The following is the first of a series of responses on the part of the editorial staff of The New Polis to the events of January 6, 2021.
In the wake of the events at the Unites States’ Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, the editorial staff at The New Polis has decided to open a discussion of the rhetorical implications surrounding the events. We understand that developments are unfolding as well. We will have multiple responses to the following question developed by one of our staff members, Jared Lacy.
Coming on the heels of what many consider to be a year defined by ongoing states of emergency, from the Coronavirus pandemic to protests – both for the Movement for Black Lives and against COVID lockdown protocols – to uncertainty over the outcome of the 2020 US Presidential Election, the events of January 6,2021 at the US Capitol are momentous. They have clearly taken place within a continuity, not only with the events of the past year, but also in the context of the larger history of United States politics. In light of these macro- as well as micro- views of US politics and the crises they signal, what in your view is the rhetorical significance of these most recent events? How would you analyze the rhetoric used to address them publicly by elected officials and members of the media, especially as we attempt to understand our contemporary drift toward a state of emergency?
Roger Green’s Response
In discursive circles concerned with political theory, much discussion has developed during the first two decades of the 21st century analyzing what seems to be more and more frequent states of emergency and states of exception. As the question above suggests, these states cut across varying rhetorical situations. In doing so, they illustrate quite easily a phenomenon that anthropologist Michael Wesch has named with respect to digital media. This is context collapse, which can be defined as,
an infinite number of contexts collapsing upon one another into that single moment of recording. The images, actions, and words captured by the lens at any moment can be transported to anywhere on the planet and preserved (the performer must assume) for all time. The little glass lens becomes the gateway to a blackhole sucking all of time and space – virtually all possible contexts – in upon itself.
Wesch is describing what occurs with recently developed technologies that have helped to produce what is often referred to as “post-truth” or “fake news” culture. The “little glass lens” is your computer’s camera. And of course, politicians such as the forty-fifth U.S. President have thrived in that culture.
At the same time, it is both politically naïve and dangerous to be merely nostalgic for a “return to normalcy” as well, and it is very much that sentiment in the U.S. that helped to get Mr. Biden named as the President Elect. In what follows, I will argue that the exigency surrounding last week’s events creates a rhetorical demand for us — I’m mainly addressing Americans here — to reexamine the underlying values of American civic religion.
At the macro-level, I address conceptual thought concerning the “state of exception” and founding contexts for the United States, including thee rhetorical erasure of American Indian perspectives. At a micro-level, I will attempt to articulate the affective logic that is continually evidenced in performances like last week, namely, an affect of American exceptionalism.
With respect to last week, what various major news media in the U.S. — including but not limited to CNN, The New York Times, Fox News, and The Washington Post — reveal is their own capitulation to far right framing, despite considering themselves to be “liberal.” The events of last week reveal a long-game of strategy employed by international rightward leaning. POTUS-45’s successful antics directed at a level of nationalism have shaped American political discourse to be more and more isolated from the rest of the world, which as often resulted in Americans “puffing up” in terms of abstract notions of “freedom” and “liberty” (whether applied to speech / protest / insurrection, or wearing a mask in public, or the public shaming of “deplorables”).
As I begin, I want to draw attention to the words of Gavriel D. Rosenfeld in his interesting book, The Rise of the Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present (Cambridge University Press 2019). Rosenfeld warns us about “hindsight bias” in his opening pages, but he nevertheless argues for the methodological use of considering how things could have easily been different at various points in history (6). For example, his book offers an alternate perspective to what’s usually presented as Germany’s “success story” after World War II.
Whereas most historians typically explain the country’s success by focusing on what went right, we can focus instead on what did not go wrong; rather than explaining why Germany succeeded, we can focus on why it did not fail. […] Reframing the story of postwar German history in this way is not a matter of slippery semantics. It is about examining two sides of a causal relationship. Historical events typically result in the interplay between existing “systems” and external “forces.” The more stable the system, the more difficult it is for an external force to affect it; the less stable a system, the easier it is for an external force to affect it. (11)
Thus, Rosenfeld notes, the common perception that Nazism was “weak” before Hitler’s rise to power, that he opportunistically took advantage of a failed system, and that the postwar years saw a stabilization of the system and thus the death of ideas of a “Fourth Reich.” In the wake, and particularly in the United States, which relied on an old eurochristian (for my use of the term, see Tink Tinker’s article), the rhetoric of stable “civilization” through conversion and or taming of “savage” threat draws on an affective archetype of the barely concealed Schwärmerei, the passionate enthusiast, often a “religious fanatic.”
