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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.