Trump’s Law: Toward a Necropolitical Humanitarianism

On 5 April 2017, one day before authorizing missile strikes against Syrian targets, Donald Trump remarked during a press conference in the White House Rose Garden, ‘I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact.’ He elaborated: ‘When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal — people were shocked to hear what gas it was. That crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.’

Described as a visceral and instinctual reaction to the deaths of innocent children, Trump’s account of this event plays upon tropes of a break or conversion, a ‘flexible’ turn from the ‘America First’ paradigm that has structured his foreign policy, or a compassionate humanitarian supplement to his isolationist nationalism. The big impact that Trump recounts was produced by and mediated through his exposure to images of suffering children, ‘innocent babies’ who were no longer regarded as foreign, Syrian, or Muslim, as they would appear in the logic of his immigration-related executive orders, but rather as individuals inhabiting a vulnerable and shared (Christian) humanity. Justifying the military strikes carried out the following day, Trump claimed in a press conference on 6 April that ‘no child of God should ever suffer such horror.’ But far from addressing the living — those who have been displaced by the Syrian conflict in search of refuge, those wounded by the strike and in need of medical assistance — Trump channels his affective response into a retaliatory and militarized counter-measure to the Assad regime, if not to ISIS and to ‘terrorism of all kinds and all types.’

This response is framed by the rhetorics of imperial humanitarianism. Calling on ‘all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria,’ Trump’s 6 April speech articulates a humanitarian basis for intervening — ending the suffering of innocents — while locating the intervention in imperial logics reminiscent of Bush era divisions between ‘civilized’ and ‘rogue’ states. While much can be said about this framing, and about the ways in which it continues historical logics within the international legal order, this post is concerned with Trump’s apparent ‘humanitarian turn’ as a form of necropolitics. It asks how we might conceptualize Trump’s vision of legality appearing in his characterization of the ‘many, many lines’ crossed by the Syrian government. What grounds Trump’s law, or the normative order in which these lines appear? 

The invocation of ‘women, small children, and even beautiful little babies’ is perhaps insufficient to ground a credible claim to military intervention, though it is used by Trump as a moral imperative, where his affective response alone arises as the self-evident justification. ‘I will tell you, what happened last night is unacceptable to me.’ But it was not merely that children and babies had died, as there is no mention of the dead children or babies amongst migrant populations, nor of those refugees drowned in the Mediterranean, those turned back at the borders, or those who are refused food or exposed to disease and extreme cold. What crosses the line is the manner in which they have died: they were marked for death, and not merely exposed to an indifferent, indirect, or less ‘barbaric’ death — those we ‘let die,’ in a biopolitical logic, left to perish but not directly killed. This is not only a matter of sovereign prerogative, the power and the right to kill, but also something akin to what Achille Mbembe has described as ‘necropolitics’: the ‘place given’ to life and to death, but tellingly, also to ‘the human body (in particular the wounded or slain body).’[1]

Here we are concerned with the political use of death, and political action carried out in the name of the dead. The sovereign prerogative is now exercised not only within the boundaries of the nation-state or, indeed, over the kingdom of the living, but also over the kingdom of the dead. ‘They will have a message. You will see what the message will be. Okay?’ Trump remarked in the Rose Garden, speaking to the living on behalf of the dead. This is not merely to condemn a particular form of death, or to distinguish between deaths that do and do not ‘cross the line’; it is to control the meaning and the message of death itself, affirming the power and the right to distinguish between deaths that are ‘acceptable,’ and hence unremarkable, and those that are acceptably avenged. Speaking in the name of the dead, Trump arrogates to himself the power over whose lives shall be deemed grievable, and over the political ends to which they will be instrumentalized, if not dishonoured. It is a strange sort of speech and rhetorical positioning: evil is located elsewhere and has no connection to American foreign policy or intervention, while Trump appropriates and occupies the moral superiority and innocence of those ‘children of God.’

If humanitarianism is the manifest desire to alleviate the suffering of the living, Trump’s response is tragically belated. Indeed, the object of Trump’s empathic response is not the living as such; no intervention will make them live, and the Tomahawk missiles arrive at the scene not as salvation but as retribution. In this light, the military strike appears as something other than a humanitarian intervention, punitive rather than redemptive, even as Trump’s response invokes trauma and mobilizes empathy for innocent victims. As Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman have argued, trauma has shifted from what was once a dubious clinical diagnosis to ‘an irrefutable reality linked to a feeling of empathy, [which] has spread throughout the moral space of contemporary societies.’[2] The ‘big impact’ on Trump appears as an empathic response to a traumatic scene, and he deploys trauma as his political currency directed at a domestic audience (raising approval ratings) and an international audience (demonstrating American ‘leadership’ and military strength). During a foreign policy speech on 27 April 2016, Trump had contended that ‘we’re a humanitarian nation’ while claiming that ‘the legacy of the Obama-Clinton interventions will be weakness, confusion and disarray, a mess.’ By contrast, his humanitarian strike would ostensibly bring strength and clarity, a clear line in the sand. As a necropolitical response, however, it appears rather to mobilize the dead for a calculated political afterlife, where Trump both inscribes the lines and grants himself the authority to cross them.