At once domestically civilized, yet incapable of rising to the challenges of Reason, the fanatic is an internal enemy to the State, at least insofar as the figure derived from Enlightenment thought. Since 9/11, we have often seen the rhetoric of a “foreign threat” embodied in the stereotypes of “religious extremism” of Muslims who get associated with “terrorism,” yet a simultaneous reluctance to name white nationalists and “public shooters” as “terrorists.” That tendency is shifting as liberal media embraces traditionally rightwing calls for “law and order” in the face of “insurrection.”
Of course, liberal media pundits were quick to point out the national double-standard with respect to law enforcement’s approach to Black Lives Matter protests last year. Contributors to the left-oriented Black Agenda Report are likely to point out the liberal media’s own hypocrisy, as the report documents collusion between cops and protestors. Because so many people indoctrinated into American liberalism buy into a more weakened version of ‘post-race’ rhetoric than actually exists, they neglect to see how their own narratives of a progress toward “inclusion” paints too rosy a picture of the racism built into the fabric of American life.
Such thinking wants to rhetorically atone for America’s sins of the past without doing much in terms of substantial change. It wants us to “acknowledge the traditional land” of American Indians without doing anything about giving that land back. It is eurochristian in its posture of acknowledgment and expected forgiveness of sins because the apology is “heartfelt.” Here, America’s soul righteously manifests its predestined election to sainthood.
Similarly, in their triumphalist narratives of the U.S.’s role in liberating Germany from Hitler’s regime, U.S. political frames combined an exceptional self-image of the U.S. with a version of the Schwärmerei applied to international foreign policy during the Cold War, a tweaking of aspirations to empire that go back to the American Revolution and begin to be formalized with the Monroe Doctrine. This is especially significant with respect to recent U.S. foreign policy moves that actively “resurrected” the Monroe Doctrine after Senator John Kerry in 2013 had announced its end to the Organization of American States.
During the news fallout last week, think of how many times the “image of the U.S.” as the World’s exceptional protector came up, how many times the eurochristian inflection of the “City on a Hill” came up. They were often a counter to the “insurrection” and touted not by the longtime Republican defenders of Law and Order politics, which derive from Richard Nixon’s backlash against the Civil Rights successes of Johnson’s “Great Society” and JFK’s “Camelot.” In the radicalization from protest to insurrection, we saw a division and later backpedalling by some of the President’s supporters.
What we are seeing is an inverted transfer of rhetorical stances within a political vortex — a phenomenon I have attributed elsewhere to “psychedelic aesthetics.” While some commentators remarked on the “surreality” of the events, others claimed that the events were a direct consequence of incendiary rightwing rhetoric since before the 2016 election. But the result is that now it is the liberals, who with their moralized finger-wagging, combine a reinvigorated notion of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” with rightwing “Law and Order” rhetoric, and a persistent American exceptionalism maintains a consistency across “right” and “left” in the U.S.
In the words of the unapologetic Nazi, Martin Heidegger – “only a god can save us.” Or maybe a better account of what our narratives have erased could help, since not all of us believe in god, and structuring religion in terms of ‘belief’ is itself a eurochristian way of thinking.
In what follows, I want to turn toward various historical instances with Rosenfeld’s methods in mind. I do so partly because I think we need to understand how deeply-rooted American exceptionalism is in our civic comportment in the U.S., and how the inherent violence within that self-conception remains a root issue for the unrest we see unfolding and the rationales by which people decide to act. We need to understand the logic of these affective tendencies toward American political theology, and how they are expressive of a deeply-framed eurochristian worldview, even when political actors see themselves as entirely secular.
Political Theology, Sovereignty, and States of Exception
In academic discourse, analyses of the state of emergency have frequently nodded toward a short book written in 1922 by a conservative German legal theorist named Carl Schmitt titled Political Theology. Written in an entirely eurochristian context, this work importantly foregrounded the concept of sovereignty. Because the debates around election results and the disruption of a peaceful transition of power in the United States directly relate to the issue of sovereignty, I want to present a frequently-repeated quotation of Schmitt’s here.
All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized religious concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology. Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries. (36)
One might understandably question why I would call sovereignty the directly-related issue here with respect to the U.S. After all, anyone who knows Schmitt’s work will likely note that he was a conservative critic of liberal democracies, a position that led him to be a full-throated supporter of the Third Reich during the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler employed Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution to establish a formal state of emergency that would give him dictatorial control until the end of the Second World War. Schmitt’s own critique of liberal democracy was that without a strong decider in place, nothing was ever aging to get accomplished in terms of State policies.
