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Trump and his “state of exception” in DC: the desire for a failed state in Portland dress rehearsal

4 min read

Trump’s incompetence is not simply inaction, it has a theory for his brand of failure, namely “’executive underreach’ as a species of leadership failure that’s as destructive as executive overreach”. Much like sandbagging and the repeated absence of actual policy formulations, Mango Mussolini’s fascism is fiat(s) in a failed state. Underreach is better positioned for Trump to “grab p*ssy”(sic) by its underhandedness.


The Trump presidency is often described as whipsawed by competing impulses. In this telling, Trump’s reactionary, illiberal, anti-democratic tendencies periodically flare up and do targeted damage, but they often run aground against competing forces — his incompetence and the distraction of narcissism.

The shorthand version of this: Imagine the damage a competent and effective Trump could do!

But a new paper that develops a theory of leadership amid pandemics — combined with an alarming report on our looming economic catastrophe — point toward a more coherent narrative of Trumpian failure, one that undermines the shallow understanding of those impulses and traits as necessarily in conflict.


The paper offers a theory of “executive underreach,” and applies it to leaders like Trump and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. Both have failed on coronavirus through indifference to mass suffering and abdication of leadership in the face of it.

Law professors David Pozen and Kim Lane Scheppele present “executive underreach” as a species of leadership failure that’s as destructive as executive overreach, defining it as:

a national executive branch’s willful failure to address a significant public problem that the executive is legally and functionally equipped (though not necessarily legally required) to address.

But crucially, the paper links this phenomenon to fundamentally illiberal and anti-democratic tendencies: Hostility to science and expertise; and the leader’s abiding faith in his ability to confuse the public with disinformation as a substitute for acting in the national interest, all typical of “demagogic populists” like Trump and Bolsonaro.…

It does explain the firehose of disinformation, grasping for allies among a base of nutters, QAnonists, reactionaries, deniers, and malign forces.

Trump’s authoritarianism has always been peculiarly weak-willed. He admires dictators, but he lacks the interest and attention span to break down the real legal limits on his power. Instead, his preferred method is to locate the spaces in which he is least constrained to begin with, then exert as much force as he can. The most consistent example throughout Trump’s presidency has been his actions concerning immigration—a realm where both the courts and Congress have historically granted the president great deference.


Again and again, in trying to understand the president’s approach to his office, I’ve returned to the concept of the “state of exception”—an idea central to the thinking of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. In a moment of unforeseeable emergency, he argued, any constraints on power give way and the leader may act with all the force of legal authority but without restriction. Even in a liberal democracy characterized by limitations on authority, Schmitt says, this wormhole to absolute dictatorship will always exist.

More recently, theorists taking a critical view of Schmitt have suggested that states of exception come into being alongside hierarchies of race and colonialism. “Sovereignty,” the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe argues, “means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.” I doubt that Trump is familiar with Schmitt’s work or the scholarship surrounding it. But there is an echo of the state of exception in Trump’s eagerness to use the southern border—and now D.C.—as staging grounds for authoritarianism.


This history is why the president has such power over the deployment of troops and law enforcement in the capital city. And it is why a white president steeped in racial hatred was able to turn state power against protesters, many of them black, demonstrating against the death of a black man at the hands of the state. To paraphrase Mbembe, it’s hard to imagine, in the U.S. today, a clearer demonstration of sovereignty as the ability to decide who does and does not receive the law’s protection.…



This describes post-racial ideologies underreached in 2016.


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