Dark Times: Trump, Racism, Sovereign Violence, and the Banality of Evil

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States is nothing less than terrifying. In the few days after the elections, he made it clear that the rhetoric of hate and violence that had characterized his campaign was not simply an expedient to get votes, but that had a real content and rested on a very precise, frightening ideology. This is the ideology of white supremacy, which brings together the most retrograde and politically violent groups in the US, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Christian fundamentalists, from Neo-Nazis to skinheads. The names Trump has been considering  for key positions in his administration all share his determination for establishing a society of law and order and a more or less open, explicit disdain for all people, all singularities that still go under the name of minorities.  From Stephen Bannon to Jeff Sessions and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, to name just a few, all have a history of racist abuse and contempt for whomever they consider to be the other, who must be kept under surveillance and control, subjected to odious police practices such as Stop-and-Frisk in New York –a practice initiated by Giuliani, later found to be unconstitutional, but one that during his campaign Trump promised he would extend nationwide. As journalist Jeremy Scahill said on Democracy Now!, Trump’s cabinet will be made of neocons, war criminals, and white  nationalists (Democracy Now!, 11/21/2016:  https://www.democracynow.org/2016/11/21/neocons_war_criminals_white_nationalists_jeremy)



Trump’s call for law and order is of course an ill-disguised mask for the total lawlessness characterizing sovereign violence. The symmetrical and inverted relation between the sovereign and those who are subjected to him (usually, it is a ‘him’) is the most basic trait of the sovereignty paradigm. Michel Foucault describes in this way the relationship between the body of the condemned and the king (1977: 29). Giorgio Agamben speaks in the same way of the two figures of the sovereign and homo sacer, the person who may be killed and yet not sacrificed, in other words, the person who may be killed at will (1998: 84). What we are witnessing at the dawn of Trump’s America is a return to this fundamental mode of sovereign power and sovereign violence. Trump has now explicitly rejected the idea that he may in any way be bound by the law (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/22/this-is-the-single-most-dangerous-thing-donald-trump-said-in-his-new-york-times-interview/?tid=sm_Fb). In this, he is following Giuliani, who has recently said the same thing on a couple of occasions. On one occasion, during an ABC interview, Giuliani said that anything is legal in war (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/rudy-giuliani-anything-legal-iraq-oil_us_57d55d1ee4b06a74c9f50fa9), showing a total disregard for international law, and in particular for those laws governing and regulating war, the rules of engagement. Leaving aside the fact that, for reasons I will mention in a moment, the word ‘legal’ is incorrect here, it is apparent that Giuliani is speaking –consciously or not—from the standpoint of the original theory of sovereignty, where sovereignty (the law) is constituted and preserved by exceptional violence. He is thus thinking of war in the pre-political sense highlighted by Thomas Hobbes in his fictitious account of the natural condition of humankind in Leviathan: war as a situation in which anything goes and “every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body” (1994: 80). However, for Hobbes what characterizes that condition is the absence of law, the neutrality of legal and illegal, just and unjust. To be sure, for Hobbes this original condition of violence (and terror) is transferred to and in the person of the sovereign (see Agamben 1998: 35).  The sovereign, who makes the law and truly is the law, is not bound by the law. He remains outside the law, above it, or at the peak, able to step outside the law and suspend it. The sovereign, “he who decides on the exception” according to Carl Schmitt (2005), is now the only one who has “a right to everything,” even to everybody’s body, to paraphrase Hobbes. Giuliani has in the past also applied these theoretical notions to the war against the poor and minorities in New York City. When he was mayor of New York, Stop-and-Frisk and other similar policing practices, which continued well after he stepped down as mayor, were instrumental in establishing an oppressive regime of law and order under the flawed assumption that, if there is a war, anything is ‘legal.’ In fact, as I have mentioned above, Stop-and-Frisk, which disproportionally targeted young African American and Latino men on the basis of racial profiling (thus claiming a right to their bodies), was later found to be unconstitutional.