It is our own unconscious desires and our long history of eurochristian thought that leads us to focus our political commentary on singular powerful “individuals.” Our discourse frames our presidents as more sovereign than they are supposed to be according to our governing structures. And because our discourse has framed things in that way, we find ourselves painted into a corner where “revolution” or “insurrection” draws the sacrificial blood by which a eurochristian body politic can “purify” itself like a Jeffersonian “tree of liberty.”
What’s important about my invocation of the Weimar constitution’s article here is that it precedes the creation of the now much-discussed 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It also precedes measures to censure irrational conspiracy theories promoted by Senators like Joseph McCarthy. In addition to the second impeachment efforts we see this week, what is being decided is how easy it is to remove a seated president. What’s at stake in such maneuvers has more to do with the precedent it sets than what happens to someone who will be out of office in two weeks, just as what’s at stake with the the halting of election confirmation has more to do with the dramatic precedent and emboldening of insurrectionist sentiment than it does with any real success toward a “coup.”
The election controversy follows on the debate about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which the Mueller Report found to be credible. Thus, from the Democrats we have seen support for a lack of faith in election processes for years. In 2020, Republicans merely coopted such rhetoric, and the President himself was already stoking an aura to discredit the election before it took place. What’s important to see is how, despite widespread assumptions that partisan politics stultify actually getting things done, the liberal-conservative dialectic itself is working together into a self-perpetuating knot the kind of which Hegel and Marx could both appreciate in their conceptions of history and messianic inevitability.
And yes indeed, many will recall Francis Fukuyama’s prognostications concerning the “end of history” with the “collapse of viable alternatives” to Western liberal democracy in the years leading up to the fall of the Soviet Union. But constant economic crises during the first two decades of the 21st century have certainly given us pause to consider how “inevitable” Fukuyama’s insights really were.
The general public sentiment in the U.S. frequently voices its disgust at the lack of ability that highly partisan politics. The cynic notes that current partisan politics accomplish nothing other than deeper and deeper reaction-formations into the identities of respective political parties. Well before POTUS-45, there seemed to be increasing shifts toward authoritarian methods in government. From 9/11’s fallout igniting the Patriot Act to human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay, to Hurricane Katrina, to the 2008 economic collapse and Barack Obama’s “weak defense” of drone strikes with little need for congressional approval — the pushes toward sentiment for strong deciders works in tandem with states of emergency, real or imagined. Giorgio Agamben noted this in his updating of Schmitt’s concepts for the post 9/11 world, State of Exception (2003).
Academic interest in Schmitt’s work has increased with the frequency of states of emergency and the creation of terrorist threat alerts. With the sentiment calling for strong decision-making following these emergencies arises the shadow of “sovereignty.” Thus, I want to stress that the difficult issues in the transfer of sovereignty from British to American colonialism remain present in the core of what last week’s events displayed, whether one uses the terms “protest” or “insurrection,” “patriot” or “terrorist,” etc.
The rhetorical significance of the events of last week emerge in the ways they ask us to question the very foundations of the republic itself, including the affective “ceremonious” and “hallowed” language of sacrality with which it is discussed. In other words, the events ask us to question America’s political theology and our faith in its values.
To situate this, I will paint with rather broad strokes concerning what I largely believe to be an increasingly archaic metaphor of a left-right spectrum in politics. That metaphor goes back to the French Revolution and too facilely frames political categories within eighteenth-century contexts. Just think of how easily people conflate MAGA hatters and ANTIFA activists within a political vortex of terrorism. It is archaic precisely because, as I have already noted with the dialectical collaboration between liberal and conservative parties in the U.S., the annihilation anticipated (sublation) is entirely messianic eurochristian political theology, whether it’s figured as left or right.
First, let me return briefly to the context in which Schmitt wrote Political Theology. The imposing of liberal democracy onto Germany following Kaiser Wilhelm II’s forced abdication in 1918 sought to establish a balance between the left following the Bolshevik Revolution to the east and the inadequacies of the disintegrated Prussian monarchy. Suspicion of the monarchy had American influence allover it, despite a lack of U.S. involvement in the newly-formed League of Nations.
German fascism grew parallel to Mussolini’s fascist-party, from which the metaphor of a “bundle of sticks” or fascisti (1921), to signify group association. Certainly, the phenomenon didn’t arise out of nowhere, and I’m not going to recount Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism or Eichmann in Jerusalem in this essay, except to briefly highlight that her conception of “the banality of evil” makes sense especially against the wild conceptions of a fanatical Schwärmerei like Joseph McCarthy.
