Trump and the Political

Like everyone else I heaved a sigh of relief when traditional French socialists and conservatives teamed up to hand Le Pen and the Front National a stunning defeat in the second round of French elections. And I am comforted to know that should Donald Trump receive the Republican Party nomination, all polling data shows him (and perhaps others who run on his ticket) suffering a similar fate. What worries me is what Carl Schmitt called “the Political.” Carl Schmitt, sometimes also referred to as the “Nazi jurist,” developed and publicized a theory of politics during the 1920s in Germany that isolated “the political” from any substantive content, arguing that “the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy” (Concept of the Political 26). Schmitt conceded that in normal times, when economies are growing and jobs are plentiful, the political retreats from view.

Basically, [traditional definitions of the political] provide a practical way of delimiting legal competences of cases within a state in its legal procedures. They do not in the least aim at a general definition of the political. Such definitions of the political suffice, therefore, for as long as the state and the public institutions can be assumed as something self-evident and concrete. Also, the general definitions of the political which contain nothing more than additional references to the state are understandable and to that extent also intellectually justifiable for as long as the state is truly a clear and unequivocal eminent entity confronting nonpolitical groups and affairs — in other words, for as long as the state possess the monopoly on politics (22).

This for the most part would hold true for the Truman-Eisenhower-Kennedy-Johnson period when leading members of both parties disagreed over policy choices, but agreed fundamentally over the legitimacy of federalism, republican values, and democratic institutions. Notably, it was also during this period that the Republican Party suffered some of its worst losses, having to accept what seemed permanent minority status. “The political,” by contrast, arises when and where these institutional arrangements lose their legitimacy, when the public questions or, more often, is brought to question whether these institutional arrangements include or, more likely, exclude them. This extreme condition forces the friend-enemy distinction.

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 intensification of internal antagonisms has the effect of weakening the common identity vis-a-vis another state. If domestic conflicts among political parties have become the sole political difference, the most extreme degree of internal political tension is thereby reached; i.e., the domestic, not the foreign friend-and-enemy groupings are decisive for armed conflict. The ever present possibility of conflict must always be kept in mind. If one wants to speak of politics in the context of the primacy of internal politics, then this conflict no longer refers to war between organized nations but to civil war (32).

Carl Schmitt it turns out is a pivotal figure in US politics, for it was when the Republican Party had hit rock bottom and when the economy began to slow down in the late 1960s and early 1970s that the star began to rise on Carl Schmitt’s most celebrated student, the University of Chicago’s Leo Strauss. Strauss, of course, had the misfortune of being a Jew in Germany at the wrong time. Upon his arrival in the US, however, Strauss took up itinerant writing and speaking, warning whoever would listen — which in the 1950s and 1960s was barely a handful — of the dire consequences that would follow from opening the university and opening society at large to democratic influence. Schmitt had taught that it was with the democratization of German society that “the political” had suffered its worst defeat.

The more profound thinkers of the nineteenth century soon recognized this. In Jacob Burckhardt’s Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (of the period around 1870) the following sentences are found on “democracy, i.e., a doctrine nourished by a thousand springs, and varying greatly with the social status of its adherents. Only in one respect was it consistent, namely, in the insatiability of its demand for state control of the individual. Thus it blurs the boundaries between state and society and looks to the state for the things that society will most likely refuse to do, while maintaining a permanent condition of argument and change and ultimately vindicating the right to work and subsistence for certain castes.” Burckhardt also correctly noted the inner contradiction of democracy and the liberal constitutional state: “The state is thus, on the one hand, the realization and expression of the cultural ideas of every party; on the other, merely the visible vestures of civic life and powerful on an ad hoc basis only. It should be able to do everything, yet allowed to do nothing. In particular, it must not defend its existing form in any crisis-and after all, what men want more than anything else is to participate in the exercise of its power. The state’s form thus becomes increasingly questionable and its radius of power ever broader.”

