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Diagnosing American Politics

What the rise of Trump says about American democracy

I have a morbid fascination with Carl Schmitt. Morbid, because he manages to condense, in his political theory and philosophy of law, pretty much everything I find repulsive about the radical right. His pessimism about “human nature” is raw and simplistic and, unlike Hobbes, whom he superficially resembles, he is uninterested in clamping down on sin-infected humanity by way of a social contract that invests all sovereignty in an all-powerful monarch charged with keeping the peace at all costs. Instead, Schmitt accepts human perfidy as given in perpetuity, and directs it into a primal, permanent binary opposition of “friends and enemies,” an opposition which he claims is the very basis of “the concept of the political.” Schmitt’s sovereign is not the bringer of peace, but “he who makes the exception” in favor of a warped idea of the general good, one which means to sharpen rather than dull the distinction between friend and enemy. Schmitt is vehemently anti-liberal, and democratic in name only, an apologist for a Volksführer who is the great decider and the great divider, one who leads a people on to “great things” by relentless opposition to “the other.”

This construal of politics as eternal (but constrained) battle is about as far as one can get from political thinkers I find congenial, such as Hannah Arendt and John Dewey. That Schmitt donated his services to the Third Reich (despite his indifference to Hitler, whom he thought a mediocrity) is as unsurprising as it is repellent. Compare and contrast with Heidegger: as long as Heidegger stuck to phenomenology and the proto-pragmatism of Being and Time, Division 1 rather than nostalgic prophecy, I think he was not only useful as a thinker but potentially congenial, whatever one’s political stance. (Unfortunately, Heidegger preferred being a prophet, a reactionary modernist Jeremiah not too far from Schmitt.) But there is practically nothing I find congenial in Schmitt.

Yet Schmitt is fascinating because his ugly conception of “the political” describes, accurately and chillingly, the politics of the contemporary USA. He may not be very likable, but he is undeniably useful.

Schmitt’s shadow falls all over the contemporary scene in the USA, but nowhere more darkly than on the phenomenon called Donald Trump. The inclusion of the likes of Trump in the company of “big thinkers” like Schmitt, Arendt, and Dewey might seem ludicrous. But I do not think it is, for two reasons. First, I am among those few who take Trump very seriously. He leads in the polls and his base of supporters grows more vocal, belligerent, and numerous by the day, despite his many faux pas and incoherencies. At this point, absent a major campaign disaster, it seems to me that he will probably win the Republican nomination, and with it a possible-if-not-likely shot at winning the Presidency. The joke is over. Second, political theories are not law-like generalizations of political phenomena as they persist always-and-everywhere (despite what the theorists themselves claim). Rather, they constitute, in part, “political imaginaries,” conceptual schemata or interpretive lenses that are valuable to the extent that they help us to understand “actually existing” politics, as well as to prompt us to a fuller and richer vision of political life. While I think much is admirable in the political imaginaries of Arendt and Dewey, and little in that of Schmitt, Schmitt explains “actually existing” American politics much better than the aforementioned. And if nothing else, Donald Trump actually exists.

Consider the following:

  • Trump’s campaign was launched with a frontal assault on undocumented (“illegal”) immigrants from Mexico, which “is not sending their best.” Trump described said immigrants as essentially criminal, a pack of rapists and drug lords, although “some, I assume, are good people.” Whether Trump was aware that his blanket claim, besides being racist and bigoted, was largely false and unsubstantiated, is beside the point: his rhetoric was framed, right from the start, to separate “friend” from “enemy,” and any qualifications made (“Some, I assume, are good people”) actually reinforce his main point. Every other turn in his campaign, whether lambasting the Chinese economically or carping about “anchor babies” or eviscerating his erstwhile allies at Fox News, has reinforced this Schmittian theme. Friends and enemies. That’s what it is all about.
  • Trump’s plans to repatriate over 11 million undocumented aliens, besides raising serious issues about human justice, barbaric cruelty, and logistical possibility, runs into the formidable legal hurdle of the 14thAmendment, which grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” While the Constitution is a document that demands interpretation, and interpretations that will inexorably differ, it is hard to see how one could twist this clause in the direction right-wing nativists wish to promote. (Even “originalists” would have a hard time doing so: the original context of this clause was ensuring that emancipated slaves and their children would enjoy the benefits of full citizenship.) None of this fazes Trump, who doubts that the enforcement of the 14th Amendment “would hold up in court.” (This is no joke: do not laugh.) He has mentioned “many legal scholars” who agree with him without citing a single one. Once again, rational argument is beside the point, as Trump is simply blowing rhetorical smoke: he means that the Constitution will not constrain him in his effort to “take our country back.” Trump explicitly claims that amending the Constitution “would take too long,” and that “whether or not ‘anchor babies’ are citizens” will be determined by executive action. “We’re going to test it out.” In other words: the sovereign is he who decides on the exception.
  • No one could accuse Schmitt of being a political rationalist. If one accepts the premises laid out in The Concept of the Political and Political Theology, liberal Enlightenment projects such as Rawls’s or Nozick’s or Habermas’s come off as downright silly. Even those theorists who have problems with “Enlightenment Reason,” such as Charles Taylor or Alasdair MacIntyre, not to mention Dewey or Arendt, would seem quixotic to Schmitt, since they still naively voice the conviction that debate, reasoned argument, and arriving at a modus vivendi take priority over the groundless choice and constitution-making decision of the sovereign. This dovetails nicely with Trump’s “rhetoric,” if you want to dignify it as such. The public face of his campaign consists of rambling and barely coherent rants accompanied by a lack of genuine argument and policy details. In place of argument, there is insult and harangue: opponents are “weak” and “losers.” (Being a “loser,” as opposed to being, say, unjust or indecent or just plain evil, is the worst vice in the Trumpites’ moral universe, just as “winning” and “strength” are the only virtues.) If debate and rational argument are eschewed as “weak” and pointless, the only thing that can fill the vacuum of politics is decisiveness in choice and action, understood as the very definition of political strength. Which is as reminiscent of Schmitt as it is of Mussolini, LePen, and Berlusconi. (Fascism, anyone? Do the math.)