Yes, McCarthy had moved on to the threat of Communism which was nevertheless hysterically adopted in U.S. foreign policy with the “domino theory” as a rhetorical updating of christian “just war theory.” American rhetoric, as evidenced in Fukuyama’s article, sees fascism and communism as two forms of “absolutism” without attending to its own ethnocentric framing, which underwrites its own totalitarian tendencies.
American conflations between Hitlerism and Stalinism, for example, are underwritten by their own sorts of exceptional moral entitlement. What’s important for my present purposes is that — to return to the 1920s — the disintegration of Kaiser Wilhelm’s kingly body found a collectivist opposition in Germany by the early 1930s, enmeshed in sentiment of blood and soil and a romanticized German folk identity congealed in a rather recently-formulated national identity.
In contrast, the formation of the United States arose as an identity-forming reaction to a monarch in England. The sentiments of eurochristian colonizers had developed into a rapid sense of entitlement to land west of the colonies deemed “Indian territory.” Anglo-derived ethnocentrism was simultaneously fueled by a desire for religious freedom which, as I have argued recently on The New Polis, was entirely derived from Christian theological debates in a conception of “religious freedom” that had no intention of ever taking any kind of Indian “religion” seriously.
Sovereignty and its disintegration leaves an affective remainder that was sacralized in the values of the First Amendment. It was also transfigured into an ethnic construction of a new nationalism. I realize it may seem strange for me to return to these nation-founding situations to comment on the rhetorical nature of last week’s events, so I ask the reader for a little patience here.
The emergent U.S. employed Enlightenment concepts of individuality and — though coined later with specific relation to politics — liberalism. This subjectivity, as Michel Foucault traced over several works but especially in his 1973-1974 Collège de France lectures now titled Psychiatric Power, is sometimes articulated as a tension between “sovereign power” and “disciplinary power.” Decolonial critics, such as Walter Mignolo, often situate liberalism in contrast to Christianity, which especially marks perspectives outside of U.S. liberalism, where Catholic empire underwrote colonizing efforts. But my analytic of a eurochristian social movement (not a religion) sees a continuity perhaps most famously articulated by Max Weber between capitalism and Protestant asceticism.
Kingly sovereignty remains fascinating to Americans and is interestingly being narrated through popular Netflix emissions such as The Crown in ways that try to attend to what Agamben has called the “Kingdom and the Glory.” In the 20th-century, the abdication (forced or not) of the sovereign was frequently lampooned in the twentieth-century from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896) to Samuel Becktett’s End Game (1957). The international significance of Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication was in the fact that it occurred in real life. It was not a play, and conservative like Schmitt saw in the dissolving of the monarchic authority a loss of eurochristian values.
As narrated by the U.S. Holocaust Museum,
Faced with a defeated army, a shattered economy, and a power vacuum which encouraged political violence, the leadership of the Weimar Republic and the framers of its new Constitution found themselves in an incredibly difficult position. In December 1918, these legal experts, under the control of Interior State Secretary Hugo Preuss, began to draft the founding document of the Weimar Republic. Preuss and many of the drafters sought to remedy the ills of the authoritarian imperial system and adopt a system more similar to the United States and Britain. Preuss happened to be Jewish, leading antisemites and far-right sympathizers to condemn Weimar as the “Jews’ Republic.”
The non-Christian characterization of constitutional framers is important to note, because in their development of Article 48, which was intended to allow for quick decisions in states of emergency we see also the intention to restrain power. This logic is not apparent on the surface, but the ability to declare a state of emergency would be conditioned on the notion that there was an imminent threat to the State. By such logic, because Hitler’s party was entirely hostile to the very notion of the Weimar State, seeing it as a kind of “Jewish liberal conspiracy,” he ought to have been blocked from power to begin with.
Such a position requires not the hindsight bias that narrates the Nazi’s as weak before 1933 but a view of its failure to block a coup. If we are to determine that last week’s events were indeed an insurrection and an attempt at a coup, the logic of law must be to arrest the traitor(s) responsible, otherwise our law is meaningless. This week, Democrats try for the second time to impeach POTUS-45, but the question remains whether it will have any real affect than an official finger-wagging.
We know in the U.S. that if anything were really done to try demonstrators from last week there would instantly be (and already are) cries about First Amendment freedom of speech should a party’s efforts be suppressed because it was deemed threatening to the State. And this is of course why Abraham Lincoln gets constantly invoked to “save the union,” while Confederate flag-toters see their overt white supremacy as a kind of religious expression.
