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Can Carl Schmitt Explain How We Got from the Cold War to Trump?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States and the West lost their common foreign enemy. Would the sense of rivalry that characterized these tensions abroad then turn inwards, once no common enemy remained?

The election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States, along with growing discontent over the liberal international order, has been a cause for consternation among some political theorists, commentators, and politicians. From The American Interest reflecting on the possible “end of liberalism,” the Council on Foreign Relations worrying about U.S. abdication of liberal international leadership, to Edward Luce’s Retreat of Western Liberalism (2017), there is a palpable concern flooding the mainstream Left and Right over the future of the post-Second World War order. President Trump’s election has also renewed old domestic and cultural divisions within American society, old divisions that were transiently overcome (or became less publicly pronounced) during the Cold War because of the necessity of bipartisan and national unity in confronting the Soviet Union. Donald Trump is not a Schmittian, but his rhetoric and political desires fall within the analysis of decadent and hypocritical liberal democracies offered by Carl Schmitt.  

Carl Schmitt, whose work will be the focus of this article, was a controversial German legal scholar and political jurist active from the 1920’s until his death in 1985. The height of his prominence came during the 1920’s-1940’s, at which time he was a member of the Nazi Party. The fact that he never formally renounced Nazism effectively barred him from ever returning to the professional academy after the end of the Second World War. As such, Schmitt’s later works were independent from the academy. Yet, all his works remain of considerable interest to political philosophers, jurists, and constitutional theorists. With the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the supposed triumph of liberal democratic capitalism in mind, what can one make of the fact that many Western nations are suddenly turning inwards and towards strong-man politics? Perhaps the works of Carl Schmitt have something to teach us.

Conceptualizing the Political

In Concept of the Political, Schmitt posits that the metaphysical underpinning to politics itself was the friend-enemy distinction. As Schmitt wrote, “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction was a politicized re-rendering of Hegel’s epistemological and ontological dialectic. To understand oneself required the Other—or as Schmitt contextualized it within the concept of the political—the enemy. That is, one could not fully understand oneself (politically) without a political enemy to contrast oneself against. Thus, the I-Not-I distinction in German idealist philosophy was now manifested in the political realm by Schmitt’s analysis.

Schmitt also wrote, in Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, that democracy and liberalism were seemingly incompatible with one another. Democracy was premised on the national spirit, the Volksgeist (peoples’ spirit). Democracy, in Schmitt’s eyes, was inherently about the demos: the domestic, the national, and “the friend.” In democracy, there was a strong feeling of solidarity, sentimentality, and esprit de corps within the demos towards those who were counted as friends.

Liberalism, by contrast, was in tension with national democracies in wanting to include the non-national Other within the scope of totality, which is impeded by Schmitt’s recognition that democracy was always exclusivist and national in orientation. The paralysis of liberal democracies was this dialectical tension in either being for the nation (for “us”) or to be for others (for “them”). And, as liberalism became more fully itself, it began to transcend the national boundaries that it had initially taken root in.  

The dream, and internal logic, of liberalism is universal establishment: A peaceful and united world engaged in non-violent consumerism where the power of religion, culture, and nationality (which can so often be a cause for conflict) would be altogether transcended. Contemporary liberals have finally shown their hand in their apoplectic reactions to the troubles of the European Union, Brexit, and Trump’s election. They bemoaned the retreat of universalism. As Peter Beinart has written, “The whole point was that democracy and capitalism were not uniquely ‘Western.’ They were not the property of any particular religion or race but the universal aspiration of humankind.”  

This was the dream of Francis Bacon that was then picked up and politicized through his faithful disciples: Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and others. But in a world of plurality, for this dream to be realized, wouldn’t that entail the destruction of uniqueness and plurality? Universalism stands, by necessity and definition, in contrast to pluralism.

For the New Left Schmittians, a group of heterodox left-wing thinkers who began the reappraisal of Schmitt’s works, Schmitt’s analysis of the inner workings of liberal capitalism offered a new, more pertinent, analysis of contemporary global capitalism and liberalism than the old model offered up by Karl Marx. It was not that Marx was wrong about commodity fetishism, alienation, and atomization as all derivatives of ongoing bourgeois and capitalist development. The genius of Schmitt is that he was able to recognize that the claims of rationalist liberalism and its “rational economic man” (the homo economicus) was nothing more than a veil of conflict to obliterate the Other.  