All of these observations have been made many times before, in op-ed pieces and in the blogosphere generally. Whether Trump is an actual Fascist or not (and whether he realizes it or not) has been tossed around endlessly, by pundits as well as the few respectable journalists that still exist. (For example, see the following links: [1][2][3]; and [4].) And it is also open to question whether this disconcerting phenomenon actually matters in the relatively long run. That is: whether Trump’s campaign only appears large and durable, and that it will fizzle out as will the Sanders insurgency by the time of the 2016 elections, which will be once again a dynastic competition between the Bush and the Clinton clans. The latter may well come to pass, but that is neither my main concern nor the reason I have been invoking Carl Schmitt. The issue is less one of “Can Donald Trump win?” than “Why is Donald Trump even ‘a thing’ in 21st century America?” And herein lies Schmitt’s importance: his “political imaginary” has, in a deeply ironic way, come to life in the seemingly hostile soil of the world’s oldest presumed liberal republican democracy, eclipsing other political imaginaries, such as Dewey’s or Arendt’s, which one would think are more congenial to polities such as America’s.

It is a commonplace among centrist pundits that politics in the USA has become too partisan, drawing an equivalence between an equally intransigent right and left. The equivalence is false because the intransigence is on the right, but besides that it misses the point. The problem is not that contemporary American politics is too partisan — politics that isn’t to a significant degree partisan is not really politics — but the way in which partisanship and clashes thereof are imagined is askew. There are other ways to imagine partisanship.

For example, in Arendt’s political imaginary, the public sphere is one in which citizens meet as equals to debate and discuss basically partisan agendas, with the ambition of persuading others and of being open to persuasion, thus giving birth to genuinely new policies and arrangements, and thus securing and stabilizing a good held and enjoyed in common. It is a political imaginary at antipodes to Schmitt’s. While it would be wrong to say that Arendt’s political imaginary is a priori true in a way that Schmitt’s is false (Arendt herself, for one, thought that politics was the realm of opinion rather than knowledge, tentative conviction rather than truth proper), it is one that seems to resonate better with the self-image of a self-proclaimed liberal democratic republic than does Schmitt’s.

This may be a reason to extol her political imaginary over Schmitt’s — I for one certainly would — and to use Arendtian persuasive means to get other citizens to embrace it and relinquish Schmitt’s. But it does not mean that her political imaginary must prevail. The prevailing political imaginary is the one that best explains what people actually do and think, rather than the one that seems to “fit best” with the sacred verbiage which they piously haul out on solemn public occasions such as inaugural addresses or presidential debates. It would be nice indeed if that imaginary was Arendt’s, or Dewey’s, or even Richard Rorty’s. But it is not. It is Schmitt’s never-ending agon of friend and enemy, balanced on a knife-edge, waiting for a “great decider” or political savior to set things right. Whether that political savior is Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is less significant than the fact that politics does not so much name reasoned debate in the public sphere between equal citizens as it does a battle royale between mutually uncomprehending combatants, winner take all. Taking a political imaginary like this for granted makes it, over time, all too real.

In sum, and tragically, American politics has become Schmittian. Inverting Clausewitz, it is the continuation of war by other means. The thin sliver of political hope lies in the fact is that we are mostly held captive by a picture — an imaginary — that is optional, one imaginary among many others. Better imaginings are possible — and urgently needed. Only then can the American polity come around to embracing a sovereign citizenry that transcends the friend/enemy dichotomy, and that does not only decide on the exception but shapes the contours of everyday democratic life.

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Michael Quirk

  • Zachary Sunderman

    This nails a lot of thoughts and concerns that have been floating around back there somewhere in my mind, unresolved, for quite awhile now. The Schmittian analytic really bursts open American popular politics in an extremely troubling and illuminating way. This makes sense of what’s going on here, but the sense you’ve discovered is horrifying. When I finished reading this, I wanted to run out into the street and shout that Trump MUST BE STOPPED!

    Another realization: What Trump has brought to the surface is a clearer, more transparent, more exacerbated form of a tendency that has been infecting American politics for some time. It was behind the Iraq War and its fallout, with the Administration ignoring public opinion, rhetorically constructing a strong us/them good/evil dichotomy, and linking American exceptionalism with strength and irrepressibility. It was within this rubric that we justified, and still continue to justify in lesser form, torture, indefinite detention, rigged trials, renditions, etc. And people really bought it.

    My first reaction was to see Trump’s popularity as a resurgence of this politics, a spectacular failure to learn the warnings the recent past issued to the present. But perhaps it’s the other way around. Trump’s popularity does not signal the reappearance in linear time of something discredited. Rather, it acts backwards, illuminating the past by revealing the transformation and persistence of a way of thinking, feeling, and believing that never went away.

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