“I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding….
… You have to get people in, grab them, hug them, kiss them, and get the deal done.”
-Donald Trump, Eighth Republican debate, Feb 6, 2016, New Hampshire
Yesterday, Donald Trump decisively won the Republican Nevada caucus, and if things continue this way, he will win the Republican nomination. It’s true that there is still lots of room for unexpected events to disrupt the race. Bill Clinton didn’t win any of the first four primaries in 1992. Which means there is still hope for Marco Rubio (or, for that matter, John Kasich or Ben Carson). But given everything that has so far failed to put a dent in Trump’s campaign, increasingly outlandish scenarios have to be concocted.
The decisiveness of Trump’s Nevada win (45%) also makes the conventional wisdom – that Trump is so toxic to so many people, that he has a hard “ceiling” of support that makes him unelectable in a general election – a little more shaky. Maybe it’s true. But Trump has defied expectations pretty regularly throughout the campaign. And the deep Republican antipathy for Hillary Clinton in particular means that the GOP establishment might learn to love their monster in the end.
The juxtaposition of the two quotations above, both from Trump’s performance in the New Hampshire Republican debate (debate transcript is here), show the essence of Trump’s appeal, which seems to owe quite a bit to the political philosophy of Carl Schmitt.
In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt says that the political is the sphere that is defined by relations of friendship and enmity. The friend/enemy distinction is the fundamental political distinction: it is what all real politics is built upon. For Schmitt, many of the things that we might normally think of as “politics” don’t qualify. Normal elections, passing legislation, court decisions, contract negotiations: all of these things determine how a society is administered – “who gets what, when, and how” in Harold Lasswell’s famous definition of politics – but they don’t get to the essence of the political.
For Schmitt, politics provides the foundation which makes all of those other things possible. Electoral, legislative, judicial and other such processes of governance can only work within a community that has a certain level of existential security. It’s only if we know that we are going to be around next week, next year, or the next election cycle, that we have a reason to build those kinds of governance institutions and accept their outcomes as binding. At the same time, it is the parties being bound to the rules (and therefore outcomes) that makes those processes non-political. The political only becomes visible when those rules are in question. If we are faced with an “enemy,” in Schmitt’s sense of the term – someone who is an existential threat – then we need to be able to do whatever is necessary to ensure our survival. Trump’s statement about waterboarding was in response to Ted Cruz being pressed by the moderator to defend an earlier statement that “torture is wrong, unambiguously, period. Civilized nations do not engage in torture.” Cruz responded by parsing: waterboarding doesn’t fit the legal definition of torture, and I would bring it back, but not in “widespread” use. Trump responded by following Schmitt’s logic: I am prepared to engage in “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” because (implicitly) otherwise we risk losing civilization entirely. (Totally consistent with this, Trump sides with the FBI over Apple.)
For Schmitt, it is in this moment, this willingness to consider that which is forbidden, that we see the political, and can determine where power really lies. Anyone can follow the rules. But, in Schmitt’s famous formulation:
Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.
Part of the reason for Trump’s appeal is that, post-9/11 in particular, we inhabit a culture that is infused with this Schmittian view. When I explain Schmitt’s understanding of politics to my students (his is one of a few definitions of “politics” that I run through early on in my Intro Politics course) there are plenty of pop culture examples to draw on Agent Jack Bauer from 24 maybe the most obvious, although it is getting dated. More recently, Chancellor Thelonius Jaha explains in an early episode of season 1 of The 100: true leadership means knowing when to break the rules. The hard-headed pragmatism of it has a certain appeal. When the appeal of this view of politics starts to sink in, I point out that Schmitt was also one of the most important legal theorists of the Nazi regime.
The point of mentioning this is not to invoke Godwin’s law. Rather, I use it to illustrate the point that definitions of politics themselves are shaped by context. When you think about it, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that, writing in the chaos of interwar Central Europe, Schmitt defines politics in terms of existential choices about collective survival. Or that in postwar America, with its Fordist economy, Lasswell defines it in terms of regularized distributional processes.
In that sense, the contemporary resurgence of Schmittian politics can be seen as the bitter fruit of a decade and a half of the War on Terror, with its ubiquitous threat assessments and institutionalized state of exception. Bomb, build a wall, torture, force companies to compromise the security of their products: whatever it takes to secure ourselves against the existential threats we face, until we “can figure out what is going on.”
But along with his outspoken belligerent truthiness, Trump’s appeal is also grounded in his reputation as a deal-maker, as is evident in the other half of the quotation above. What gets a lot of the attention are Trump’s statements about how he would deal with enemies. But an equally important component of his braggadociousness is his claim to be a deal-maker: “I get along with everybody.”
In this sense, the two quotations from the New Hampshire debate are not in contradiction with each other. They are just two sides of the same Schmittian coin: always be willing to work with your friends, and always be willing to be completely ruthless with your enemies. If Trumpism works only to the extent that his audience always believes they are on the former side, then at some point we have to expect that at some point, sooner or later, Trump will mis-step, overplay his hand, and supporters will start to see that they could be identified as enemies as much as friends. But despite numerous predictions that this will happen, each time Trump went “too far” with attacks on Hispanics, Muslims, women, people with disabilities, Bush-Cheney, etc. it hasn’t yet. Why don’t Trump’s supporters recognize themselves as potential enemies?
One weakness in Schmitt’s analysis is that he doesn’t explain how a community, which has definable friends or enemies, comes to be constituted in the first place. As Gianfranco Poggi puts it (in The Development of the Modern State):
His [Schmitt’s] chief error is to take the collectivity of reference (Us) as a datum… How can a collectivity discriminate between friend and foe if not by referring to a conception of what makes Us into Us? (pp.11-12)
It is only by knowing who “we” are that we can figure out who is deserving of “waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse” and who needs to hugged and kissed to get the deal done. So a great deal rests on what exactly constitutes the “Us” that is the contemporary American electorate (or at least enough of it to put together a winning electoral coalition). Democrats are counting on an ideology of freedom that translates into a tolerance and even embracing of diversity, openness to immigration, religious pluralism, and so on. For the last decade at least, if not half-century, Republicans have counted on an ideology of the free market combined with an anxiety that delivered a clear, if coded, account of who the enemies, without and within, were. In the Obama days, the contest could be cast as a battle between hope and fear. Or more pragmatically, whether to mobilize (however cynically) disengaged citizens or disenfranchise those who can be cast as internal enemies. But the dominant emotional tone for Trump is neither hope nor fear. As is commonly noted, it is anger. What makes him attractive to some Republicans is an anger at the failure to recognize the Schmittian nature of politics: a failure to deal with enemies appropriately. (And similarly with friends: his Nevada victory speech included the eminently quotable line “I love the poorly educated.” But it was immediately followed by “We’re smart. And we’re loyal.”)But what makes Trump attractive more broadly, and a threat in the general election, is anger at a broken political system. From a long read today by Matt Taibbi:
the presidential election campaign is really just a badly acted, billion-dollar TV show whose production costs ludicrously include the political disenfranchisement of its audience. Trump is making a mockery of the show, and the Wolf Blitzers and Anderson Coopers of the world seem appalled. How dare he demean the presidency with his antics?
But they’ve all got it backward. The presidency is serious. The presidential electoral process, however, is a sick joke, in which everyone loses except the people behind the rope line. And every time some pundit or party spokesman tries to deny it, Trump picks up another vote.
And stopping Trump is not the same thing as changing the conditions that made his emergence possible.