This wasn’t just class conflict; it was a struggle to the death. The power of the union worker had to be broken. The indigenous tribe—whose homes and ancestral lands now sat atop places corporations wanted—had to be “modernized” or displaced. Cultural and communitarian norms which prevent the expansion and free flow of capital needed to be circumvented under the guise of free trade. For Schmitt, “economic self-interest” was the means to achieve these ends.

The “in your economic interest” argument was, for Schmitt, a rhetorical ploy for the continued expansion of Anglo-American capitalism, self-alienating individualism, and the dream of universal abolition and the uprooting of peoples from their histories, identities, and traditions. For all the pretensions of liberal capitalism of being on the higher plane of civility, respect, and toleration, Schmitt’s analysis of liberalism showed it to be vicious, warlike, and engaged in the friend-enemy dialectic while veiling itself in the language of progress, modernization, and free trade. Key to Schmitt’s criticism of liberal economism was the view that there was more to life, and politics, than economics. History, culture, identity, and religion also mattered to people and communities.

Political Dialectic and False Memory

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That most seductive neo-Whig story of the triumph of liberal democratic capitalism and the end of history is itself susceptible to a Schmittian analysis and critique. The history of the United States, for one, is not the story of a homogenized and united nation being indivisible and bipartisan. The memory of indivisibility, unity, and bipartisanship was a transient moment in American history brought about through forcible exclusion of dissident politics as the United States assumed the mantle of global international leadership from the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the Second World War.  

From the division and rivalries between Patriots and Loyalists, Jefferson and Hamilton, Jacksonians and anti-Jacksonians, secessionists and unionists, nativists and anti-nativists, populists and progressives, isolationists and internationalists, segregationists and integrationists, the history of American democracy has always been one of dialectical confrontation out of which the hope of a more perfect union would be synthesized through the end of these confrontations. Harry Truman and the war hawks purged from their ranks fellow Democrats like Glen H. Taylor and former Vice President Henry A. Wallace for their supposedly pro-Stalinist views at the onset of the Cold War. William F. Buckley Jr. and the fusionists at National Review purged some conservatives and isolationists and advocated for the new internationalism of the postwar establishment. Gone were the days when respectable politicians on the Left and Right could identify with isolationism and anti-imperialism.

The relative unity of the United States, and both parties therein, during the Cold War (with a few exceptions) was because the United States had found its enemy: The Soviet Union. The Soviet Union stood as the antithetical Other to the United States and the post-war Western liberal order that the United States was forging. Change was afoot. Schmitt might have been relegated to academic exile, but his friend-enemy distinction lived on during the second half of the twentieth century.

The Cold War era saw a certain unprecedented unity between the Anglosphere and Western Europe. Following Schmitt, this unity was undoubtedly the result of being confronted with a dialectical opponent in the Soviet Union. The cause of the West had a new meaning and energetic spirit after two horrible wars precisely because this political conflict was a mortal one. As Schmitt said in the Concept of the Political, true politics is mortal: “the enemy is solely the public enemy” to which all political motives are directed against and, “the friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing.”  

In being confronted by an enemy that became the fixation of the public cause, and with the real threat of physical killing through war possible, “the West” finally overcame—momentarily—all its longstanding divisions: geographic, linguistic, cultural, religious, and historical grievances to unite against a public enemy. The dream of universal Enlightenment was not consummated because people had subscribed to its ideals. It was momentarily in vogue because of the friend-enemy distinction which drove the Western nations, and their internal domestic divisions, to set aside these differences and unite against a common enemy.

To this end, the dissolution of the Soviet Union negated the Other . In having lost the enemy Other, the bipartisanship, unity, and indivisibility that characterized popular consciousness from the 1950’s into the early 1990’s atrophied. We have returned to the pre-1939 composition of sharp domestic divisions, which characterized all Western nations, including the United States.

In no longer having the external enemy to motivate and direct political policy, the return to the domestic body politic and domestic sphere of the political has reopened the old cultural, geographic, ethnic, racial, economic, religious, and political wounds. The tribalism, nationalism, populisms, and identity-politics that Jonah Goldberg, Mark Lilla, and other neo-Whigs of the Right and Left establishment have come to opine over is the return to the political dialectic of friend-enemy without the external Other to enforce universal opposition against. The new Other, the new enemy, is now found in the domestic battleground (once again). The confrontation is inevitable; the conflict is also mortal.

Donald Trump’s Friend-Enemy Rhetoric

Donald Trump’s rhetoric embodies Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction pristinely. The language of “us vs. them,” or of “team” invokes the foundation of politics that Schmitt identifies. Moreover, the choice of a side, which is to violently choose, is the most pristine moment of decision where one firmly embodies the friend-enemy dialectic. To choose a side is the closest embodiment of Schmitt’s concept of the political in the 21st century.

