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Trumpism and the Philosophy of World Order

Many liberals have been tempted to condemn Donald Trump’s behavior in personal terms, accusing him of incompetence and speculating about his mental stability. But there is a deeper – and even more troubling – explanation of the US president’s behavior.

HAMDEN, CONNECTICUT – In the wake of the NATO and Helsinki summits, many liberals have been tempted to condemn US President Donald Trump’s behavior in personal terms. His embrace of Vladimir Putin, and his snubbing of his own intelligence services and of America’s traditional allies, seem to reveal that he is out of his depth. Or that he was played. Or that he is mentally unstable. Or that he is Russia’s ultimate made man – a “traitor.”

Any or all of these judgments may well be true. But there is a deeper – and even more troubling – explanation of Trump’s behavior: it arises from his ideas, especially his implicit philosophical commitments concerning world order. These commitments will be much more difficult to combat.

Of course, Trump is no philosopher. Yet he does channel certain concepts instinctively, thanks to his mastery of popular storytelling and his deep sensitivity to how his supporters respond to him emotionally. With every rally, he is encouraged by mass audiences to refine his ideas to meet their self-perceived emotional needs, which he in turn politicizes through social media.

If there is one thinker whom Trump seems to channel most – and who can help make sense of his behavior, especially his widely-condemned moral equivocation toward Russia – it is the German legal philosopher Carl Schmitt.

Although Schmitt is notorious for joining the Nazi Party in 1933, it would be a mistake to dismiss him for that reason alone. Among scholars today, on both the left and right, Schmitt is known for his incisive critique of modern liberalism.

At the heart of Schmitt’s critique is his disdain for liberalism’s universal aspirations. Liberals do indeed place individual rights at the core of their political communities and believe that, in principle, those rights should extend to everyone. America, as the saying goes, is an idea.

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For Schmitt, this view leads to disaster, both at home and abroad. On the domestic front, because the liberal conception of “the people” is non-exclusive, it is also indistinct. Who are we if “we” can include anyone? Schmitt believed that this way of thinking makes liberal states vulnerable to capture by private interest groups from within and by foreigners from without – a claim that Trump made the centerpiece of his election campaign.

Schmitt’s critique of liberal foreign policy is based on a similar analysis. As defenders of a non-exclusive, rights-based creed, liberals are compelled to meddle in the affairs of other countries whose policies don’t accord with liberal values. And when liberals engage in international military conflict, their worldview is a recipe for total and perpetual war, because their commitment to abstract norms encourages them to view their opponents not merely as competitors but rather as “absolute enemies.” Unlike a “real enemy,” with which a rival can achieve a modus vivendi, an absolute enemy must in time be either destroyed or transformed – for example, through the “nation building” that Trump vociferously rejects.

In place of normativity and universalism, Schmitt offers a theory of political identity based on a principle that Trump doubtless appreciates deeply from his pre-political career: land.

For Schmitt, a political community forms when a group of people recognizes that they share some distinctive cultural trait that they believe is worth defending with their lives. This cultural basis of sovereignty is ultimately rooted in the distinctive geography – say, land-locked and oriented internally, or coastal and outward-looking – that a people inhabit.

At stake here are opposing positions about the relation between national identity and law. According to Schmitt, the community’s “nomos,” or sense of itself that grows from its geography, is the philosophical precondition for its law. For liberals, by contrast, the nation is defined first and foremost by its legal commitments.

Trump’s presidency amounts to the working out of the policy implications of this Schmittian view for domestic and foreign affairs.

Most obviously, Schmitt’s critique of liberalism is evident in the passion of Trump and his supporters for building a wall on America’s southern border. Trump advisers like Stephen Miller tellingly describe the construction of the wall as a policy driven by “love” – that is, love of the American political community, clearly defined in space.

More consequentially, in Brussels and Helsinki, Trump’s Schmittian politics were apparent in his behavior toward America’s traditional allies and foes. Schmitt advocates a global order that universalizes the Monroe doctrine: great nations stake out inviolable zones of geographic influence, or Grossraum, from which they afford each other mutual respect. Trump advocates an international order of normative pluralism, non-intervention, and deal-making.

In this anti-liberal view, there is no reason to view Russia as an absolute enemy. And there is every reason to undermine international institutions and to cut loose America’s traditional allies. For anti-liberals, the true enemies of peace today are those nation-states and institutions that seek to place external limits on sovereignty and conceive of political community in normative rather than territorial and cultural terms. By contrast, the friends of peace are those nations that are strong enough to establish political homogeneity within their borders and to uphold a global order of important sovereign players.

When Trump stood next to Putin and sided with him over America’s intelligence services, he was acting out the logical culmination of Schmitt’s ideas. And those ideas will be with us long after Trump is gone.

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