Should we be paranoid?

Donald Trump’s bizarre puffing and boasting about being a dictator – if only for a day (a likely story) – has prompted memories of the much-told story of Kurt Gödel’s interview for US citizenship in 1947.

Gödel, being a serious type and one of the world’s great logicians, studied up and made a detailed study of the US Constitution before he applied.

The best summary of what happened after that is a 2013 paper in the Capital University Law Review by F.E. Guerra-Pujol, then an Associate Professor at Barry University. It is also attested in biographies of Gödel’s sponsors Albert Einstein and the economist Oskar Morgenstern – both from the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton.

Gödel told them both he had discovered a deep logical contradiction in the US Constitution. Guera-Pujol writes that Godel thought this logical contradiction might transform the existing constitutional democracy into a legalistic or military dictatorship. Over the years this logical contradiction has taken on the same colour as speculation about Fermat’s Last Theorem, but Guerra-Pujol retells the story while suggesting what the contradiction might be.

Morgenstern recounted that “Gödel rather excitedly told me that in looking at the Constitution, to his distress, he had found some inner contradictions and that he could show how in a perfectly legal manner it would be possible for somebody to become a dictator and set up a Fascist regime, never intended by those who drew up the Constitution.”

“Morgenstern himself dismissed Gödel’s constitutional analysis and did not even bother to include it in his 1971 memorandum recounting the history of Godel’s nationalisation: ‘I told him that it was most unlikely such events would occur (i.e. a legalised dictatorship) even assuming he was right, which, of course, I doubted’,” Guerra-Pujol reports.

Morgenstein and Einstein found Gödel’s discovery of the loophole far-fetched and outlandish and were worried that what ought to be a straightforward process could be jeopardised – thinking all Gödel would have to do was identify the three branches of government and/or to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

The former test has been failed by a number of Republican politicians but that hasn’t stopped them pontificating on the Constitution. Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Senator for instance, got it wrong and only about 6o% of US citizens get it right according to a variety of surveys.

Morgenstern’s first-hand account of the hearing was as follows:

“When we came to the courthouse we were ushered into a big room, and while normally the witnesses are questioned before the candidate, because of Einstein’s appearance an exception was made and all three of us were invited to sit down together, Gödel, in the middle.”

Next, after questioning Morgenstern and Einstein about Gödel’s background and character, the examining judge turned to Gödel.

According to Morgenstern’s first-hand account, the following exchange occurred between Kurt Gödel and Judge Forman:

Judge Forman: “Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?”

Gödel: “Where I come from? Austria.”

Judge: “What kind of government did you have in Austria?”

Gödel: “It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship.”

Judge: “Oh! This is very bad. This could not happen in this country.”

Gödel: “Oh, yes, I can prove it.”

Judge: “Oh God, let’s not go into this.”

Judge Forman: “Up to now you have held German citizenship.”

Gödel: “Austrian citizenship.”

Judge: “Anyhow, it was under an evil dictatorship . . . but fortunately, that’s not possible in America.”

Gödel: “On the contrary, I know how that can happen. And I can prove it!”

Judge: “You needn’t go into all that . . . .”

Guerra-Pajol presents yet another, more concise, version of this exchange from Hao Wang’s biography of Gödel. According to this version, the judge “greeted [Gödel, Einstein, and Morgenstern] warmly and invited all three to attend the (normally private) examination of [Gödel].”

Judge Forman: “You have German citizenship up to now.”

Gödel: “Excuse me sir, Austrian.”

Judge: “Anyhow, the wicked dictator! [B]ut fortunately that is not possible in America.”

Gödel: “On the contrary, . . . I know how that can happen.”

When Gödel attempted to disclose to Judge Forman his proof of a contradiction in the Constitution, the judge quickly dismissed Gödel’s discovery and prevented him from speaking on the subject.

In Morgenstern’s words: “[T]he [judge] was intelligent enough to quickly quieten Gödel . . . and broke off the examination at this point.

Noone knows what the contradiction is, but Guerra-Pajol postulates Gödel’s discovery relates to Article V of the Constitution.

The main constitutional protection against the possibility of a legalistic dictatorship is Article V, which makes it difficult to amend or change any part of the Constitution.

Article V does allow the people to change or amend the Constitution through a two-stage amendment process, but Article V also makes it very difficult to propose and approve any changes to the Constitution. It requires two-thirds approval by both houses of Congress in the first stage and three-quarters approval by the States in the second stage.

Guerra-Pajol argues that Article V does not, however, prevent any change or amendment to Article V itself.

…and from then the argument becomes almost incomprehensible to almost all of us. Readers are advised to consult the Guerra-Pakol paper themselves, try to work it out and hope Trump doesn’t make it all come to pass.

Meanwhile, we might also think about what the Supreme Court would do in adjudicating on the issues which arose from it. The odds are they would reduce the case to the narrowest possible issue while Justice Alito pondered whether the outcome would return the US to godliness or not.

…and as for Gödel he died on 14 January 1978. He would only eat food prepared by his wife and when she became very ill, he refused to eat anything prepared by anyone else and starved himself to death.

Paranoia has often bedevilled US politics as described in Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics 60 years ago. Perhaps Americans – and others –might ask today whether it is really paranoid to consider Trumps claims about dictatorship?