1.22.2017 Leave a comment
We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
As we can see from the passage quoted above, with respect to the Constitution there exists a political entity that is logically prior and ontologically superior to the written text of the Constitution. That body: The People of the United States. The Preamble tells us that Americans have the authority to make and unmake the Constitution, and thus the laws derived from it. The People can thus wash away centuries of constitutional, common and statutory law; of institutional development and forms of life that make up traditions hardened by time. The People are the ultimate source of every legality known to Americans. They are this source because they are empowered to give themselves constitutions, laws and institutions that endure — or not. The People embodies a natal power. Thus considered, The People is a revolutionary and even a counter-revolutionary entity. It can be both because it has the authority to create or destroy, affirm or deny whatever it wants. Vox populi, vox Dei.
Yet, like God, The People never actually appears as such. It is neither here nor there. It is everywhere but nowhere (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, pp. 126-158). It is real and unreal, active and dormant. It appears in time but is timeless. At best, The People, like God, appears in and can be identified only through the acts of mortal men and women, persons much like members of the ‘natural aristocracy’ that produced the Constitution of 1787. As we know, these men produced a Constitution that reflected the personal and social defects of those who wrote it. We know this because the Constitution defends the prerogatives of the capital owner and of men in general. It placed artificial restrictions on those who would become citizens. A human being living in the United States was not destined to become a citizen. It did not intend to constitute an all-inclusive polity. It produced instead a republic that secured the moral idiocy of individuals who would radically exploit and dominate others without regret or much legal consequence. We know this because it defended slave owners while containing the elements needed to defend imperial expansion, industrial development and the financial supremacy of the capitalist class. The Founders intended America to become the Empire of Liberty. It was meant to be exceptional. As consecrated, it contained within itself everything needed to produce the crisis currently found in the United States.
My point stated in different terms amounts to this: The Constitution of 1787 made a fool and bigot like President Donald Trump both possible and thus actual.
Fortunately, the Constitution also gave posterity some of the resources needed to put down a Donald Trump. And the Preamble gave us the moral authority to abolish the institutional legacy produced by the Founders and their product, the Constitution. We can always begin anew.
That said, the potential power encapsulated in the abstraction we call The People is infinitely greater than any political power a fraction of the people could ever generate to topple a Trump and the capitalist democracy he now leads. Revolutions are rare, after all. They are members of an empty set when we restrict set membership to post-war capitalist democracies. The set is empty because revolutionary movements do not directly issue from conditions of general suffering among the lesser people. If misery alone were sufficient to cause an insurrection to occur, then insurrections and revolutionary situations would be far more common than peace, even in prosperous countries like the United States. But misery offers many lessons to those who suffer. For instance, it can teach obedience to whomever has the ears to receive this message. If one doubts this, one needs to consider only the fact that voluntary servitude is the fate of nearly everyone under capitalist conditions. We moderns know all too well that it is not wholly irrational to prefer one kind or degree of misery (wage labor) to another (destitution). Daily we affirm the belief that it is better to live on our knees than to die on our stomach. Apart from the involuntary servitude problem, history teaches us that insurrectionary political projects can come to nothing or worse. Wanting or needing a radical change does not make a revolution inevitable or even inevitably successful during those rare instances when revolutionary movements emerge. Only a God combines a pure potential with actuality. Human beings, relatively powerless as they are, often lack the resources or opportunities required to realize their collective projects. They may find collective action problems to be unsolvable, their opponents too powerful, the circumstances unfavorable.
We can see from the above that any appeal to the people— or The People — contains within it the use of an empty or floating signifier. These, by definition, refer to words, terms or other signifiers that lack referents. They refer to imaginary beings, products of consciousness and culture encapsulated in and expressed through language or another system of signs. The People is an empty signifier. In the best case, living human beings may invoke it because they have a political project that promotes radical reformist or revolutionary politics as a goal, projects that can be affirmed by any reasonable person. They can lay claim to the natal power of The People. Such a project intends to make the abstract concrete, to make a world better by combining the moral resources provided by The People with the practical activities, plans and experiences of existing persons, members of the people. Such a project would include creating unity from diversity under specific circumstances. In its best sense, The People reflects what an actual collection of reasonable persons, well-informed and humanely disposed could do given the situation they encounter. But an appeal to The People also contains its baser uses. These uses may occlude real differences among the people (asserting a false unity) or uses such differences that may or do exist to exclude some individuals or groups from the domain specified by the term, The People (Juden Raus, Whites Only). Thus, real Americans are never… and do not include… and cannot tolerate… and will never become….