Within the military horizon opened by Trump’s feelings, the retaliatory strike is portrayed as a ‘measured step,’ in the words of Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. In some moral or political (if not legal) calculus, this step is meant as a deterrent to future acts of ‘barbarism’: ‘we are prepared to do more,’ Haley continues, and yet there is the risk that the Assad regime will only be emboldened by the U.S. strike. As Eyal Weizman remarks, ‘It is the very act of calculation — the very fact that calculation took place — that justifies their action.’[3] The logics of calculation described by Weizman form the rationality of international humanitarian law, jus in bello, which permits a certain degree of violence in its efforts to constrain warfare. But this ‘measured step’ is something else, and international law does not appear to figure in Trump’s calculus; certainly the basis for his jus ad bellum recourse to force disregards the United Nations Charter even as Trump invokes Assad’s own breach of international legal obligations. Trump’s law deploys humanitarian sentimentality to recast what is otherwise widely considered illegal as a matter of international law. By what logics does it operate?

In the context of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence,’ Trump’s law enacts a mythic violence: ‘As regards man,’ Benjamin writes, ‘he is impelled by anger, for example, to the most visible outbursts of a violence that is not related as a means to a preconceived end. It is not a means but a manifestation … to be found, most significantly, above all in myth.’[4] In other words, Trump’s law is a violent manifestation of affect that masquerades as divine violence, itself necessarily ‘fated’ and just. Moreover, as a police function the military intervention conflates both lawmaking and law-preserving violence in ‘a kind of spectral mixture,’ according to Benjamin, ‘a far more unnatural combination than in the death penalty’ (286). It is unclear whether Trump’s actions are concerned with means or ends, and these become maddeningly indistinguishable: is this action meant to be deterrent or retributive, or perhaps both? ‘Lawmaking is power making,’ Benjamin writes, ‘and, to that extent, an immediate manifestation of violence. Justice is the principle of all divine end making, power the principle of all mythical lawmaking’ (295). Trump as mythical lawmaker concerns himself with power rather than justice. His law seeks to inscribe his own affective response into the normative order, which can then be manifested through the ‘law-preserving, administrative violence’ (300) of his highly militarized state.

The moral justification for Trump’s retaliatory strike is presented in humanitarian terms. As an affective or sentimental structure, humanitarianism does the work of grounding the basis of the intervention in a moral framework that presumes the sacredness of human life, yet it operates through abstractions that are easily appropriated, and that subtly shift the topos of humanitarianism. Humanitarian reason, as Fassin has called it, is a mode of governing individual lives by reducing them to bare life:  ‘Humanitarian reason pays more attention to the biological life of the destitute and unfortunate, the life in the name of which they are given aid, than to their biographical life, the life through which they could, independently, give a meaning to their own existence.’[5] These lives are accessible, biographically, only because they have been stripped bare, abstracted, and rewritten by those who would deliver humanitarian aid.

It is an altogether strange sort of humanitarianism, however, that serves the dead. Trump’s humanitarian necropolitics seems to rhetorically reanimate the dead to reclaim them as ‘children of God.’ These lives are inscribed with meaning — humanized — by virtue of the particular deaths they have suffered. The sovereign prerogative to deal death here crosses the line between the living and the dead, when these deaths are revived mythically for political ends. Trump claims those lost lives as a site of empathy and affective attachment, retroactively presenting them as lives that were suddenly worth saving after all.

The living are far more nettlesome, as survivors who might have escaped death by lethal gas bear their own political claims — to asylum, material assistance, and accountability for their suffering. In contrast to the dead, who have been reanimated by a political force speaking for them and through them, the biographies of the living remain inaudible to Trump. The dead are of more use politically; they are unable to speak back or to voice an independent claim ascribing meaning to their own existence. In focusing on the dead, Trump once again fails to account for the living, and for his (and our) complicity in their slow deaths.

In this necropolitical humanitarianism, Trump’s law reduces ethics to affect and forecloses the possibility of those humanitarian norms that urge hospitality, and the welcoming of the stranger, offering material and proximate assistance. Humanitarian hospitality does not adopt the retributive postures of moral superiority. Hospitality of this kind would not only attend to the lives of the living; it is, perhaps, the only way that we might honour the dead.

[1] Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15, no. 1 (winter 2003): 11-40, 12.

[2] Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood, trans. Rachel Gomme (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 6.

[3] Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza (London: Verso, 2011), 12.

[4] Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 277-300, 294.

[5] Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present, trans. Rachel Gomme (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 254.

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