According to Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, whether Evangelical, Catholic, or Mainline Protestant, “in the United States today, the more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely he or she is to identify as a white Christian” (175). We see the double-standard at work in law enforcement’s inattention to last Wednesday’s events. White demonstrators are likely to get off more easily because their white supremacist notions are tied to their religious expression and free speech in a way that is imbricated within the long told narrative of what makes America “exceptional.”
Even those who buy into a self-congratulatory “secularization” narrative and see themselves as “rationally evolved” are doing so in an entirely eurochristian context, just as the framers of the U.S. Constitution were. The framers did not build a provision such as the 25th Amendment. They had a sense of religious entitlement to their exceptional political creation that would transfer the glory of the sovereign into the body of “the people” and the citizen subject.
Michel Foucault’s later work traced self-forming to early Christian asceticism that would become internalized as a self-surveilling consciousness (conscience) western thought so typically associates with modernity from Renaissance humanism to the Protestant Reformation and the emergence of capitalism. But Enlightenment secularization narratives imposed a “break” between ancient and modern that fueled eurochristian exceptionalism during the colonial period, which saw the global evangelizing project of “civilization.” The rational, eurochristian citizen-subject universalized itself in its hubris.
Modern conceptions of race based on skin color emerged out of a compulsory need to signify the superiority of eurochristian worldviews and manifesting their “divine” right to domination, as evidenced in papal bulls of donation know as the Doctrine of Discovery. Such conceptions became particularly tied to colonialist desires for land in “America.” Land needed to be wrestled from the British Crown while maintaining eurochristian superiority against Indians, and that became articulated in a tension between federalists and republicans. Amid the tension, Americans sought to reoccupy the divine majesty of kingly sovereignty into a hallowed notion of democracy.
The dialectic between states’ rights and federalism was especially present at the time of the American Revolution with concern to Georgia, so it is important to note the significance of the Georgia special election from Tuesday, January 5. The close race in 2020 ended up being decided for Biden amid the disruptions at the Capitol in Washington D.C. Flipping Georgia has a much deeper, if infrequently articulated, relevance. To show this, I must return to the neglected presence of American Indians during the formation of the U.S. Constitution — a presence minimized by over two centuries of historical and ideological erasure. My point is to underline a persistence of thought framing both liberal and conservative efforts in their dialectic of destruction and sacrifice.
The Deeply-Framed Context
Although difficult for many Americans to see at first, we can gain some perspective on the events of last week by looking to the early colonial context, in particular the frequently erased presence of American Indians. Here is my angle — When we focus on Indigenous issues related to stolen land, threats of the termination of treaties, and the erasure of Indigenous presence in U.S. education broadly speaking, we become more literate in the critical nuances necessary to address current discourse of civic religion.
For brevity, I will locate this analysis by piggybacking on the solid legal-historical work of Gregory Ablavsky of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In a 2014 article titled “The Savage Constitution” in Duke Law Journal, Ablavsky argues against more conventional histories of the U.S. Constitution that omit the importance of Native presence. He particularly draws attention to two strains of argument, one following James Madison and the other following Alexander Hamilton. Both took different approaches to argue for a strong central government.
Only two speeches at the Constitutional Convention discussed Indians. On June 19, 1787, James Madison argued for expanded federal authority, emphasizing that Georgia had “directly” violated the Articles of Confederation when it “made war with the Indians, and concluded treaties.” A day earlier, Alexander Hamilton, in a lengthy speech arguing for a much-strengthened federal government, listed three “important objects, which must necessarily engage the attention of a national government.” “You have to protect your rights against Canada on the north, Spain on the south, and your western frontier against the savages,” he warned. (1001)
In language that Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (1932) would later call a “friend-enemy” distinction, international law forged impulses to solidify national borders among European powers whose claims to occupancy in the Americas entirely rested on their being Christian nations with Christian Princes who, under the Doctrine of Discovery could justify their claims to any lands inhabited by a “Christian Prince” (See Inter Caetera 1493). While Schmitt critiqued liberalism for blurring the lines between friend and enemy, which would result in disputed border territories and result in ongoing bloodshed, the early framers of the Constitution used friend-enemy distinctions to justify the creation of a centralized confederacy and later federal notion of the United States.
Above, I characterized the Schwärmerei as an internal threat to the state, but Schmitt characterized a strong friend-enemy distinction as indicative of international politics. Such a strong distinction could increase a sense of domestic power, but he also thought the clear boundaries would reduce tendencies toward violence over time. American civic rhetoric is more inherently evangelical in the sense that it often seeks to convert and assimilate others.
