The state of exception and Trump’s politics of forgetting
Donald Trump’s frequent tweets remind the world of his overwhelming presence. Trump is “the real thing” as he tweets from Donald J. Trump@realDonaldTrump and President Trump@POTUS. Indeed, the reality of Trump began to sink in when he marched angrily into his inauguration and promised to end “American carnage” by returning to American greatness before World War II. The realness sank in with every raindrop that fell while he spoke.
As Timothy Snyder reminds us, Trump’s policy to “Make America Great Again” harkens back not only to the protectionism of the 1930s, but also to America First, the conservative group in the 1940s who opposed US intervention into World War II. Trump’s promise to make America great again is one of nostalgic return to a previous America protected from globalization and foreigners. And yet, while Trump’s executive orders to reverse the domestic legislation of Obamacare and oil drilling on Native American land are deeply dismaying, his disregard for the global world order after World War II is an ominous sign of far more than protectionism. Indeed, we might ask whether the United States is drifting towards an “illiberal democracy” similar to that of Viktor Orban’s Hungary in its suspension of international law in the name of a protracted state of emergency. Orban, like Trump engages openly in the dangerous rhetoric of xenophobia and protectionism. Moreover, he is deeply suspicious of the weakness of international law and regional organizations such as the European Union.
Although orders for the building of a wall to prevent Mexicans from entering the US and the stronger vetting of refugees were not really a surprise, the chilling reality of Trump’s complete disregard for the human rights of undocumented migrants seeking sanctuary in US cities and the rights of refugees to be granted asylum is outrageous — even by Trump’s standards. The fact that the President and his administration chose to announce the executive orders on International Holocaust Remembrance Day couldn’t have been more audacious. The executive orders suspend the US Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, declare an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees and implement a 90-day suspension of citizens from seven countries (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen) with a Muslim-majority into the United States. Since International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorates the failure of individual nation-states to prevent the genocide of European Jews, Trump’s timing was uncanny. Has he forgotten that Anne Frank’s family was denied entry into the United States and left to their fate, that the MS St Louis ship full of Jewish refugees was denied entry into the US in 1939? Has he forgotten the lessons of the failed Evian Convention in 1938 that put national interest before the plight of Jewish refugees?
By announcing his executive orders targeting Muslims, Trump’s message couldn’t have been clearer. Remembrance of the failure to intervene in the plight of others is secondary to national interest and the protection of borders. Trump taps into the long-standing tradition of American exceptionalism with unprecedented and vitriolic boldness. In his first week in office, he has attempted to dismantle the work of those who signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Geneva Convention on Refugees (1951), both of which were signed in the aftermath of two world wars, genocide, with a profound recognition that individual states had failed to help refugees and those persecuted for religious belief. Trump has rejected the more tolerant and cooperative America of the post-war era that underpinned and supported international charters and the creation of the United Nations, uprooting and rejecting them , along with the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty.
Donald Trump’s first week in office reveals a dangerous political theology of friend and enemy that is deeply oblivious to recent history. His executive orders demonstrate Carl Schmitt’s argument that the most basic concept of the political is the relationship between friend and enemy. “The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism becomes that much more political the closer it approaches the most extreme point, that of the friend-enemy grouping.” The enemy poses a primal and existential threat to the existence of the state and the life of a people. A concept of politics that is viewed through the antagonistic prism of friend or enemy is increasingly accompanied by placing certain individuals outside the law in the face of a state of emergency due to the threat of terrorism. As the controversy surrounding torture and secret prisons revealed during the Bush administration, by exempting the United States from international law, individuals are dangerously placed outside of the law and have neither national nor international rights of appeal. Trump’s flurry of executive orders that do not require Congressional approval are proof of Schmitt’s claim that the “sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” The war on terror is precisely the state of exception legitimizing Trump’s flouting of international law and human rights.
The executive orders demonstrate that despite the universal claims of the Geneva Convention, Muslims and citizens from the seven banned countries are outside of internationally binding treaties because their religious belief and cultural way of life may pose a threat to the security of the United States. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Trump attempted to trump international law. His executive order demonstrates that the equating of refugee with terrorist blocks a concerted international response to share responsibility for the relocation and integration of refugees. As a report for Amnesty International argued in 2015:
The global refugee crisis may be fueled by conflict and persecution but it is compounded by the neglect of the international community in the face of this human suffering. In the aftermath of World War II, the international community came together to create the United Nations Refugee Convention to protect people from being returned to countries were they risked persecution and human rights abuses. The Refugee Convention has been an important mechanism, providing a framework for the protection of tens of millions of people. The Refugee Convention also established the principle of responsibility and burden-sharing – the idea that the international community must work together to address refugee crises so that no one country, or a small number of countries, has to cope by themselves. This fundamental principle is now being ignored, with devastating consequences: the international refugee protection system is broken (sic).
By dismissing the moral imperative of “burden-sharing,” Trump is effectively leaving the plight of Syrians to Canada with its open policy of welcoming refugees, to European countries that are already overwhelmed by refugees, to Turkey that has agreed to take Syrian refugees in exchange for large sums of money from the EU and to charity organizations. His executive order leaves those who are most vulnerable to an unknown fate.
Trump’s executive orders are far reaching and menacing. By banning Syrians and Muslims from entering the United States, he has effectively labelled them as pariahs and enemies of the state. This is unmistakably the language of the far right in the 1930s and 1940s. To enact such an executive order on International Holocaust Remembrance Day displays a callous disregard for history, an inability to learn from the nationalist policies of the 20th century, and an ominous sign that American leadership is retreating into a dangerous fortress mentality that shrugs off international responsibility and burden-sharing for a state of exception that is above international law.