One of the messages most often delivered at the 2016 Republican National Convention was that of unity. Not party unity, which clearly does not exist, but national unity, a goal to be achieved by setting aside the divisiveness of politics as usual. Never mind that the chant most often heard from the floor was “build that wall,” a hysterical fantasy of division, of casting out the undocumented workers who are, by any reasonable measure, integral to American society.
It is easy, and maybe accurate, to dismiss this as the kind of self-contradiction and doublespeak that is the Republicans’ stock-in-trade, but it is also more than that.
Listening to Donald J. Trump’s acceptance speech, I felt as though the election was turning into a battle between two very different, though equally formidable, 20th-century political philosophers, Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt. “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced,” Schmitt wrote in his 1927 work, “The Concept of the Political,” “is that between friend and enemy.” It is a statement meant to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive: The friend-enemy distinction is central to politics in the same way that a good-evil distinction is central to ethics and a beautiful-ugly distinction is central to aesthetics. All other considerations are peripheral to this core concern.
The considerations that Schmitt especially wishes to strip away are the legal and procedural ones central to defenses of the liberal state. Such defenses ignore the question of the political at their own peril, by reducing public life to a constant competition among interest groups and political factions with no overarching sense of purpose.
In many ways this has been the message of the Trump campaign all along, crystallized in his convention speech. At several points, he emphasized that his republic will be a polity of caring. But he also strained mightily to identify the groups posing an obstacle to this goal: undocumented workers and Islamic terrorists. Responsibility for a supposed rising tide of crime was placed squarely at the doorstep of Mexican migrants and Islamic State sympathizers. The presence of these groups in our midst is, in this view, preventing true political community from emerging.
This identification of enemies was entirely in keeping with Trump’s rhetoric, but in presenting the case so starkly he freed himself to identify friends in ways that were somewhat surprising given the setting. Despite the open hostility to the Black Lives Matter movement apparent at the convention throughout the week, African-Americans received mention from Trump as victims of globalization suffering from joblessness and urban decay. This move collapsed the racial division between poor whites and poor blacks that Republicans so often exploit, replacing it with a focus on the plight of all workers who are Americans.
Even more surprising were the huge cheers in response to Trump’s vow to defend the L.G.B.T.Q. community from Islamic extremists — a turn of events that seemed to surprise the speaker himself, who paused to compliment the crowd on its decision momentarily to set aside one of the party’s pet bigotries. This alchemical change was of course effected in the crucible of Orlando, Fla. Here we see how blood sacrifice at the hands of an enemy can alter the terms of political friendship, allowing a previously marginalized group a path to the center of political life. It is a core insight of one of Schmitt’s finest current readers, Paul W. Kahn, in his books “Sacred Violence” and “Political Theology,” that American politics often works in this way, as when African-American sacrifice during World War II was mobilized to broaden anti-segregationist consensus.
Such is the kind of unity that Trump has sought to forge. By heaping hatred on foreign elements within America’s borders, he seeks to thicken the meaning of the nation as a category. In a way resembling Schmitt’s thought on sovereignty, he imagines the nation as an organic entity whose will is expressed through him. Or, put differently, he seeks to restore the racial and familial implications always at play in its Latin root, nationem, from nascor, to be born. In this way it is entirely fitting Trump was introduced by his daughter Ivanka, and that the week featured his children much more prominently than it did the usual party functionaries. We are being invited to join them under the beneficent wing of his paternal care.
Not all of us will accept the invitation. And in this respect we will share the skepticism of Hannah Arendt, whose core insight in her indispensable book “The Origins of Totalitarianism” is that the path to totalitarianism is cleared when the nation-state hyphen is severed, when the nation becomes an exclusive group that must defend itself through actions residing outside of the law and beyond the protections afforded by state institutions and procedures. Once the logic of a threatened national genus is accepted, emergency action grossly expanding the brutal exercise of state power is not far behind.
In this light, the Arendtian in the presidential race of 2016 would appear to be Hillary Clinton. One obvious sign of this is Clinton’s pledge to admit many more refugees from the Syrian conflict into the United States. In the most famous chapter of “The Origins,” Arendt harshly criticizes all those European and North American powers who had refused entrance to refugees during World War II, even characterizing them as participants in the Nazi program of imposing statelessness on European Jewry. Clinton has signaled that she will not repeat this mistake.
Clinton is also clearly much more statist than Trump, and in fact it is difficult to discern in her rhetoric a sense of nationhood standing apart from state institutions and policies — this is a major source of her emotional deficit as a politician. Hers is a politics of the achievable, of incremental progress within received institutional bounds, trained by the kind of long experience that breeds familiarity with the workings of government.
But statism is not an end in itself for Arendt, and we can certainly imagine her having misgivings about Clinton. In a curious moment of agreement with Schmitt, Arendt cites him in “The Origins,” in describing the state’s rising domination and possession of the category of nationhood in the 18th and 19th centuries leads wealthy and powerful elites to claim that they are rising above party faction only when it suits their interests. In an even curiouser moment of agreement, when Schmitt later articulates his thought on this development in the context of the 1848 uprisings that erupted across Europe, he relies on Karl Marx’s analysis in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte.”
Uniting these three very different political philosophers, Arendt, Schmitt and Marx, is an insight on the ways in which pure statism inherently favors moneyed interests. Without some sort of pressure from the sphere of political action, the levers of the state fall all too readily into the hands of the wealthy and well connected. For Arendt this leads to a politics where Enlightenment principles like justice and equality are hollowed of significance and used only to advance the agenda of the powerful.
So when several commentators on the right and left accuse Clinton of being beholden to banks and corporations, we can imagine Arendt paying close attention. As is clear from “The Human Condition,” the portions of the liberal tradition that mattered to Arendt emphasize a political space for the kind of human creativity that has positive civic effect. This she likens to the human capacity for procreation: Just as we have the power to bring new human beings into the world, so also we have the power to bring new ideas into the world that reshape their environment, having ripple effects of responses that are also new. This is our highest calling, and highest achievement, as social and political beings. If Arendt is a liberal, she is a liberal with a significant civic republican streak.
Schmitt is widely, and justly, despised as a person and thinker for having joined the Nazi party in 1933 and refusing to submit to denazification after the war. But his insights on the way politics works still prove to be remarkably, if also lamentably, useful. Trump, like Schmitt, sees the government of his time as having failed, and seeks to heighten our sense of political emergency.
On the other side is Clinton, who with Arendtian poise casts cold water on a tribalist politics — she has admirably not responded in kind, even if she has frequently indulged in a politics of fear by playing up the monstrosity of her opponent. But if we truly cast our lot with Arendt’s political philosophy, as so many of us do either knowingly or unknowingly, we might find that both candidates leave us wanting.