As many around the world worry about Donald Trump’s presidency and the potentially fascist future of the United States, it is worth remembering a little known anecdote about the famed mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel.
You likely know Gödel’s name in relation to the “incompleteness theorems” – two theorems of mathematical logic dealing with axiomatic systems (Professor Melvin Henriksen over at Scientific American offers a much clearer explanation than I could ever hope to do) – but Gödel’s logical work also extended to American politics, at least, according to an anecdote from mathematician and economist Oskar Morgenstern (famous in his own right for his work on Game Theory).
As the story goes, in 1948 Gödel was scheduled for an immigration hearing as part of the citizenship process. A recent immigrant from Austria, which, as a part of the Nazi regime, had just lost the Second World War to the United States and allies 3 years before, Gödel was especially eager to impress the immigration officer. To prepare for the exam he read meticulously and extensively, covering subjects as varied as Native American history and the official borders and history of Princeton University, where he taught. One subject which seemed to particularly interest him was U.S. constitutional law. In his close reading of the constitution, Gödel claimed to have found, according to Morgenstern, “some inner contradictions” that he could use to 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.”
Unfortunately, we no longer have Gödel’s account of the Constitution’s “inner contradictions” – it might have proven useful. What we do have however, is the rest of the story in which an excited Gödel, against the advice of Morgenstern and Albert Einstein (Gödel’s other character witness at his examination) tells his immigration examiner about his findings. It must have made a funny scene – an eccentric mathematician informing a hapless government examiner about an existential threat to the U.S. democracy in heavily accented English. Morgenstern’s account of the story also provides us with a fun look at Einstein’s personal demeanor – both before and after the exam, Einstein mercilessly trolls his nervous friend Gödel.