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.
Yet to say of President Trump and his followers that they hold or are even capable of holding philosophical convictions is generally to invite ridicule, as if the term were an undeserved appellation of grace. Trump doesn’t philosophize, he tweets.
Understandable though this tendency is, it is mistaken and self-defeating. Indeed, it is a signal of our own intellectual weakness. And if we continue, it will redound to our detriment by hindering our ability to reinvigorate liberal principles for our own time.
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.
As this transformation takes place, liberals should be ready. We need to understand Trumpism as a philosophical movement even better than its own adherents do, and with full interpretive sympathy, and we need to be prepared to confront it along all its philosophical axes.
The most central of these axes is Trumpism’s approach to history, because the identity of a political movement, like that of a nation, becomes fully apparent only once it possesses a self-conscious understanding of the past.
True to politics in the digital age, however, Trumpian historical consciousness will appear in new guises and unexpected forms.
There are many types of historical consciousness under Trumpism, variously supporting each other and competing for dominance.
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.
And then there’s 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.
Here I’d like to offer some thoughts about an especially significant type of Trumpian historical consciousness: climate change denial.
We naturally tend to understand climate change denial as part of a larger struggle over the respect accorded to scientific data in the making of public policy—and it is that. But stripped of its meteorological content and considered formally, climate change denial also is a view about the meaning of events as they unfold over time.
It’s a view about the history of the environment.
This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps,and our GW scientists are stuck in ice
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2014
I’m not concerned with the anti-scientific character of climate change denial, at least not primarily. Instead, I’d like to suggest that it plays a significant role in the architecture of Trumpism as a developing philosophical system.
As a framework for interpreting the past, climate change denial grows logically from the core metaphysical commitments of contemporary populist nationalism in its confrontation with trans-Atlantic, cosmopolitan, individualist liberalism.
In this respect one might thus regard it as the distinctive form of anti-liberal historical thinking of our era.
This means that it also offers the greatest opportunity for liberals to address some of our own philosophical failings.
To understand the philosophical significance of climate change denial for Trumpism, 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).
For readers acquainted with Schmitt, the outlines of the emerging political philosophy of Trumpism seem eerily familiar. Over the course of his campaign and presidency, Trump has consistently expressed in action principles that Schmitt developed at the level of theory.
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. In the American case, as Trump would have it, the United States has been “crippled” and reduced to “carnage” by self-interested financial and cultural elites, radical Islamic terrorists, cunning foreign trade negotiators, and illegal immigrants from Mexico.
The source of this vulnerability, Schmitt argues, is modern liberalism’s thin conception of political community and the state. Because liberals misunderstand the very nature of political life, they create conditions under which their nations implode.
According to Schmitt, 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—indeed, that’s how “the political” as a fundamental sphere of human value comes into being, and how it provides the cultural foundation of sovereignty and the state for a community of equals.
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, too—human existence would be reduced to mere private hedonism. This gives Schmittianism, like the Bannon-affiliated elements of Trumpism, a family affinity to traditionalism in Russia—a link highlighted by Bannon’s discussion of the traditionalist underpinnings of Eurasianism in his 2014 remarks to a gathering of the Human Dignity Institute.
One could equally express the Schmittian worldview in more theologically positive terms, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, as a politics based on love. For Schmitt, the political is founded on the essential mutual regard of community members for what they share beneath their surface-level differences. That recognition justifies the state’s demand that citizens be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in its name, and for Schmitt it forms the philosophical precondition of law itself.
Two principles of Schmitt’s writing are especially relevant to understanding the place of climate change denial in Trumpism’s historical consciousness, and they’re worth discussing at some length. Each principle links Trumpian domestic and international politics as two sides of the same philosophical coin.
The political is inviolable
First, for Schmitt a community’s ability to draw the friend-enemy distinction can—by definition—brook no conceptual or institutional restraint.
Most notably, the distinction can’t be predicated on other domains of human value, such as morals, aesthetics, or economics. Ideals from these fields may be used to enhance public feelings of opposition. 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.