According to Ablavsky, later scholars of the U.S. Constitution frequently take for granted a weakened state of American Indians that would come much later. They only focus on the successes, if we are to deem genocide as a “success.” During the Constitutional Convention, the perceived Indian threat lurked behind the rhetorical moves made by the framers. This makes sense entirely based on a longstanding metaphysics of Indian-hatred and empire building in the colonies (see Richard Drinnon’s book).
In the quotation above, Indians are clearly seen as a foreign power at the time of the constitutional convention. Only later, after the the strange legal contortions of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, would they be deemed “domestic dependent nations.” As Ablavsky Argues, “After the Revolution, national Indian policy was both vital and disastrous. The impoverished Continental Congress desperately needed both peace with Indians and western land to retire its debt. It got neither. Instead, by 1787, it confronted two looming wars it could not afford against powerful Native confederacies” (1006).
Thus, two approaches emerged, both of which were implicit arguments for the formation of a strong central government. Madison was more economically-minded and took a “paternalistic” approach to Indian Affairs, which was then part of the War Department under Henry Knox. This would be done with attention to the Indian Commerce clause, as well as the Treaty, Compact, Supremacy, and Property clauses. Hamilton was less concerned with diplomatic relationships with Indians and instead argued that the Indian threat justified the creation of a strong U.S. Army (1007).
According to Ablavsky,
using Indians to justify the power of the new national state came with a cost: it elevated conquest of Indians to a constitutional principle. Although few Federalists were rabid Indian-haters of the sort common on the frontier, they had sold the Constitution by promising to use federal power against Indians rather than, as Madison had anticipated, to restrain states. Expansionist states and white settlers held the federal government to its bargain. The history of national violence against Indians that followed ratification fulfilled the Hamiltonian vision, as the dispossession and settlement of western lands became one of the central projects of the new federal state. (1008)
It’s certainly debatable that the framers had “friendly” sentiments toward Indians, or that they were not “rabid Indian-haters.” For example, Barbara Alice Mann’s excellent work on George Washington’s War on Native America clearly demonstrates that the young Washington set up a land-prospecting company to speculate in Ohio before the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War. But the immediate Indian-threat rhetoric at the time of the Constitutional Convention was particularly effective for persuading the state of Georgia, which was already trying to initiate Indian removal but lacked the military resources to do so effectively. Georgia’s aspirations would not fully come into effect until Andrew Jackson’s presidency.
Last week, following the events of January 6, many Republicans in Congress sought to distance themselves from POTUS-45. Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) and Lindsay Graham (South Carolina) were among the most outspoken. In Graham’s speech breaking his long-time alliance with the President, he affirmed that he is a Constitutional Originalist. From his perspective, the assault on the Capitol was simply too much to bear because it broke with the hallowed sacredness given to the document. Ablavsky’s scholarship attends to varying scholarly and legal interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, but one needs to attend to the context with American Indians to see the especially relevant point here. He writes,
From an originalist standpoint, [my argument] recounts how multiple and even divergent intents among the Constitution’s drafters became, through ratification, something akin to the document’s “original public meaning.” From the perspective of popular constitutionalism, the “people themselves” ultimately determined what the Constitution would mean for Indian affairs. In short, both the Constitution’s drafters and “the people” worked to create a document committed in part to the violent expropriation of the western borderlands from Indians. This outcome was not a failure of the political process. It was, rather, the cost of the Constitution’s embrace of democracy and union. (1008)
As I hinted above, the establishment of “the people,” along with the hallowed sense of the Constitution as a sacred document of civic religion, is the process by which kingly sovereignty was attempted to be reoccupied as democracy. As an American myself, a deeply-framed value of democracy held my emotions throughout the entire day and into the wee hours of Thursday morning, over and against all common cynicism. In fact, I would say that so deeply embedded in my being is the value of democracy, that it moves beyond all concepts of nationalism, which I entirely associate with illiberal impulses.
I poignantly realized my affective tendencies on Wednesday as I was having an online chat with a friend in Moscow when news about Washington began pouring in. My friend was relaying to me what was showing up on newsfeeds about Washington D.C. there. When I asked my friend about public sentiment regarding the U.S., the reply was that public sentiment in Russia concerning politics is one of ambivalence. Here in the U.S., however, political theater deeply embeds the affective performance of a notion of sovereignty reoccupied in “the people,” and it is especially geared toward individual expression. An American is way more likely to be a Schwärmerei.
This is exactly the affective formation of those who refuse to wear masks as a public health measure under the declared state of emergency of Covid 19. Because a “bureaucratic” and affectively “Jewish” state made a federal declaration, it is seen as an infringement both on one’s individual “right” and the sacred eurochristian values of a right to self-expression. The acting out is a performance of affective sovereignty.
