The Magazine

Excommunication
for Thee . . .

Alan Wolfe's self-incriminating attack on Dinesh D'Souza.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

So Wolfe is on solid ground with his hard-hitting criticism of The Enemy at Home and certainly has plenty of company on the right. Prominent and widely read conservative websites including HughHewitt, Power Line, FrontPageMagazine, and National Review Online have found severe flaws in the book, as has D'Souza's and my Hoover colleague, military historian Victor Davis Hanson, at Townhall.com and Real Clear Politics.

Wolfe's attack, though, is distinguished by his demand that decent and honorable conservatives "distance themselves, quickly and cleanly" from D'Souza. Apparently, conservatives who fail to promptly and unambiguously pronounce anathema are tainted by and complicit in D'Souza's errors and excesses. This is more than ironic coming from a writer who, like D'Souza, darkly proclaimed that America is menaced by an enemy at home. For Wolfe, as it happens, the enemy within does not arise from the cultural left but rather springs from Republicans and the right. His thesis no more withstands scrutiny than does D'Souza's, but by comparison has received very little.

Wolfe put forward his accusation in April 2004 in an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "A Fascist Philosopher Helps Us Understand Contemporary Politics." Likewise proceeding from the provocative to the polemical to the incendiary, Wolfe argued that "to understand what is distinctive about today's Republican Party," you have to understand the ideas of Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt. Wolfe named names--heading the list are Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly--but his aim was to illuminate a widely shared sensibility. While conceding that Republicans and conservatives have probably not studied Schmitt, he nevertheless maintained that "Schmitt's way of thinking about politics pervades the contemporary zeitgeist in which Republican conservatism has flourished, often in ways so prescient as to be eerie."

Wolfe had in mind Schmitt's analysis in an essay from the early 1930s, The Concept of the Political. But to contrive the case for an affinity between Nazi political theory and contemporary American conservatism, Wolfe distorted the essence of Schmitt's doctrine.

Schmitt argued that "the political," which represents "the most intense and extreme antagonism," rests on the distinction between "friend and enemy." The distinction "denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or disassociation." Seeking an understanding of the distinction that was precise and pure, Schmitt asserted that "the friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense, not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral, and other conceptions." So understood, the enemy involves "the real possibility of physical killing." In essence, the enemy is the people or state with whom another people or state goes to war:

The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. He is also not the private adversary whom one hates. An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity.

Notwithstanding Schmitt's argument that the political, properly understood, concerns a people's or a state's determination to resolve disputes by force of arms, Wolfe is determined to understand conservative party politics in America as Schmittian in character. It is true, as Wolfe subsequently argued in the Chronicle in an exchange of letters with critics (including me) in which he did not yield an inch, that for Schmitt, "'an antithesis and antagonism remain . . . within the state's domain which have relevance for the concept of the political.'" It is also true, as Wolfe noted, that in extraordinary circumstances domestic politics deteriorates into civil war. But it is just as true that Schmitt was specifically concerned not with the residue, not, as he emphasized, with conceptions that are "mixed and weakened," but rather with "the nature of the political." And civil war is no longer party politics.

It is risible, therefore, for Wolfe to seek to assimilate Ann Coulter's vitriol and Bill O'Reilly's grandstanding to Schmitt's concept of the political. They are writers and talkers, often shouters, public performers, and certainly culture warriors. But they are no more disposed to take up arms against the left than is the left disposed to take up arms against them. In their acceptance, for all practical purposes, of individual rights and the democratic process, they are, from a Schmittian point of view, liberals indistinguishable from Wolfe himself.