When Donald Trump claimed that “…today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American People” he spoke nonsense, as he is prone to. Why is it nonsense? For one thing, Trump’s presidency lacks democratic legitimacy. It is true that he won an election, but his victory was the product of a very defective democratic mechanism. He thus cannot rationally claim a mandate democratically derived from the votes cast last November. He cannot because he enjoyed neither a majority nor a plurality of those votes. Most Americans still do not care much for him, as his inauguration and the post-inauguration protests made plain. The Electoral College gave us Trump. The College does not perfect democracy in America, it defeats it, and intentionally so.
Secondly, Trump might want to claim that he is the symbolic representative not just of the people as we know them today but also of The People properly conceived. I will say more about this claim below.
Third, despite Trump’s victory, America retains its political system divided by constitutional law and long practice, one devised to defend capital and slavery from popular influence, one intended to prevent the formation of ‘tyrannical majorities’ that threaten the empire of liberty. Today this system is characterized by national and international institutions that few citizens can influence in any tangible way at all. The elephant mostly goes wherever it wants even though mosquitos would want it otherwise. Put differently, the power realized by these institutions endures whether the people support them or not. This means, sadly enough, popular sentiment in the United States has never tamed the federal government, the nation’s political economy or its nearly autonomous security-surveillance apparatus. Political and social alienation have been the norm and will remain so despite Trump’s vacuous proclamations to the contrary. He is the president; his presidency will not transfer power to the people or The People. He will govern according to his prerogatives, shaped, of course, by his interactions with others in the government.
So, given these three problems, how might Trump’s assertion make sense? It has whatever sense it has when it is construed as Trump claiming he embodies the will of The People as elected by individuals who are authentically American, who, presumably, are white, male, employed, etc. Trump inconspicuously claimed to be the symbolic representative of The People, itself a symbol of sovereign power. It is this move that makes a Trump presidency disturbing. Given his personal habits of mind and body, which is to say, given his megalomania, and given the impossibility of his transferring tangible or institutional power to the people, it is easy to see that Trump proudly stands in the shadow of a specific form of political power and can refer to the power when he makes presidential decisions: The lawless power of The People. As a putative realization of that power in the United States today and as the holder of an office vested with astonishing institutional powers, Donald Trump vested his actions with the authority specific to he who makes every law, whose actions are beyond reproach, whose deeds cannot be nullified except by himself. Lest we slip into complacency here and treat Trump as ranting fool who does not know what he is doing or saying, let us recall the writings of Carl Schmitt: “Dictatorship [of this sort] is omnipotence without law: lawless power” (Schmitt, 2014, p. 110). Donald Trump — a God among men….
Trump is not a fascist. He does not claim to be a fascist and does not promote fascist doctrine. He does not lead a massively popular movement that identifies itself as fascist. Nor does he lead a fascist party. America’s streets lack violent squads. They lack grand marches save for those issuing from the left. Trump does have actual fascists sitting in his shadow. But he does not need to be one himself. Calling him a fascist thus degrades political discourse with hyperbole. But fascism is just one horrible political system among many belonging to the authoritarian kind. Trump is dangerous. He is an authoritarian nationalist, racist and conservative, probably of the neoliberal type. The state he wants to lead, as suggested by his cabinet picks, will likely prey on the American people. Befitting a predator, Trump flouts the law while worrying his opponents with his reckless acts and proclamations. When he took hold of the presidency, he claimed the authority of a sovereign dictator by invoking The People. In this he claimed to have a surplus power invested in his presidency, power that he may realize if he wishes (or can). Because of his pretentions, personal foibles and the circumstances in which he made his claim, Trump stands as a threat to the rule of law (assuming it remains a feature of the American system), liberal democratic institutions (such as they are) along with the health and well-being of most Americans.