Carl Schmitt: Nazi-era philosopher who wrote blueprint for New Authoritarianism

Godwin’s Law? Bring it on. EPA/Erik S Lesser

Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin – from Manila to Moscow, Washington to Budapest, populist authoritarians are the new normal.

In Hungary, Orban, the prime minister, aims to build an “illiberal democracy” while in Russia, Putin long ago crushed independent journalism and political opposition. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan presides over a brutal crackdown on media and civil society. In the Phillipines, Rodrigo “the Punisher” Duterte promised to drop the corpses of 100,000 suspected gangsters in Manila Bay, threatening to close down congress if it opposes him.

And in the US, Trump’s run for the presidency prompted Republican commentator Andrew Sullivan to warn of the threat of tyranny.

There are many differences among these leaders. But instinctively we recognise some similarities: the bluster and the bravado, the ability to articulate a popular anger at existing elites, the sense of being an outsider and the ever-alluring promise to “get things done” and make their countries “great again”.

As we struggle to understand the rise of this new politics, Godwin’s Law – which argues that any heated social media discussion inevitably ends up with comparisons to Hitler or the Nazis – inevitably comes into effect. Such comparisons are usually specious – but there is one German thinker from the 1930s who does help to explain the rise of the “new authoritarians”.

Carl Schmitt, a brilliant jurist and political philosopher, both predicted the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and was – for a short time – a passionate defender of Hitler’s regime. He fell out with the Nazi party in 1936, but spent the rest of his life writing powerful critiques of liberal politics. After years in the wilderness, his works are again attracting attention. Three of his big ideas, in particular, shed some light on the way the new authoritarians think about politics.

The ‘sovereign leader’

Schmitt argues that effective states need a truly sovereign leader who is not shackled by constitutions, laws and treaties. A truly sovereign president who will cut through red tape and take whatever action is necessary.

Carl Schmitt as a student. Paul Noack via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

This is the über-sovereignty that allowed Putin to annex Crimea in 2014 without paying attention to international law. It’s the mode of decision-making implied by Trump’s announcement that he will “build a great, great wall” along the US-Mexican border, or his claim that you can’t beat Islamic State by “playing by the rules”. And it’s exactly this approach that Duterte invokes in his clampdown on crime, bypassing the courts and “getting criminals off the streets”.

The rule of law is an obstacle to be overcome – not a principle to be embraced. And many voters agree: they want political leaders who are getting results, not talking to lawyers.

But the price for this Schmittian sovereignty is high: it needs the executive to control the legislature, the courts and often the media. In Russia, parliament has become a rubber-stamp, the courts are dutiful allies of the Kremlin and the media is largely under state control. In Turkey, Erdoğan has subdued the country’s courts and locked up scores of journalists. In February 2016 he said he would not respect a constitutional court ruling that resulted in the release of two journalists – the pair were subsequently jailed after a further trial. The US democratic system may be remarkably resilient, but it’s anybody’s guess what a President Trump might do if courts or congress blocked his most radical ideas.

Us and them

Schmitt’s second big idea is that politics is fundamentally about the distinction between friends and enemies. Liberal democracies are hypocritical, says Schmitt. They have constitutions and laws that pretend to treat everybody equally, but this is a sham. All states are based on a distinction between “them” and “us”, between “friend” and “enemy”. A nation needs to constantly remind itself of its enemies to ensure its own survival.

The new authoritarians embrace Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction with gusto. Trump has a litany of opponents – Mexicans, Muslims, the Chinese – that seek to undermine America. In Russia, it’s the US that serves as Public Enemy Number One. In Hungary, migrants from the Middle East fill the role.

But – as Schmitt’s experience of Nazi Germany proved only too well – a nation defined in terms of external enemies quickly finds internal foes too. In Russia, Putin warned against a “fifth column” of “national traitors”. In Turkey more than 2,000 people have been prosecuted since April 2014 on charges of “insulting” Erdoğan – and academics, journalists and political opponents are attacked as enemies of the Turkish state. For Trump, too, there are plenty of internal enemies, not least “disgusting reporters” in the much hated “liberal media”.

Rise of authoritarianism

Schmitt’s third radical idea is to redefine democracy. In Schmitt’s view, democracy is not a contest between different political parties, but the creation of an almost mystical connection between the leader and the masses. The leader articulates the internal emotions of the crowd. That’s why Putin still enjoys approval ratings in the 70-80% range, despite Russia’s economic woes. And it’s why Trump will flourish with his supporters regardless of policy flip-flops.

When Trump claims he can shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes, he’s channelling Schmitt.

Schmitt’s brilliance lay in his unflinching, unsentimental analysis of the baser notions of politics. He knew only too well the power of xenophobia and hatred to mobilise mass support. He saw at first hand the attraction of a leader who could cut through political or constitutional quagmires to “save” the nation. Even as a jurist, he felt the rush of emotion in a crowd when a leader articulates their deepest fears and desires.

Liberals will rail against Duterte, campaign to “stop Trump”, and call for more sanctions against Putin’s Russia. But the rise of Schmittian politics is a sure sign of a deep malaise in global democracy. The spread of liberal ideas around the world has failed to address the social dislocation and economic marginalisation of huge groups in society. Instead it has produced a turbocharged global elite, apparently unaccountable to the societies from which they extract their wealth.

Quick-fix authoritarian solutions will ultimately fail, but they can also be highly destructive. The second half of the 20th century can be defined as a struggle between Schmittian politics – the authoritarianisms of the left and of the right – and a workable liberal alternative.

After 1945, Germans refused to accept the assumptions of a Schmittian world, of a society divided into friends and enemies. Instead they forged a constitution that embedded the rule of law and liberal freedoms. That embrace of liberal democracy was a hard-fought lesson. The rise of the new authoritarians around the world is forcing us to learn it all over again.