The message and optics of Joe Biden’s address from September 1, 2022, were startling in our supposedly enlightened times. In the mid-1930s, however, both were conventional politics. This was a time in which the most menacing discovery of modern times came to be perfected in political rhetoric. That discovery was that the most successful path to regime stability is to unify political friends around loathing and hatred of some domestic enemy.
Who the enemy is can change. What matters most is that the enemy is seen as an existential threat to the friends of the nation. It must be called out, rooted out, disabled, and even eliminated. And the masses of people must go along with it, even participate in it. They must be driven to feel a kind of bloodlust – a phrase that perfectly embodies the fullness of the insight.
The point deepens and extends Niccolò Machiavelli’s prescription for political control. In his view, the priority should always be on crushing competitors to the throne. Only in this way can the Prince sleep well and the people live lives of peace.
Machiavelli lived in times of absolute power when the state was mortal, bound up with the life of a person. Democracy and the invention of the impersonal state changed the prescription for seizing and retaining power. It was no longer about keeping immediate competitors at bay. Now the effort had to involve the whole of the population.
It fell to Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), the German jurist and professor who deployed all his skills in service of Hitler, and yet still lived to a ripe old age, to map out the new path for the new age. His powerful essay The Concept of the Political (1932) remains the most poignant challenge to liberalism written in a century. Even today, it speaks clearly of the dark path to political success, and stands as a blueprint for any regime to deploy in service of survivability.
The essence he boiled down in a way that anyone can understand. The regime survives and thrives based on the friend/enemy distinction. The friends constitute the political community. The enemies are that which the community is organized against. Of whom the enemy consists does not matter. It can be identified by race, religion, ethnicity, age, body shape, geography…none of this is essential. All that matters is that 1) the people in power have made the decision, and that 2) it is believable to the majority of politically significant citizens which constitute the friends.
Reading the essay today, the political ethos of Nazism is easy to observe. Indeed, Schmitt wrote the formula, and not only for the enemization of Jews and others not loyal to the regime. His scheme applies more broadly to any regime that needs to shore up its standing and obtain total power. The killing fields are not a stretch either, given that he writes:
The state as the decisive political entity possesses an enormous power: the possibility of waging war and thereby publicly disposing of the lives of men. The jus belli contains such a disposition. It implies a double possibility: the right to demand from its own members the readiness to die and unhesitatingly to kill enemies.
To Schmitt, politics requires war either ongoing or as a believable threat. This war can be domestic or international. The main point is to reinforce the state’s right to dispose of life and encourage the population toward a willingness to do the deed or die trying. Only through this path is the stability and longevity of politics and the state assured.
Yes, he is the leading political theorist of totalitarian dictatorship. Schmitt regarded the concept of separation of powers, checks and balances, and constitutional restraints to be annoying impediments on the path toward the meaningful life lived through politics. Moveover, he views all these attempts to “limit government” to be foolhardy in practice and pointless in principle.
He argued that liberal democracy is unsustainable essentially because it is dull, especially one that elevates commerce as a first principle of human peace and belongingness. This, he argued, submerges primal instincts too deeply: heroism, battle, triumph, bravery, upheaval, and the need of everyone to make one’s life count in the way that a Hegelian might understand that term. Yes, that involves bloodshed.
He regarded the dream of 19th-century-style liberalism to be nothing but a chimera. It longs for a society without politics, he said, but we need and require politics because we want belongingness and struggle, a mission that involves vanquishing the foe and rewarding one’s own tribe that is loyal to the leader.
All the above he takes as a given. He reserves special disdain for Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) and his tremendous distinction between the liberty of the ancients and the moderns. For the ancients, he wrote, liberty meant having some say in the laws and regulation of public life. It was reserved for the few. But the modern began to imagine a new world of universal liberty and rights, most directly exercised through the ability to own property and engage in commercial exchange. To Constant, this was made possible by the rise and spread of wealth that took us far away from the state of nature in which we merely struggle to survive and instead live with the hope of a better and longer life.
Schmitt despised this view. He said that a population living a bourgeois life lacks meaning and will not long stand for such a superficial path of living. He proposes instead the concept of the political as a replacement, namely the struggle for control of the state and society as a whole. Essentially he wanted to revive the ancient form of liberty that Constant said was long past and good riddance.