As was clear across various news media — whether considered “rightwing” or “leftwing” last Wednesday, “American democracy” was under threat. Even the Republicans who were objecting to the election results from last November and the process of certification were arguing from the position that they were defending democracy, that it was voter fraud in Pennsylvania, etc. that tipped the election in Biden’s favor.
Veteran Republican Rick Santorum repeatedly voiced on CNN that the political theater that some Republicans continued to perform even after the “attempted coup” was itself a breach of congressional protocol. The proceedings for certification are not the moment for litigation. Here Santorum is revealing his continued allegiance to law and order without a significant appreciation of that fact the the demonstrators’ point was a breech of law by inducing a state of exception, and in Schmitt’s terms read through American civic religion, they were inducing a sovereign exception because they see themselves as “the people,” and they took their energetic impulse from their populist leader to demonstrate their sovereignty.
This is why, for true believers, it matters not what happens to POTUS-45. He is merely one head of the hydra, of the leviathan we call “the people.” The issues did not begin with him, and they will not end with him, even if it comforts liberals to return to an implicitly white supremacist order they think of as “normalcy.”
Right or wrong, the courts have not seen enough legally-demonstrated material to overturn November’s election. As a result, the political theater demonstrated by Republicans and demonstrators on Wednesday betrays an entirely different rhetorical meaning. Let me be very explicit. This was a long-game effectively employed by far-right entities to disrupt Americans’ faith in democracy.
In scholarly terms familiar to discourse on political theology, it was a well-played disruption of Simon Critchley’s leftist calls for a “faith of the faithless.” What the general American public often misses, however, is that the orchestration of such impulses has been happening at an international level for some time now. They are swayed, both liberal and conservative, by an affective construction of the utopic “anatomy of national fantasy,” to invoke the title of one of Lauren Berlant’s early books.
In non-scholarly terms, we might refer to “Donald J. Trump’s Miracle.” What do I mean here? Carl Schmitt characterized the state of exception as equivalent to the “miracle” in theology. The sovereign is the one who, in his famous construction, makes a decision in the state of exception. The protestors last week in disrupting the process of law sought to enact a kind of miracle, and that miracle was a direct expression of eurochristian exceptionalism present since the founding of the republic.
This next image, I pull from an article on religionunplugged.com titled, “The History Behind The Christian Flags Spotted At The Pro-Trump U.S. Capitol ‘Coup.'” It was a quick find, but there are plenty of images and signs that include POTUS 45’s name explicitly, including flags like the image above.
First of all, among the many last-minute detractors and minimizers of the intimate relationship between eurochristianity and American exceptionalism, there will be…and already are…public disavowals of their particular congregation’s affiliations with a version of Christianity that aligns itself with empire in the great tradition of “ChristenDOMination” since Emperor Constantine. But this, I argue, is merely evidence of a perpetuation of exceptionalism rhetoric. Hence my broader historical perspective.
Deriving respectively from what American Indian writers Steven T. Newcomb (Shawnee / Lenape) has called the “Conqueror” Idealized Cognitive Model (ICM) and Tink Tinker (wazhaze / Osage Nation) has termed the “up-down image schema” of eurochristians, American Christianity — again, whether mainline liberal or conservative evangelical — has, like the so-called secular American body politic, never deviated far from eurochristian exceptionalism.
Here’s how the thinking works — whether one is an overt, rightwing white supremacist evangelical or a liberal-Protestant who via politics of recognition magnanimously deems him or herself “inclusively excellent.” It starts with a self-oriented thought, usually establishing an abstract yet politically derived identity formation — “As a white man,”…”As a non-binary queer person of color,”…etc. It is not that there may not be an enormous gulf between the ontological comportment and lived experiences of such individuals. It is rather, in a metaphysical construction of the grander perceived audience to whom one speaks as they manifest such self-descriptions.
My university students who have frequently never really thought much about racism other than to embrace a liberal progressive attitude that it is going away with each succeeding generation display this thinking regularly. They first make it about themselves, then through minimization or denial or a long-winded narrative they seek to show how they themselves are exceptional to the problem. They don’t yet have the critical ability to see the ways social forces shape our identities and frame our thoughts, which doesn’t mean we cannot do anything about them but that if we’re going to be serious we cannot shoot from the hip or simply refer to the ways we personally exonerate our violent presence in the world.
The Rhetoric of The Present
To reiterate, we are talking about rhetorical significance here. A rhetorical situation is characterized by being audience-driven, but the general dilemma we find ourselves in currently is that of “context collapse.” Amid that context collapse is a questioning of our most deeply-framed values. And I am suggesting that what we ought to do is really see the events of last week as an opportunity to look at what truly underwrites the values of American civic religion.