Liberals today regularly violate this principle. They seek to circumscribe national sovereignty within generally-applicable legal norms such as individual human dignity—consider Article I of the German Basic Law—and to restrict it through institutions like the United Nations.
Schmitt views such liberal projects not simply as naïve, but also as a recipe for social chaos at home and unrestrained, imperialistic violence abroad.
On the domestic level, according to Schmitt, when liberals predicate the friend-enemy distinction on ideals drawn from other value domains, they undermine the state by confusing their community’s own self-understanding. Who are we if our state holds basic responsibilities to everyone?
Such uncertainty chips away at what President Trump, warning specifically about the fate of the West, described as a community’s “will to survive.” It also leaves the state vulnerable to capture and abuse by self-interested private groups, because its essential duties and commitments become unclear.
Trump’s repeated insistence that “I will never, ever let you down” expresses the underlying Trumpian belief that, in Schmittian terms, liberal representatives from both parties have lost sight of the friend-enemy distinction that lies at the core of the nation’s existence.
According to Schmitt, a parallel problem exists on the international stage. In his view, the liberal effort to circumscribe national sovereignty within universalist legal and moral criteria increases the possibility of total war.
By moralizing conflict, liberals become disinclined to make deals with their opponents to limit war’s scope. They transform “conventional” enemies into “absolute” enemies, against whom fighting can never truly cease.
They also seek to reconstruct other societies in their own image—after all, they base their own political identity on universalistic criteria.
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. In fact, one would expect such a realignment from a sovereign unshackling itself from decades of liberal universalism.
On the Schmittian view, a people in no way acts inconsistently or improperly if it determines that another political entity is its existential “friend” although it engages in practices that violate the people’s basic views of right and wrong.
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016
Trump is likewise consistent with Schmitt in insisting that the American goal in Afghanistan should be “killing terrorists”—”not nation building.”
Both Schmittianism and Trumpism possess a striking normative pluralism.
The political requires territorialization
The relation between politics and geography is the second aspect of Schmitt’s philosophy that’s relevant to thinking about climate change.
In Schmitt’s view the state, as the bearer of a people’s sovereignty, must create clear territorial boundaries that correspond to its friend-enemy distinction. If the territory of a state doesn’t track the distinction between friend and enemy, then the identity of its underlying political community becomes muddled. This process mirrors spatially the confusion that results when liberals seek to circumscribe sovereignty conceptually.
For Schmitt, that’s why states also should seek to homogenize the political community within their borders, and why the “sovereign dictator”—a leader exercising power in a period of constitutional transition—should quash internal dissent.
Accordingly, 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—a promise that became his movement’s most fervent rallying cry: “Build the wall!”
The cry is Schmittian in two respects, one obvious, the other less so.
Most obviously, it expresses the Schmittian position that a community’s political obligations should be physically legible. A border wall is a fitting architectural symbol of a Schmittian conception of the state—indeed, Schmitt himself once explained that the normative order of a people “can be described as a wall.”
Jeb Bush just talked about my border proposal to build a “fence.” It’s not a fence, Jeb, it’s a WALL, and there’s a BIG difference!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 25, 2015
In addition, the Schmittian quality of the slogan is implicit in the spirit with which it typically has been chanted at rallies.
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. When Trumpians chant “build the wall!” they do so with an eye not simply to the enemy, but also to the friend.
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.”
Trumpism’s other central campaign chant, “lock her up!”—a cry to symbolically homogenize the American political community by anathematizing self-serving liberal elites—was delivered in a similar spirit of good times.
Both Schmitt’s and Trump’s vision of international affairs reflects the imperative to territorialize the friend-enemy distinction as well.
Schmitt rejects the ideal of a global order sustained through international legal institutions, such as the League of Nations. In aspiring to limit the ability of their members to declare war, he argues, such institutions ultimately seek “to transform the world into … a global Rechtsstaat”—an ideal as spiritually undesirable as it is practically impossible.