Strangely, Schmitt’s memory does not live in disgrace. He is respected and even revered today in countries all over the world, and studied in every upper-level class in political philosophy. Every anti-liberal regime seems eventually to find its way to Schmitt’s writings.
Think back to the summer of 2021. The Biden administration was pushing its vaccine program with increasing vigilance against a “hesitant” population. A kind of fanaticism took over the White House with the conviction that there had to be 70-80 percent of the public jabbed for Biden to get the credit for ending the pandemic. The New York Times ran a special feature noting that 1) the highest infections were in the South, 2) the South by state was the least jabbed area of the country, 3) many of these people voted for Trump.
The next steps were obvious. By naming the enemy as the unvaccinated, the Biden administration could claim that they were prolonging the pandemic and also the political point was there too: Trump voters were wrecking the country. The propaganda line checked all the Schmittian boxes, even the one concerning death: recall the prediction of a winter of death for those who refuse the shot.
Of course it was only weeks later when the virus migrated to the Midwest and then the Northeast and the entire narrative fell apart. That’s when the Biden administration stopped decrying the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Still, the habit had been engrained. From then on, the Schmitt template would be the go-to path to political security. This becomes all the more essential given Biden’s low ratings and the widespread prediction that the Democrats could lose all control of Congress in November. Desperate times and desperate measures. Hence the September 1st speech that named the enemy and extolled the friends of the state.
What is Schmitt’s status today and do we have any proof that this is what drives the White House? We only have all the signs, symbols, and rhetoric. Schmitt is the muse. But there is more here too. The pandemic response itself – which was Xi Jinping’s curse on the world – seems to borrow from Schmitt’s pages. Consider what Chang Che wrote about Schmitt’s influence on China in The Atlantic in December 2020:
China has in recent years witnessed a surge of interest in the work of the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt…. China’s fascination with Schmitt took off in the early 2000s when the philosopher Liu Xiaofeng translated the German thinker’s major works into Chinese. Dubbed “Schmitt fever,” his ideas energized the political science, philosophy, and law departments of China’s universities. Chen Duanhong, a law professor at Peking University, called Schmitt “the most successful theorist” to have brought political concepts into his discipline. …
Chinese President Xi Jinping has markedly shifted the ideological center of gravity within the Communist Party. The limited tolerance China had toward dissent has all but dissipated, while ostensibly autonomous regions (geographically as well as culturally), including Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Hong Kong, have seen their freedoms curtailed. All the while, a new group of scholars has been in ascendance. Known as “statists,” these academics subscribe to an expansive view of state authority, one even broader than their establishment counterparts. Only with a heavy hand, they believe, can a nation secure the stability required to protect liberty and prosperity. As a 2012 article in Utopia, a Chinese online forum for statist ideas, once put it, “Stability overrides all else.”
In so many ways, the CCP influence has been felt in the US over the last two years, and all those have been chronicled at great length at Brownstone Institute, including of course the junket to Wuhan in February 2020, the close connections between the NIH/Fauci and the Wuhan lab, the manner in which the WHO celebrated China’s great but fake success in suppressing the virus. To find out that Schmitt is strangely popular in the upper reaches of the CCP is perhaps startling but also perhaps not given everything we know.
The first time I wrote about Schmitt, it was within the context of the rise of the alt-right. Inspired by Trump’s own deployment of the friend/enemy trope, a movement gained steam and prepared the way. The Biden administration escalated this trope, adding the Schmittian hint of bio-medical malice: accept the shot or be declared the enemy. Now it is only about raw power: dissent has been deemed as dangerously disloyal and too disruptive to tolerate.
As with the interwar period, it is striking how easily intellectuals and regimes can migrate from and to different ideological forms while retaining the philosophical orientation of that which they allegedly oppose. Friends and enemies become mirror images of each other, which is why Biden’s speech calling for unity simultaneously called a large swath of the American electorate a threat to democracy, by which he means the state he rules.
Let us remember that Carl Schmitt despised America and everything it stood for, especially the idea of individual liberty and limits on government. It’s one thing to study his writings in graduate school as a warning to what it means to turn against enlightenment values. It’s another thing entirely to deploy his theories as a viable path to keeping power when it appears unstable, not only in Beijing but also Washington, DC. That should truly terrify all of us.