Sovereign violence, the violence in which lawmaking and law-preserving are suspended in a spectral and nefarious exception (the violence defended and endorsed by Hobbes), becomes the true, if unnamed, subject of Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence. Although Benjamin uses the expression ‘sovereign violence’ in a completely different sense at the end of his essay, for he identifies it with revolutionary or divine violence (1978: 300), still sovereign violence in the sense in which we use it today (the sense stated above) is precisely what he is speaking about, especially as he deals with the police and what later comes to be known as sovereign policing. Parenthetically, the lack of Benjamin’s explicit focus on sovereign violence per se is explained by Agamben as possibly due to the fact that “in 1920, at the time Benjamin was working on the ‘Critique,’ he had not yet read Schmitt’s Political Theology” (Agamben 1998: 64). Agamben admits that sovereign violence should not be confused with divine violence, the law-destroying violence which is “lethal without spilling blood” (Benjamin 1978: 297). The latter is, we might add, the counterviolence of resistance. However, Agamben stresses that sovereign violence is neither lawmaking nor law-preserving. For him, sovereign violence is the “violence exercised in the state of exception.” It “clearly neither preserves nor posits the law, but rather conserves it in suspending it and posits it in excepting itself from it” (Agamben 1998: 64). He also says, “Sovereign violence opens a zone of indistinction between law and nature, outside and inside, violence and law” (ibid.). This is precisely Benjamin’s notion of police violence, in whose authority “the separation of lawmaking and law-preserving violence is suspended” (Benjamin 1978: 286). The generalization of police violence as sovereign policing in democratic societies is described by Benjamin as follows: “And though the police may, in particulars, everywhere appear the same, it cannot finally be denied that their spirit is less devastating where they represent, in absolute monarchy, the power of a ruler in which legislative and executive supremacy are united, than in democracies where their existence, elevated by no such relation, bears witness to the greatest conceivable degeneration of violence” (287). The type of police state looming after Trump’s election fits this description very well. Even if one only considers what I have already noted above, the possible spreading of Stop-and-Frisk and similar practices of surveillance and control on a nationwide scale, the configuration of what is coming should be readily discernible. As a matter of fact, Trump’s stated intention to build a wall at the US-Mexico border, to deport all undocumented immigrants, including those protected by DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), to deny all Muslims entry to the US and implement a Muslim registry, extends and deepens the logic of sovereign violence and sovereign policing by making it reverberate beyond the confines of the American nation-state.


The movement that has brought Trump to power is informed (and most often misinformed) by global conditions of politics and the economy. Ultimately, all nationalisms represent a conflict between the global and the local, the particular and the universal. They emerge as a desperate (and obviously wrongheaded) solution to that conflict. This is also true of all racisms. It is true that, if Bernie Sanders had not been forced to give in to the Democratic Party machine, he might have had a chance to withstand and oppose the ideological forces that sustained Trump. Indeed, he might have swerved some of those forces into a completely different direction –away from populism and toward a socialist-like vision of the future. I have personally spoken to people here in Brooklyn who admitted they had supported Sanders and later switched their support to Trump, at times even just on the account that ‘after all a man is always better than a woman’ as president. Obviously, sexism, just like racism, fascism, and nationalism, belongs in the same type of defensive ideology (which then, like all defensiveness, soon becomes offensive) that works well for sovereign violence. Thus, it is true that, for all her terrible political past and untrustworthy plans for the future, Hillary Clinton’s victory would not have been as terrifying as Trump’s is. It would at least have carried some symbolic value in relation to the very important question of gender in the US and, as they say, it would have made history. It would have had the same historical and symbolic importance that the election of Barack Obama had in 2008. Moreover, with Clinton everything would probably have been business as usual, the keeping of the status quo. It is of course important to realize and stress that this status quo is in itself terrible.  Under Obama’s two terms in office, the degeneration of violence typical of the sovereign police has increased, on a global and domestic level. Notably, the drone assassination program initiated by George W. Bush was escalated, and it will not be ended before Obama leaves office, but it will be handed over to Trump’s terrifying political machine. In addition to this, under Obama, deportation of undocumented immigrants also increased to unprecedented levels; so did the persecution and imprisonment of whistleblowers. Indeed, the choice was between a terrible situation and one which is extremely terrifying. One way to understand this is to think about the ever-increasing levels of police brutality and terror in the US. At least, Clinton would and did meet and work together with a group of women, family of police brutality victims (Sandra Bland’s mother among them), who are organizing to end this racist and genocidal police practice. With Trump and the likes of Giuliani in power, the culture of impunity for sovereign policing will become a permanent exception. It will be unparalleled at the local level, in the cities and counties here in the US. But it will most likely also escalate in the various declared and undeclared conflicts and wars in which the US has been involved since G.W. Bush.


It is difficult to imagine something worse than the violence we are already sadly all too familiar with. From police terror to the violence of the prison-industrial complex, from engineered poverty to war atrocities of all kinds, what can be worse than this? I have already mentioned how under Obama, the seemingly cool, sophisticated, and highly educated president, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his vision of hope and change soon after he took office, the violence mode was not reduced but augmented: Guantanamo was not closed, extra-judicial killing went on a rampant, and so on. The “original proximity” between the sovereign and the criminal described by Agamben in his short essay “Sovereign Police” (2000, 107) is now visible in its entire spectral splendor. As Agamben says, “There is no head of state on Earth today who, in this sense [namely, in the sense of being involved in sovereign policing], is not virtually a criminal” (ibid.; emphasis in the original, brackets added). The same of course is true of the police force engaging in sovereign policing at the local level everywhere. So, what can be worse than this? And yet, it can get worse than the worst with the resurgence, solidification, and spreading of what Hannah Arendt has called ‘the banality of evil,’ that is, to paraphrase Arendt, of people not realizing what they are doing (Arendt 1994: 287).


