Arendt, Schmitt, Trump – some muddled thoughts on our current historical moment.

In his first 100 days in office Franklin D. Roosevelt stabalised the banking system, took the United States out of the Gold Standard, repealed prohibition and set in train a public works programme that was to form the basis of the New Deal; a policy programme that would lift America out of the biggest depression it had ever experienced. Roosevelt’s success is perhaps why we pay so much attention to a President’s first 100 days in office. If successful, the first 100 days can define a President’s administration, setting the tone for the rest of their time in office; if they fail, it often does not auger well.

Donald Trump hasn’t been in power for 100 days, but his first 14 days in office have confirmed what many feared during one of the most unusual election campaigns in American history. Instead of recalling Congress (as Roosevelt did) to enact an unprecedented number of laws, Trump instead attempted to used Executive Orders to govern without consulting Congress. Although popular with the public, his most high profile order (immediately banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries) was an arbitrary act, which led, amongst other things, to the detention and handcuffing of a 5 year-old boy for several hours.

This attempt, to govern by fiat, was always going to be challenged by the courts, especially when the ban is so discriminatory and illiberal. Perhaps this is exactly what Trump wanted. After all, his supporters will almost certainly wail in appreciation as Trump continues to rail against the ‘establishment’ judges who have blocked this measure. Perhaps Trump saw the reaction of prominent British newspapers when the Supreme Court in the UK had the gall to challenge the Prime Minister, when she attempted to trigger Article 50 without consulting Parliament. In both cases, the reaction is a horrifying challenge to normal constitutional politics in a well-functioning democracy. In one case, Trump railed against the ‘so-called’ Judge who had the temerity to challenge him; in the other, the judges were described as ‘enemies of the people’ for daring to carry out their designated role in a free society.

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Two German political philosophers are instructive in trying to understand what is going on at the moment, not just in Trump’s America, but also (perhaps) in Brexit Britain.

Hannah Arendt is a German-Jewish political philosopher, who was forced to flee from Europe in 1941 as Jewish people started to be rounded up by the Nazis as part of the final solution. In her work, she argues that a certain sort of evil attaches to the thoughtlessness of Nazis like Adolf Eichmann, whose failure to to take moral responsibility for their actions is described by her as “the banality of evil”. In The Human Condition she argues that what is to blame for this thoughtlessness is a growing encroachment of economics into our lives, so that we cease to function as political animals, but exist instead as mere economic actors who see everything as a means to an end. She argues that this type of instrumental reasoning, and the erosion of public life that goes with it, eviscerates our capacity for action.

Carl Schmitt was a German Jurist and Political Theorist, who in his later years, became known as The Crown Jurist of the Third Reich. His major contribution to Political Philosophy came in his 1932 work The Concept of the Political, where Schmitt argues that the problem with liberalism is that it entails endless discussion and debate, which precludes decisive decisions. For him, this is the antithesis of politics, because politics, by its very nature, creates a division between friend and enemy. He argues that the role of a sovereign is to step in during periods of crisis to enact decisions using emergency powers.

These two political theorists were both thinking and writing at the same time, and their insights are telling. If Arendt were alive now, she might look at the election of Donald Trump and see it as a failure of people to take moral responsibility for their thoughts and deeds – a failure to properly take action in the world. Schmitt, by contrast, would see Trump’s recent executive actions as examples of the sovereign dealing with an emergency by making decisions that pit friends against enemies.

If there is any truth in the above then the current historical moment may be a very dangerous one, because whilst Trump behaves as a Schmittian sovereign, parts of American society seem to be characterised by the same thoughtlessness that Arendt saw in Eichmann and in many Germans who failed to take responsibility and political action when the Nazis took power.

The most important remedy to the current historical moment is for us to recognise in ourselves our own capacity to take action in the world. For Arendt, this involves thinking deeply about our moral responsibilities, discussing politics with others, and taking action in the world that we can justify to ourselves. This, I think, challenges all to snap out of the paralysis that the shock of someone like Trump can engenders in us, and take action. To do otherwise is to fail to meet the responsibility of the current moment – and the consequences of that can be very dire indeed.

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