars and other academics, some of whom I know personally, who let this administration become their perch, gaining an ever-widening audience, and in some instances, gaining actual policy influence. I will not name specific people. If any are reading this, you know who you are.

The lesson is this: It is time to stop imagining that intelligence, like great magical powers, implies wisdom, or that knowledge in some set of specific field implies universal insight. These are lies that too many have convinced themselves are truths. Many people far smarter than I am have allowed themselves to be sucked into Donald Trump’s vortex. And some, even now, following the tragic events of January 6, 2021, with Trump encouraging an attack on the U.S. Capitol in his vile attempt to overturn an election and retain power, continue to do so.

In this Article, a high-level Trump official finally concedes that Trump is who his critics have said he is all along, a would-be dictator whose mindset, in so many ways, appears fascist. The anonymously quoted high-level Trump official concedes that it was all to gain policy influence or judicial appointments, and that it was horribly wrong all along. Others managed to see, and scream out against, what this person missed from the start.

To this person, and others like her or him, it is time to internalize Dumbledore’s lesson: You now have a moral obligation never again to seek or hold power. You lack the judgment, insight, and wisdom. You lack the necessary self-awareness that would have allowed you to put the concerns of others ahead of your own. You care too much for power, prestige, and influence. What makes Dumbledore compelling was never his immense magical powers. He Who Shall Not Be Named was immensely powerful too. No, what makes Dumbledore compelling, as finally revealed in Deathly Hallows, is the self-awareness that brought him great wisdom. Yours came too late.

Let me also address those whose career paths are closer to home: Trump supporters and apologists who are members of the legal academy. Several of you, some of whom I know personally, have managed, again and again, to apologize for Trump and for this administration. You have managed to turn every horrific behavior, lapse of judgment, and evil intent around, targeting instead those who have criticized Trump and this administration. You deflected with a twisted mirror better fit for an amusement park, reflecting back an utterly distorted image of reality. You have avoided taking responsibility for equipping Trump supporters with arguments and rhetoric that empowered them, helping their cause. When challenged your arguments have been constant exercises in shifting levels of discourse. Theoretical arguments are met with random data plucked from other contexts. Fact-based arguments are met with abstract theory. What you’ve failed to appreciate is that your cleverness, what you think of as your personal magic, is your weakness, the weakness of being unable to recognize your personal flaws. And it is now time for a reckoning. It is time to step back and to realize that however smart you are, or claim to be, however prestigious the academic post you hold, if you have spent four years apologizing for this administration and trying to call out those who had the clarity of insight to see what you so obviously missed, what you have in intelligence you lack in wisdom, insight, and judgment.

For those in my profession, here’s the good news. You can step off the public perch, stop presenting yourself as a public intellectual, stop hoping that one day you might be appointed to a high-level post, and still have plenty to do. And you can do with all the prestige and lifestyle that comes with holding a respected academic position. There is endless knowledge to be had, technical fields to master, textbooks and articles to write, and, of course, teaching to be done. The one thing you must stop, once and for all, is claiming status as a public intellectual, or imagining you have the wisdom or insight to exert a benign influence on those in power. Yes, it is time for a reckoning. Taking stock, and gaining some modicum of insight, is a critical first step.

I welcome your comments.

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