Monday, August 6, 2018

Commentary: Trump and Carl Schmitt: An Unlikely Association

Every now and then, I come across a prominently posted commentary that combines virtue-signaling with the appearance of weighty scholarship.  A perfect illustration is "Trumpism and the Philosophy of World Order," a polemic produced by Mark S. Weiner, who is a Fulbright recipient and visiting professor in American studies at the University of Uppsala (Sweden).  Weiner does not rule out "incompetence" and "mental instability" in accounting for the unwelcome behavior of an American leader whom he and his friends ostentatiously despise.  But, he insists, "[t]here is a deeper and even more troubling explanation of the US president's behavior."  Weiner sees this in, among other situations, Trump's immigration positions and how he appears on TV standing next to Vladimir Putin.  Although the American president "is no philosopher," somehow "there is one thinker whom Trump seems to channel most – and who can help make sense of his behavior, especially his widely-held moral equivalence toward Russia – it is the German legal philosopher Carl Schmitt."
Weiner has obviously read the legal philosopher in whose shoes Trump is now supposedly reeling, and he even provides a brief survey of Schmitt's critique of liberalism.  For example: Law for Schmitt sprang from the ancestral and "from a community's nomos, a sense of itself that grows from its geography."  Further: "In place of normativity and universalism, Schmitt offers a theory of political ideology based on a principle that Trump doubtless appreciates deeply from his pre-political career, land."  This last statement is baffling, since the land Trump had in mind was real estate, whereas Schmitt wrote about settled European territories in which ethnic nations took shape.
Significantly, most of those policies Weiner ascribes to Trump and which are cited as illustrating his Schmittian anti-liberalism can be traced back to Barack Obama.  Trying to de-escalate tensions with Russia was certainly as characteristic of Obama's presidency as it is of the current one.  In fact, unlike Obama, Trump has inflicted sanctions on Putin's Russia for its annexation of Crimea and for meddling in Ukrainian affairs.  Unlike the Obama administration, moreover, American troops have fired on and killed Russian troops in Syria.  The view of Trump as a lackey of Putin is hardly a demonstrated fact, and attributing this hypothetical condition to the influence of Schmitt renders the charge even more ridiculous.  The reference to "Schmitt's disdain for liberalism's universal aspirations" as an explanation for Trump's immigration politics likewise seems unduly partisan.  Obama also separated children from parents who were illegally crossing our southern border.  Perhaps Weiner should quote Schmitt in offering reasons for Obama's onetime treatment of illegals.  (Only kidding!)
Aside from these simplistic generalizations about his performance, we are never told how Trump came to assimilate Schmitt's ideas as interpreted by Weiner.  Why is "Schmitt's critique of liberalism evident in the passion of Trump and his supporters for building a wall on America's southern border"?  And why must we assume that "Schmitt's Trumpian politics were apparent in his behavior toward America's traditional allies"?  Having immersed myself in Schmitt's tracts and correspondence for decades, I would never have arrived at this connection without Weiner's help.  Am I to think Trump was gobbling up Schmitt's writings in the Big Apple between his philandering and real estate deals and then decided to base his presidency on this dead German's dismissal of liberalism?
According to Weiner, Schmitt is "best known for his critique of modern liberalism."  But the liberalism this thinker (who lived ninety-seven years, between 1888 and 1985) assailed was classical liberalism.  What he attacked was closer to the libertarian vision of a world of voluntary economic transactions with minimal state interference than it is to modern multiculturalists.  Schmitt was targeting the liberal predecessors of Ron and Rand Paul.  He would have found our own self-described liberals, a group to which Weiner plainly belongs, at least as strange as Martians.
Also, Schmitt produced his critiques at different times in different circumstances.  Although he opportunistically joined the Nazi Party in May 1933, after urging leaders of the Weimar Republic to outlaw Hitler's party, most of his early criticism of parliamentary liberalism was made in the context of trying to save the German republic from both the Nazis and the communists.  In the 1920s, Schmitt was also the chief legal authority of the Catholic Center Party.  What he wrote in this capacity has to be viewed independently of what Weiner attributes to him as a forerunner of The Donald.  The same is true for Nomos der Erdea long legal work that Schmitt published after World War II – to which Weiner alludes in his strained efforts to link Trump to Schmitt.  A study of the legal development of the European state system and an examination of the decline of just war theory, this work wouldn't provide (or so one might hope) much grist for Weiner's mill.
I would also note that Schmitt's general observations were often defensible even if they don't coincide with the world that Weiner would like us to live in.  The permanence of friend-enemy relations as a criterion of the political, the profound influence of theology on political ideologies, the appeal to "human rights" as a mask for hegemonic ambitions, and the view that the nation-state is one of the great achievements of Western civilization are all Schmittian views that seem to me almost self-evident.  If Trump stumbled on such wisdom, he is a deeper thinker than I imagined.  But it's highly doubtful that our president extracted these ideas from the horse's mouth.

Editor's note: This article originally was published at American Thinker. It has been rerun with its author's permission.

Paul E. Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe. He serves as head of the editorial board of The San Francisco Review of Books.

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