Schmitt’s analysis of sovereignty (and Trump’s rhetoric is excessive on the concept of sovereignty) means that the dictator is the clearest manifestation of the sovereign decider. As he famously wrote in his examination over the nature of sovereignty in Political Theology, “the sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” Schmitt used the term dictator in its traditional Roman sense. In other words, the leader appointed to make the tough decisions in times of national crisis to ensure national survival. Schmitt’s dictator was a man of honor and praise, much like Machiavelli’s reflection on the Roman dictator in his Discourses on Livy.

The paralysis of liberal democratic governance was a problem in Schmitt’s view. The weakness of liberal responses to immediate crises had to be remedied by a powerful executive who acted like God. Trump has not inaugurated what Arthur Schlesinger observed as the “imperial presidency,” but Trump acts within the executive powers of the imperial presidency. As Congress has reneged its political responsibilities—created by the Founders to hedge against such an all-powerful imperial presidency, or dictator—the abdication of responsibility by Congress only allows for the imperial presidency to grow.

Trump’s messianic image, while not too dissimilar in principle to Obama’s when first elected, has a distinctly Schmittian embodiment that Obama’s never had. Schmitt’s emphasis on sovereign decisionism, especially on matters of inclusion and exclusion from the nation, is the very core of the Trump presidency. Decision is the hallmark of sovereignty, and decision emanates from the dictator who can stand above the juridical order. This, of course, is done on behalf of the nation.

A Crisis of Consciousness: Finding Friends and Enemies

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National consciousness was arguably reduced out of public consciousness during the Cold War. While Americanism certainly remained, America was no longer the isolated citadel in the Western Hemisphere; no longer was America that continental civilization that could remain aloof to European, South American, African, and Asian politics. Alliances had to be formed, the movement to integration had to be pursued, and the burden of global leadership assumed. As mentioned, the conservative isolationists and anti-Cold War warriors in the Republican Party, and the progressive anti-Cold Warriors in the Democratic Party had to be expunged as this change in American politics was occurring.

The end of the Cold War, which was primarily the end of not having that substantial Other to find unitive political cause against in the international sphere, reset the stage for national consciousness to emerge in force. The I-Not-I distinction returns in force and primarily manifests itself in the political realm. But rather than have an external Other to focus on, the friend-enemy dialectic has returned to the domestic battlegrounds.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War did not bring about the end of history. The fall of the Soviet Union eliminated the Soviet Union as the public enemy of the West, which had allowed Western nations to band together against a common enemy which threatened their existence. With the Soviet Union defeated, the enemy was “vanished from the world.” The vanishing of the Soviet Union did not signal the consummation of liberal democratic capitalism and the liberal international order but reset the dialectic to a new friend-enemy distinction and encounter.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that transient overcoming of nationalism has eroded. As such, the returning to national democracy has led to the discovery of the current friend-enemy distinction between the heirs of the post-Second World War globalist and international dream with those who are situated, consciously or unconsciously, within the web of the Volksgeist: the national-I vs. the globalist-Other. When the Soviet Union collapsed President George H.W. Bush spoke of a new world order but was hamstrung by domestic issues, from taxes, to the passage of the ADA and Clean Air Act. Likewise, President Bill Clinton’s withdrawal from Somalia and late action in Bosnia were the result of a domestic populace more concerned with internal issues than international ones. After all, Somalia and Yugoslavia were not the substantial and dangerous Other like that Soviet Union had been. Neither Bush nor Clinton could find that international enemy that American foreign policy had centered on since 1945.

The demise of an external and international foe, the Other, to which the energies of the past half-century were dedicated has returned the political to the domestic dialectic that has long defined national democracies. Additionally, the new iteration of Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction and the confrontation between the I-Not-I does not seem to include the real possibility of physical killing as the tension between communism, fascism, and liberalism did in Schmitt’s time. But the existential communitarianism and anxiety over extinction which undergirds much of Schmitt’s work are still at play in this brave new century. Politics may have found its new meaning—leading to a new but worrying vitality—because of the anxiety of cultural and communal death, the eradication of the Volksgeist by the Other, real or imagined. Donald Trump, to this end, has played on the friend-enemy distinction powerfully and is seen as the instrumental of revival of the national dialectic.

Paul Krause holds an M.A. in theology from Yale and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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