Like the erased Indians among constitutional scholars — whether they be “originalist” or “popular” conceptions — so-called secular thought in the U.S. is underwritten by a particularly Protestant Christian metaphysics that situates an individual against a transcendent “Other.” Surely, European philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas — a Jew whose entire ethics is based on a rejection of Martin Heidegger’s thought — have articulated a “responsibility to the Other” slightly different than what I am critiquing here. My direct point here its about a thought-gesture that is rhetorically inflected. Again, it is rhetorical because it is fundamentally audience-driven.
The question, especially in an era of context collapse, is pertinent because in new media environments we simply do not know who our audiences are. If our worldviews are inflected by eurochristianity, this means that we will conceive of our audience as a kind of “wholly Other” God to whom we “submit” (as Islam calls one to submit) by first calling attention to our individual identity-constructions. Against that impulse one will quickly find eurochristian impulses that so easily collapse all of “humanity” into a developmental schema from archaic Homo sapiens to the present era, usually by some sort of exclusivist articulation to our own species-being as “symbol-using” animals, from Aristotle to Kenneth Burke.
But when we consider those who have been rhetorically erased from American exceptionalism’s self-congratulatory narratives, this is all entirely eurochristian-derived “bovine scatology” (B.S.), as my friend Tink Tinker (wazhazhe, Osage Nation) often says. But let’s not demean bulls or cows! This excrement is all too human. It is entirely derived from an extractivist impulse derived from eurochristianity that places “man” above nature and then universalizes concepts of development toward Kantian “perpetual peace.” If we cannot question that, there’s little difference between POTUS-Elect-46 and POTUS-45.
Do I seem so abstract here? Let’s look at one instance of the “bullshit” (really human shit) that American media bathed in last Wednesday. Liberals and conservatives alike gloated in the remarks of former U.S. President George W. Bush, whose unabashed American exceptionalism is embodies in the following remark transmitted unquestioningly through many media. “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic.”
American news media uncritically perpetuated Bush’s claims throughout Wednesday and Thursday, never calling attention to its frame within an entirely eurochristian and American rhetoric of exceptionality that naturalizes “domination.” How could this savagery happen here of all places? Please.
Clearly, the rhetorical impulse across media was to save a “more civilized” union. It was more important to cite Bush, a fellow Republican, against Trump, to weakly establish a dialectical balance between two morally bankrupt political parties in the United States, both of whom remain completely unable to own up to an actual history of a nation entirely founded on impulses to genocide and greed in the form of land christianly covered into “property.”
As is well-known, the Lockean dictum of “life, liberty, and property” was ingeniously abstracted by American elitists as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” because they weren’t sure they could make good on all of the land they had promised white settlers west of the colonies. Hauntingly figured here is the underwriting that evidence of the achievement of happiness demands the genocide and erasure of American Indians.
Joe Biden’s sentimental drivel about “respect for our institutions” in his prompt for Trump to “do something,” including condemning the violence at the capitol, only evidences the fact that he, and Bush, AND Trump, exist in a continuum of American exceptionalism. Make no mistake, American exceptionalism and the political theology that underwrites it is the major threat to all species currently existing on the planet referred to as “earth.”
The only way Biden’s sentiments make rhetorical sense is through an appeal to American exceptionalism that is entirely weak. In naming this, I admittedly risk contributing to Trumpist rhetoric, but of course my major point is that NEITHER are either rhetorically or historically relevant. They both serve another master, no matter how differently they each frame themselves. But that is precisely what so many American “liberals” want to believe.
Until Americans confront the legacies of those rhetorically erased in their competing narratives of triumph, the dialectical engine of genocide and extraction for exceptionally “elected” eurochristian citizen will continue, despite the dramatic performance between “right” and “left.” Persistent states of emergency will push traditional liberals to keep moving further toward the right, as we have seen happening globally for forty years now (as François Cusset has tracked). We need to disbelieve liberal-triumphalist narratives of secularization without a simple return to religiosities that merely mask forms of ethnocentric and androcentric supremacy.
More tangibly, we need more than liberal politics of recognition and “acknowledgment” of past injustices. The most tangible example of this would be the deconversion of “property” into “land back” claims articulated across Turtle Island by First Nations and American Indian groups. It will only be in the process of those efforts that we might confront the unthinking that perpetuates the daily violence our nation perpetuates through its unjustified founds. If the people are the “sovereign” in a democracy, we too must abdicate the entire idea of eurochristian sovereignty.
Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.