“The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced,” wrote Carl Schmitt, “is that between friend and enemy.”
It seems self-evident enough that one ought to reward friends and punish enemies. Nevertheless, Schmitt’s dictum remains relevant because it is so often ignored.
Donald Trump is famous for demanding loyalty. To the Left, that trait is proof positive of his autocratic tendencies. On the Right, it is a badge of honor, indicative of an old-fashioned moral code. Both miss the mark.
Trump demands loyalty but gives little or none. And when he does, it’s often to the wrong people—or at least, the wrong people in the context of his role as the leader of a nationalist-populist movement.
Starting with Steve Bannon in August 2017, virtually every staffer aligned with “America First” as a political concept exited the White House. “I like Mr. Bannon. He’s a friend of mine,” Trump said at the time of Bannon’s resignation. “But Mr. Bannon came on very late. You know that. I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that,” he added.
The president had struck a very different tone just a year earlier. Bannon, said Trump in November 2016, helped lead the campaign to a “historic victory” as an “extremely capable, highly qualified” individual. Bannon went from indispensable chief strategist and senior counselor to expendable latecomer.
Following Bannon’s resignation that August, Sebastian Gorka left his initial post as deputy assistant to President Trump. “[G]iven recent events, it is clear to me that forces that do not support the MAGA promise are—for now—ascendant within the White House,” Gorka wrote in his resignation letter.
A year later, National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton also resigned. Anton, of course, famously authored “The Flight 93 Election.” In August 2018, the White House fired speechwriter Darren Beattie in response to a smear campaign.
Goldman Sachs veterans, Jeb Bush staffers, and libertarian Koch shills manned an administration born with a mandate antithetical to all those types. Even neoconservatives returned, from John Bolton to Elliot Abrams, who himself was convicted in 1991 on two misdemeanor counts of unlawfully withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra affair. It is a curious thing that Trump appointed Abrams as special representative for Venezuela on January 25, 2019, in a fantastically unsuccessful attempt to dislodge President Nicolás Maduro. It was, in essence, a far less serious repeat of the 2002 Venezuelan coup d’état attempt in which Abrams reportedly had a key role. The Trump Administration denies any involvement in the most recent Venezuelan putsch.
Questions About the Man and the Movement
What is Trumpism to Trump? What is Trumpism to the people who voted for Trump? Who are the enemies and allies? Is it support for the concerns of ordinary people, or deference to the corporate world?
Recall that Trump appointed former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn to spearhead the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). Economic analysts warned the TCJA would encourage offshoring. With the clarity of retrospect, Bloomberg estimates “12,552 more jobs left the U.S. in the first three-and-a-half years of the Trump presidency than did in the equivalent period of the presidential term immediately before.” That is, fewer jobs were offshored during Obama’s first term.
Trump rails against monopolistic tech companies like Google and Amazon, but the truth is he oversaw one of the most monopoly-friendly administrations in U.S. history.
In January 2017, Trump’s team chose Jay Clayton to helm the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Clayton is a Wall Street mergers and acquisitions attorney who specializes in corporate consolidation. Around the time Clayton joined the White House, “a top Trump adviser signaled approval for the proposed AT&T/Time Warner merger, writing in the New York Times that there’s basically nothing wrong with ‘a high level of concentration in an industry,’” wrote Justin Talbot-Zorn, senior adviser at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “And the president-elect himself has been playing nice with the CEO of Sprint, just as the company seeks approval for a controversial merger with T-Mobile.” A single day in 2019 saw at least six megamergers worth more than $60 billion in total announced.
While under investigation by Trump’s Justice Department, Google parent company Alphabet closed its $2.1 billion acquisition of Fitbit under Trump, just days after Google booted Parler from its app store. The two-year-old social media network exploded in popularity with Trump supporters after the November election.
Pardons and Political Ambitions
What of law and order? The administration that ran on tough-on-crime policies fundamentally transformed America’s criminal justice system in a way that favors dangerous felons. Moreover, pardons became an instrument of favoritism that follow a pattern: a few to please Trump supporters, and the bulk for friends, political allies, and interests—above all, of seedy advisers like Jared Kushner, whose own father received a pardon recently.
There are reports of a pardon in the works for Dr. Salomon Melgen. Melgen defrauded Medicare to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in Florida. “The scale of Melgen’s fraud was such that for a time he was actually the largest recipient of Medicare reimbursements in the whole country,” notes Peter Flaherty, chairman of the anti-corruption watchdog National Legal and Policy Center.
Melgen managed to fly beneath the radar for as long as he did thanks to powerful friends like U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). As Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Koski put it, “Robert Menendez was Salomon Melgen’s personal United States senator.” And Melgen reciprocated by showering Menendez with luxurious gifts and access to young women. The mere fact that someone as loathsome as Melgen is even considered for a pardon tells us Trump’s administration set its eyes on very different appetites and goals than its base.
The friend-enemy distinction presupposes correct, coherent answers to these questions. So here is one answer: For Trump, Trumpism is all about himself and his kids—specifically, his daughter, Ivanka. Put another way, the person Trump appears to be helping the most on the way out the door is the person Trump’s base likes the least.
Ivanka reportedly will attempt to primary Senator Marco Rubio in Florida. Rubio has his flaws, but Ivanka makes him look a strongman.
In late October, she reinvented herself as an “unapologetically” pro-life populist after a lifetime of being anything but. Of course, her cordial meetings with Planned Parenthood cast doubt on that. So do reports of Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, prohibiting Secret Service agents from using any of the 6.5 bathrooms in the couple’s 5,000-square-foot mansion in a ritzy Washington neighborhood.
Nevertheless, Trump continues to burn through political capital to bolster Ivanka’s chances in Florida against Rubio, whose greatest strength is a brown wall of support among Latinos. Trump did not build a southern border wall, but he is trying to break this one down.
While Trump never followed through on his most popular promise—infrastructure—his administration “announced one of the largest grants ever for infrastructure projects in Puerto Rico” this month.
A few days later, the administration reversed Obama’s 2015 decision to remove Cuba from the list of countries considered state sponsors of terrorism, redesignating the island nation as such. According to the Pew Research Center, Cuban Americans and Puerto Ricans are Florida’s two largest Hispanic-origin groups among eligible voters.
One might conclude the point of these last-minute sops to Florida’s Latino constituents is to build the Trump Administration’s clout—and, by extension, Ivanka’s support—with these groups. Even the contemplation of a pardon for Melgen could be seen as an effort to curry favor with Florida’s well-connected to the benefit of Trump’s favorite child.
For all the talk of saving the republic we’ve heard from the administration in these last days and weeks, this boils down to building a family dynasty on the ruins of Rome.
In war, the friend-enemy distinction means the difference between life or death. And politics is war by other means. The lesson the post-Trump movement must learn is who its real enemies are, even if that means seeing those we thought of as friends as they really are.