10 July 2017

The state of exception in the exceptional nation

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and one of the harshest critics of Vladimir Putin. "Over the years many Russians, including me, have come to believe that the [1999] apartment-building bombings in Moscow and elsewhere were organized and carried out by the FSB, the [Russian] intelligence agency, in order to shore up Putin's power grab," she writes in the July Harper's. She admits that "we do not know enough" about these incidents, but insists that "it is certainly too early to exonerate Putin and the FSB," observing that "this paucity of information, too, is one of the signs of autocracy." Gessen is not dismissed out of hand as a Russian "truther," I presume, because Americans simply assume that Putin, if not Russians in general, are more ethically or culturally capable of such things than their American counterparts. Gessen is here to warn us, however, that something similar may be in store for America under Donald Trump. To be clear, she isn't predicting a "false flag" terrorist attack and is not claiming that the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. were anything like that. More precisely, Gessen warns that Trump could use any large-scale terrorist attack as a "Reichstag fire," an opportunity or excuse to impose authoritarian rule on the United States.

Following the political philosophers Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, Gessen warns Harper's readers about the potential for a "state of exception" during the War on Terror. Created as a concept and promoted by the pro-Nazi Schmitt and repackaged as menace by Agamben in our time, the idea of the "state of exception" is that during an emergency (real or fake) the "sovereign" has the power to declare that old rules no longer apply and make new rules. In Gessen's summary,  it is less a slippery slope than a cartoon snowball deliberately sent rolling down the mountain. "The emergency enables a quantum leap: The sovereign has to have enough power to declare a state of exception, and then by the declaration he acquires far greater, unchecked power. That is what makes the change irreversible, and the state of exception permanent." In practice, Gessen implies, the state of exception is the rationale for a dictatorship that is the sovereign's real goal, while the emergency only provides the pretext. For Hitler, the Reichstag fire, whether the work of Nazi arsonists or the lone nut actually convicted, justified a state of exception under which he consolidated his dictatorship. For Putin, as far as Gessen is concerned, the 1999 bombings provided a similar pretext. In the 21st century U.S., she claims, the pretext already exists thanks to 9/11. The state of exception was already called into being by George W. Bush, and was perpetuated by Barack Obama, both violating a 1976 law requiring Congress to confirm a state of emergency within six months of a presidential declaration. Gessen is compelled to compliment the last two presidents on their "restraint" for "not utiliz[ing] some of the more extreme possibilities of the state of emergency,' but worries that the current President will show no such restraint.

What, then, is exceptional about Donald Trump? Gessen claims that "he has already shown that he can deftly use the coercive power of the state being at war." Her evidence for this hardly seems to justify her dire warning. "During his first address to a joint session of Congress, Trump orchestrated more than two minutes of applause for the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL," she writes. Perhaps she has spent too much time covering Russia, if she doesn't know that presidents since Reagan have practiced this sort of  "naked cynicism that left no one in the audience any choice but to stand and applaud" by suing soldiers or their survivors as props for applause lines. She sees something extra and sinister, however, in the fact that the Breitbart web site "falsely claimed that several top Democrats had refused to" applaud. To Gessen, "This was a preview of the coercion by national unity that we talk about when we talk about the Reichstag fire." My hunch, however, is that you probably can find evidence of Fox News or radio talkers making similar charges against "unpatriotic" Democrats during the Bush administration.

Apparently, the peril of states of exception depends on the people in power, since Gessen notes that "Not all the periods of exception are remembered as repressive." She cites several occasions in American history when a formal or informal state of exception appeared to justify repressive measures that were soon rolled back, from the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams to the excesses of Joe McCarthy. The difference now, again, seems to be something about Trump. That difference, believe it or not, seems to be that Donald Trump is not merely authoritarian in his temperament, as many claim him to be, but all-out totalitarian. I'd better let Gessen try to explain this.

A key characteristic of the most frightening regimes of the past hundred years is mobilization. This is what distinguishes the merely authoritarian regimes from the totalitarian ones. Authoritarians prefer their subjects passive, tending to their private lives while the authoritarian and his cronies amass wealth and power. The totalitarian wants people out in the square; he craves their adulation and devotion, their willingness to fight and die for him....To totalitarianism watchers, Trump's campaign rallies, which segued into his victory rallies, including his 'America First' inauguration,have looked familiar and perhaps more worrisome than an imaginary future [Reichstag] fire. To historians of the twenty-first century, however, they will likely look like logical steps from the years of war rhetoric that preceded them, not quantum leaps. A nation can be mobilized only if it knows its enemy and believes in its own peril.

In other words, because Donald Trump is a demagogue, he is a potential totalitarian dictator. By this standard, we dodged a deadly bullet during the Clinton years, given how notoriously Bill was said to crave the love of the people. Had he served a third term and led us through 9/11, perhaps things would be different! But no. Judging from those aspects of Trump's agenda Gessen most wants us to oppose, Trump is dangerous not because he craves applause -- though he clearly does -- but because he's a bigot, and bigots are the most dangerous potential authoritarians or totalitarians of all despite the fact that the most bigoted of Americans have formed a key part of the base for the party of "limited government" for the past fifty years. Let's grant that bigotry in wartime could well be worse than bigotry in general -- ask Japanese-Americans about that -- but that still doesn't prove that bigotry itself or even a fondness for the sound of one's own voice accurately predicts a desire for dictatorship. So is it that Trump is just an egomaniac, or just a greedy businessman, or has bad hair and an unnatural complexion -- or is it the other way around?

Actually, it's a trick question, since Gessen closes her article by warning readers against "the assumption that things were fine until Americans inexplicably elected Trump." The problem isn't really Trump at all, or else he's only part of the real problem that dates back to the turn of the century, for which Bush and Obama share much of the responsibility. The problem, Gessen concludes, is the War on Terror itself.  In her eyes, the 95 Americans killed in "attacks ostensibly driven by jihadist ideology" since September 2001 pale in comparison to the hundreds of Americans killed by police in "killings [that are] extrajudicial by definition" in only the first quarter of 2017. She finds it sufficient to tabulate that "an American has a lesser chance of dying in a terrorist attack carried out by a refugee than of being struck by lightning." No fear that you feel justifies what the state has done since 9/11, Gessen argues, and "to be worthy of the lofty name 'resistance,' the opposition to Trump must aim to break the country's post-9/11 trajectory. It must question the very premise of the war on terror, challenge the very fact of a perpetual state of emergency." In the end, Gessen is somewhat grateful to Trump, since his already-obnoxious presidency has made American civil society "far stronger, paradoxically, than it was before the election." That leaves me wondering what she takes as evidence of a resurgent civil society, though I suspect it may look highly and ironically "mobilized." Her odd mix of alarmism and optimism leaves one wondering again about the resiliency of liberal democratic political order in the face of emergencies that liberal democrats would prefer never to happen. My worry is that the 21st century will see more emergencies, not all of which can be dismissed as irrational fear of strangers or necessarily met by exclusively liberal measures. Liberalism distrusts emergencies because it assumes that political decisions are never matters of life and death. In treating the last election as a matter of life and death, liberalism arguably has betrayed itself without effectively addressing any of the emergencies facing the nation or the world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If a few years of authoritarian rule is what it takes to ban islam from this country, it is a price I wouldn't find too onerous to pay.