This post is a thought experiment and a hypothetical. I am not recommending any particular course of action or way of thinking about the disaster that has befallen us. I want to use Schmitt as a lens for a couple reasons. First, even more than the theory of sovereignty or friend/enemy politics, I see Schmitt’s core conviction as a desire to preserve the state as such — an exceedingly rare position in a world where most people think of the state as a terrain or instrument for advancing partisan goals. So to that extent, the particular Schmittian lens I want to use here serves as a potentially interesting limit case for how to look at the election. Second, Schmitt’s personal conduct in the service of saving the state as such can show us that sometimes the attempt to stave off the worst leads us to the very worst.
From the Schmittian perspective, then, where the most important priority is to maintain state continuity, what were our options in this election? I’ve written before about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats generally as a type of katechon or restraining figure, holding together some semblance of normality in the face of the Republican “man of lawlessness.” (See 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 for this terminology.) Taubes has argued that the katechon is actually the central figure of Schmittian politics, and that he views the apocalypse not as the dawn of divine justice, but as a total catastrophe.
The Democrats are trying to preserve the state in two senses. First, they are determined to shore up the ongoing legitimacy of American constitutional arrangements. People understandably call for the Democrats to “play hardball” in response to Republican weaponization of various institutional quirks, but the problem is that if both sides are doing that, then you lose the sense that there is a neutral, non-partisan institutional framework. So for instance, Obama could respond to the Republicans’ refusal to consider his Supreme Court nominee by saying, “Okay, I gave you your chance to advise and consent, and you have opted not to — so I’m seating him.” That would be satisfying to watch on a certain level, but it would also hugely damage the legitimacy of the Supreme Court for half or more of the American people. No single nominee or decision is worth an undeniable and irretrievable politicization of the Supreme Court. (Of course, it is in fact politicized already, but one wants to keep up appearances.)
Second, the neoliberal Democrats (and few remaining “moderate Republicans”) are attempting to preserve the state in another sense. Unlike the anarchistic libertarianism of extreme Tea Party Republicans, neoliberalism acknowledges the artificial and constructed nature of the market and the need for a strong state to maintain market norms. In Illinois, this is the difference between Rahm Emanuel, who is terrible but who does still invest in important public priorities like transit, and Bruce Rauner, who apparently just doesn’t think there should be a State of Illinois. Rahm instrumentalizes the state to support a certain conception of the market, but that at least preserves the continued existence of an institutional state, unlike the Rauner position where the state needs to be destroyed in order to make way for a supposedly “natural” economic system of domination. And I would add that while neoliberalism represents a powerful set of blinders, they are at least formally open to evidence-based decision-making — so that the IMF can admit that neoliberal policy produced inequality, while it’s impossible to imagine Republicans ever admitting that tax cuts are not magic.
The problem with the Democratic katechon is that this is all pretty minimal. On the one hand, they are bending over backward to preserve anti-democratic and baroque institutions that were meant to keep the slavers on board — and didn’t even keep the slavers on board in the end. Is the sheer having of Constitutional continuity worth it when this is what you’re continuing? On the other hand, they are promoting the continued existence of the state, but a “submerged state” that can never assert its own legitimacy and agency. Even worse, the state is being put in the service of an agenda that, while formally “non-partisan” in the Democrat/Republican sense, is clearly lavishing benefits on a small minority while neglecting most people. The longer the neoliberal status quo is maintained, the more certain a populist rebellion will arise. And the intellectual hollowing-out of the Democratic policy elites by neoliberal groupthink means that they will be incapable of addressing that problem when it arises — as we have seen.
So does Trump paradoxically offer any katechontic possibilities? (Please remember that this is a thought-experiment.) It seems clear that even in the best realistic scenario, pre-Comey, a Clinton presidency would mean a continuation of divided government, with the Republicans continuing to refuse to cooperate on even the most basic institutional functions. If the Democrats controlled the Senate, they would be able to staff up the administration and appoint judges — but we still could have gone four years without a budget or debt ceiling increase, and there was already talk of starting impeachment proceedings on day one. I think the Republicans would be very wrong to do all that, but it is in their power to do and we have clear grounds to believe that they would. So the election of the candidate who is determined to save American institutions could lead directly to a very serious Constitutional crisis.
If all you want is to preserve Constitutional continuity, then, you might want to let them have it for a while. Maybe they’ll get it out of their system. I don’t mean that you intentionally throw the election — certainly Clinton intended to win and probably assumed she would, as we all did — but in the event that you lose, you would do exactly what Clinton and the Democrats are doing: congratulate them, concede their basic legitimacy, pledge to work with them. Their undivided rule will cost a lot, but undermining the legitimacy of the system would cost everything.
This view of preserving institutional continuity is just as impoverished as the others. It basically amounts to the position that any government is better than civil war. And that makes sense — unless one of the parties of government is more or less openly blackmailing the other with the increasingly explicit threat of civil war. At what point is the civil war already happening?
Even leaving aside the specter of civil war, we return to the point that these institutions were created as part of a compromise with slavers. Even after a brutal civil war — literally the worst war in human history at that point — Lincoln (Obama’s great idol) was determined to preserve that jerry-rigged institutional structure and pretend that it didn’t have to be about slavery. And in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, we have all agreed to imagine that an order founded on the enslavement of blacks is not about white supremacy. What Trump shows us is that for a substantial plurality of our fellow-citizens, it very much is. Police shootings of blacks, the war on drugs, mass incarceration — all of that was sending us the same message. As hard as it is to take, for a good portion of the white population in this country, the fact that law enforcement disproportionately targets blacks is a feature not a bug.
And this brings us to the final step. If you are really determined to preserve Constitutional continuity no matter what, if the bare existence of some order, any order is better than the risk of civil war or revolution, then I think you back yourself into a corner where you have to say to black people in this country: “I’m sorry this sucks so much for you, but your suffering, your humiliation, your thwarted life, is the foundation of this structure that is barely holding together as it is. You and your children and your children’s children will just have to bear that burden, because if we acknowledged your demand for justice, then everything would be over.” And that’s the moment when all your effort at staving off the worst becomes support for the very worst.