In contrast, Schmitt argues, the cause of peace and stability would be better served through an international order of sovereign states defined by their commitment to “the political” and its territorialization. He advocates rooting global order more deeply in the ideal of national sovereignty—which, not coincidentally, formed the conceptual core of Trump’s recent address to the United Nations.
“If we are to embrace the opportunities of the future and overcome the present dangers together,” Trump explained, sounding themes essential to Schmitt, “there can be no substitute for strong, sovereign, and independent nations that are rooted in their histories and invested in their destinies; nations that seek allies to befriend, not enemies to conquer; and most important of all, nations that are home to patriots, to men and women who are willing to sacrifice for their countries, their fellow citizens, and for all that is best in the human spirit.”
Schmitt goes further still, but if one listens closely, one can hear his views echo down the corridors of the West Wing. He would construct a stable world order by extending the principles of the Monroe doctrine to all major players on the international stage. In Schmitt’s vision of a future “nomos of the Earth,” great nations stake out zones of geographic influence and afford each other mutual regard across those physical boundaries.
Indeed, 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.
That’s the case, most obviously, because it expresses a resolutely anti-scientific attitude. 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.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
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.
Moreover, as an interpretation of past events, and as an understanding of the process of change over time, climate change denial is animated by a vision of the future that, at bottom, is that of neo-tribalism.
Contemporary climate science hints at a conception of “the political” that transcends particularistic identity markers and encompasses humanity as a whole. This political community does not find its enemy in rival sovereign peoples which it keeps at bay through deals in which each side respects the territorial limits of the other. Rather it does battle with a global climatic process that even now is simultaneously affecting the historical course of all sovereigns.
This enemy respects no borders. Indeed, 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, and 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. Moreover, global climate change seems to call for placing sovereign nations under the control of third parties.
In these respects, global climate change is a powerful force of Schmittian de-politicization. Along with the digital revolution, it is altering the objective conditions in which politics takes place and can be conceived—accomplishing physically what liberals have sought to do much more modestly at the level of constitutional theory.
As a response to these changing conditions, climate change denial moves in the opposite direction: pushing deeper into nationalist politics. Deniers interpret climate history in a way that obscures the existence of a global political community, and they underscore the traditional Schmittian friend-enemy distinction through their radical sociology of knowledge.
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.
It’s no accident in this light that as a political movement devoted to climate change denial, Trumpism also includes elements of racial nationalism—the two ideologies are linked by their mutual embrace of a Schmittian conception of community, sovereignty, and the state. They are rooted in the same ideological soil.
In advance of Trumpism’s intellectual systematization, it would be a grave mistake to fail to perceive the philosophical ideas that underlie Trump’s everyday actions and messages—even his Tweets.
The president is no different from the majority of citizens who wouldn’t be caught dead within a hundred yards of the Federalist Papers, much less Leviathan, but who nevertheless express theoretical positions about society in the way they live and the popular culture they produce.
Characterizing climate change denial as an expression of historical consciousness indicates its pivotal importance within this popular, anti-liberal philosophic culture.
Trumpism began as a domestic reaction-formation against liberal internationalism. Climate change denial, with which Trump associated himself early in his political career, now not only embodies that reactive impulse but also structurally reinforces it across a range of the movement’s ideological domains and concerns.
Far from representing a hodgepodge of erratic policy positions, 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 an animating community spirit that combines pugilism with love, an existential embrace of the friend-enemy distinction, a conception of state sovereignty as inviolable, 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.
In this, climate change denial is part and parcel of a philosophic structure that liberals will need to confront as we gird ourselves for the next stage of our opposition.
Mark S. Weiner is the award-winning author of the Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals about the Future of Individual Freedom, Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste, and Americans without Law: The Racial Boundaries of Citizenship. He is the co-curator of the exhibition “Law’s Picture Books,” on display at the Grolier Club in New York until November 18, and Professor of Law on extended leave from Rutgers University, Newark.