Climate Change Denial as the Historical Consciousness of Trumpism: Lessons from Carl Schmitt

Of all the errors made today by liberals—I use the term broadly—our most fundamental has been our underestimation of Trumpism as a philosophical movement.

We have no trouble loathing Donald Trump the man. His temperament and political impulses are self-evidently those of an authoritarian, straight from the pages of Adorno or Hayek. Likewise, our criticism of his administration’s misguided policies has been ever at the ready.

.. Trumpism is well on the road to becoming a systematic program of ideas that will carefully refine its views through praxis and—allied with anti-liberal movements elsewhere in the world, especially in Russia—articulate a new, fundamental challenge to liberal thought for the twenty-first century.

.. History as

  • heritage and nostalgia—#MAGA. History as
  • reverence and fidelity—Straussianism and constitutional originalism. History as a
  • philosophy of action—embodied in the novels of Trump’s intellectual precursor, Newt Gingrich. History as
  • racial melancholy—Charlottesville. History as a resource of trans-historical Germanic mythology—the masculinist branches of the alt-right. History as
  • conspiracy—Infowars, #fakenews, and the “rigged” political system. History as
  • providence and decay—the implicit revival of Jacksonian-era romantic nationalism, with its narrative scaffolding of dwindling popular sovereignty.

.. Stephen Bannon’s philosophy of generational change, about which I’ve written elsewhere,

  • a toxic blend of Toynbee and Jung—history as
  • a cycle of apocalypse and renewal.

.. climate change denial grows logically from the core metaphysical commitments of contemporary populist nationalism in its confrontation with trans-Atlantic, cosmopolitan, individualist liberalism.

.. one might thus regard it as the distinctive form of anti-liberal historical thinking of our era.

.. it’s helpful to turn to the work of a thinker whose writings, it’s been suggested (and here), underwrite the movement’s “intellectual source code”: the German constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985).

.. On Schmitt’s view, liberal states are weak and vulnerable, subject to corrosion from within—through capture by private interest groups—and conquest from abroad.

.. a political community arises when its members coalesce around some aspect of their common existence. On this basis, they distinguish between their “friends” and “enemies,” the latter of whom they are ultimately prepared to fight and kill to defend their way of life.

.. A political community, that is, is created through an animating sense of common identity and existential threat

.. Schmitt believes that this pugilistic view of politics rings true as a conceptual matter, but he also regards drawing the friend-enemy distinction as a quasi-theological duty and part of what it means to be fully human.

.. Without the friend-enemy distinction, he argues, political life would vanish, and without it something essential to humanity would vanish

.. This gives Schmittianism, like the Bannon-affiliated elements of Trumpism, a family affinity to traditionalism in Russia

.. Enemies are regularly portrayed as ugly, for instance—a practice at which Trump personally excels.

.. But the object of a community’s political dissociation is made on the basis of criteria independent from judgments about good and evil, beauty and ugliness, or profit and loss.

.. the liberal effort to circumscribe national sovereignty within universalist legal and moral criteria increases the possibility of total war.

.. Trump acts in full accord with Schmitt in this respect by praising Vladimir Putin and embracing autocratic Russia as a potential friend while snubbing liberal nations of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

.. at the heart of Trump’s campaign was the promise to territorialize the friend-enemy distinction, namely to build a “great wall” along the border between the United States and Mexico

.. That spirit is one not simply of xenophobia or ethnocentrism, but also, and perhaps most of all, of shared laughter and good humor—a spirit, it’s essential for liberals to acknowledge, of warm community.

.. As Stephen Miller bracingly put the matter, in a statement nearly incomprehensible on liberal terms, “We’re going to build that wall, and we’re going to build it out of love.”

.. on Schmitt’s view, those nations that are strong enough to impose their own internal political homogeneity ought to ally with each other against nations and groups that undermine the territorialization of the friend-enemy distinction.

By this logic, it’s not Russia so much as violent Islamic extremism and cosmopolitan trans-Atlanticism that represent America’s true enemies—and, in fact, Russia can be an important ally against both.

.. Much like extreme conservative positions on gun control, climate change denial is based above all in anti-liberal metaphysical and identity commitments.

.. Although scientists have a forty-year track record of accurately predicting rising global temperatures, climate change deniers insist that such findings are the product of self-serving business elites and cunning foreign economic competitors who stand to gain if America reduces carbon emissions.

This sociological critique of scientific knowledge is a position not of evidentiary skepticism but rather of radical epistemological relativism. Deniers essentially challenge the Enlightenment position that the past is subject to objective understanding and that the world is amenable to rational human control.

This lends the popular culture of climate change denial a palpable spirit of historical fatalism.

..  climate change denial is animated by a vision of the future that, at bottom, is that of neo-tribalism.

.. It is destabilizing the territorial boundaries of the world through rising sea levels, altering the very land from which, in Schmitt’s view, the nomos of a people originally grows

.. it is undermining the spatial boundaries that Schmitt deems essential to sovereignty by putting the export of negative externalities at the center of global concern

.. Deniers interpret climate history in a way that obscures the existence of a global political community

.. In doing so, they not only embrace what I’ve called “the rule of the clan” at the level of the modern state, they also reject sotto voce the liberal ideals of universalism and individualism.

.. Trumpism draws together for our own time the core ideals of politics and the state that Carl Schmitt placed at the center of his philosophical vision. These include

  1. an animating community spirit that combines pugilism with love,
  2. an existential embrace of the friend-enemy distinction,
  3. a conception of state sovereignty as inviolable,
  4. the need to territorialize and homogenize the political community, and the rejection of the liberalist international order

—all in the service of a unified, common people.