What Trump himself will say and do from now on is perhaps not even the greatest danger. He has already abundantly showed that he is an adept of the banality of evil, and, as unpredictable as he is, we can expect anything: a reversal of his positions, the reversal of the reversal, and the reversal of the reversal of the reversal. To be sure, this is very important and extremely dangerous. However, it is the people he is surrounding himself with that cast an even more ominous light on what is looming ahead. And yet, what is perhaps even more frightening than the possible actions of the future president and his cabinet is the heinous power Trump has unleashed at the level of political daily life and culture. He has certainly empowered groups and individuals that thrive on racial hatred. Although he is now saying he disavows them, it is likely that this only amounts to paying lip service to it, and, in any case, what he says now cannot shake their mistaken certitude of having finally found legitimacy. Any misguided, racist individual will now feel legitimated in harassing a Muslim woman on the streets for wearing a hijab. From David Duke, a Louisiana former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a Holocaust denier, and a white supremacist, to Richard Spencer, founder of the Alt-Right (short for ‘alternative right’) movement, a white supremacist group, Trump has invited a congeries of hateful individuals, groups and ideologies to come forward and establish themselves in a way that is now very difficult to contain. They have had, and they will probably continue to have, media attention. Perhaps in weakened, yet still troubling and disquieting, forms they will have an impact on daily life, for instance in the field of schooling and education. Teachers will be watched and tested in their classrooms, something which is already happening to an extent. For instance, as of now, the Alt-Right feels it can favorably compare Trump to Hitler, even if implicitly. Its members do so when they say ‘Heil Trump! Heil our people! Heil Victory!’ and use the Nazi salute (see https://www.democracynow.org/2016/11/22/heil_victory_alt_right_groups_emboldened.) However, if a teacher, in a critical way, draws a parallel between our present-day danger and the situation at the beginning of the Third Rich, he or she will be in trouble, under some type of suspicion (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-to-hitler-comparison-teacher-suspended_us_58286a2be4b060adb56edd4e).  Yet, as even some alarmed scholars of the Holocaust have noted, the Holocaust did not begin with the death camps, but with words and ideology. The situation is very dire.


The gravity of the situation is underscored by the fact (unusual I think after a presidential election) that college and university administrations have issued statements to their students, especially in relation to the threat of deportation for undocumented immigrants, but also, more generally, to stress the values of tolerance and democracy that are supposedly foundational in US society and culture. Mayors of main American cities (including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles) have declared their cities sanctuaries for immigrants threatened by deportation. A nationwide movement of faculty, students, and staff, has also sprung up within college and university campuses to adopt the same policy of resistance and declare themselves sanctuaries. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets throughout the country in the days after the election, including many protesting just outside Trump Tower in Manhattan, in what seems to be a growing movement of resistance against the logic of sovereign violence and the banality of evil that triumphed with Trump’s election. Those of us who teach or engage in other educational and political activities are well aware of the very dark times ahead, the looming danger. The need for strengthening critical thinking and education has never been greater. Indeed, due to the widespread acceptance and inadequate application of the notion of freedom of speech, many hide behind the platitude that ‘everybody is entitled to their opinion.’ It must then be shown that, however, the truth has nothing to do with entitlement. In other words, it must be shown that, regardless of anyone’s opinion, the odious views expressed during the presidential campaign and after the election by Trump and his many violent supporters, including the members of the Alt-Right movement (from misogyny to racism, from homophobia to Islamophobia and anti-Semitism), before being politically problematic and morally despicable, are logically and ontologically inadequate and wrong. What I am saying is that any supremacist ideology, before becoming politically and practically dangerous, is theoretically fraudulent and logically flawed. It makes a claim that cannot be sustained by any sensible argument, and, because of this, it needs to resort to violence. When this type of ideology is allowed to pass unchecked, it opens the door to the mode of thoughtlessness that for Hannah Arendt was at the roots of the banality of evil. What now must be done is resist and seek to deactivate all of this, as resistance starts with thoughtfulness, with thinking.



Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated by Daniel

Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

______________. 2000. “Sovereign Police.” In Means without Ends: Notes on Politics,

translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Arendt, Hannah. 1994. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York:

Penguin Books.

Benjamin, Walter. 1978. “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections, translated by Edmund Jephcott,

277-300. New York: Schocken Books.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan

Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1994. Leviathan. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Schmitt, Carl. 2005. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, translated

by George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


This article was first published in Italian (translation by Andrea Fumagalli) in EFFIMERA: CRITICA E SOVVERSIONI DEL PRESENTE (http://effimera.org/dark-times-trump/)


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1 Response to Dark Times: Trump, Racism, Sovereign Violence, and the Banality of Evil

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