Strauss was an attentive student. Just as he inveighed against the “right to work,” so he also railed (largely to empty audiences) against the dangers of democratizing society and the academy. When rates of profit began to decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s and when those hostile to the expanding social and political franchise began to explore ways to leverage growing social and political discontent to their advantage, Strauss’ students suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere with a political strategy straight from heaven. Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Abram Shulsky, Richard Pearle, father and son Irving and William Kristol, William Bennett, Robert Bork, John Podhoretz; the list is as long as the students and visitors Strauss attracted during his long tenure at Chicago. Outside of government these “Straussians” agitated and provoked with the aim of creating “the political.” In 1980, with the of Ronald Reagan, Struassians piled into leading positions throughout the Reagan (and then the two Bush) administration, reinforcing or generating the friend-enemy distinction wherever they went.

But the point is that even when in 1992, George Herbert Walker was deposed after one term, the Straussians simply picked up where they had left off in 1980, provoking, inciting, destabilizing, accusing — creating “the political” at every opportunity.

Which brings us to Donald Trump and the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates. On some level, it hardly matters whether they win or lose. They are, by definition, constituting, creating, cultivating the political. They are creating the friend-enemy distinction. We, on the outside — the enemy, as it were — cannot understand why they do not admit defeat and return to the negotiating table. We, the enemy, cannot understand why they keep floating legislation — on Obamacare, on tax relief for the rich, on reproductive rights, on funding public radio and television, on politicizing the Fed — all doomed to fail.

Liberalism in one of its typical dilemmas . . . of intellect and economics has attempted to transform the enemy from the viewpoint of economics into a competitor and from the intellectual point into a debating adversary. In the domain of economics there are no enemies, only competitors, and in a thoroughly moral and ethical world perhaps only debating adversaries. It is irrelevant here whether one rejects, accepts, or perhaps finds it an atavistic remnant of barbaric times that nations continue to group themselves according to friend and enemy, or hopes that the antithesis will one day vanish from the world, or whether it is perhaps sound pedagogic reasoning to imagine that enemies no longer exist at all (28).

Similarly, we cannot understand why Donald Trump’s numbers among likely Republican voters continue to improve even though (because?) his bombast grows ever more extreme. Mr Trump has learned his lessons well.

According to Schmitt’s and Strauss’ play book, the Republican Party has us right where it wants us. Like al Qaeda, the Taliban, or ISIS, the Republican Party leadership knows that the more we call “foul” and insist upon “fair play,” the greater the latitude they will enjoy countering our “version” of US history and US institutions — the enemy version — to their own authentic American version. Never mind that we were all on the same page in the 1950s and 1960s. Never mind that their version lines up well not with 1787 or 1865, but with 1783 and 1861; that is to say, the Republican Party is still fighting the battle between federalism and anti-federalism, the battle between states rights and union. They will not accept that those battles were lost, first in Philadelphia in 1787 and then at Appomattox in 1865. That is to say, they cannot allow that the US is, constitutionally and institutionally a republican and federalist political entity; and, so, they must continuously push ahead with their anti-republican and anti-federalist agenda, constituting and invigorating the friend-enemy distinction every step of the way.

In this light, it hardly matters whether they win or lose. They are, by definition, winning. They are constituting the political. They are creating the friend-enemy distinction. And insofar as this is true, they already are “the state.” Only as the Executive and Judiciary are able to delegitimize and, in fact, criminalize their conduct, only so long would the Executive and Judiciary prove themselves in a position to take back “the state.” Yet, here’s the rub. Straussians currently are one vote short on the Supreme Court. And, obviously, they dominate Congress. In effect, we are one branch of government away from overturning 1787 and 1865. And with that, we are one branch of government away from overturning 1964 and 1965.

What if Hillary or Bernie win in 2016? Absent a groundswell of support for the left wing of the Democratic Party, not the center, we are in no better a position than the French, whose electoral gymnastics cannot conceal the fact that Front National is the fastest growing political movement in France today. Take a graph of electoral politics in the 1920s and 30s in Germany. That places us squarely in 1930. I am not comforted. I am not consoled.