Brian Connolly in the LA Review of Books:
Democracy, especially in the United States, has always been vexed by the concept of sovereignty. It is one thing to invoke the liberating, empowering phrase “popular sovereignty,” the sine qua non of democracy; it is another altogether to think through the sovereignty of popular sovereignty — which remains a question of domination and subjection that on the surface seems inimitable to democracy. Donald Trump makes manifest this latent desire of the people (or at least an increasingly large segment of the people) to be subjected to some sovereign authority. The glaring contradictions, the all-encompassing narcissism, the insistent claims to violate the law, to do what needs to be done, to “Make America Great Again,” are all evidence not of Trump’s failings — his combination of danger and incompetence is, as most opinion polls suggest, apparent to nearly everyone — but of a political reality taking hold in the United States today: the desire for a new age of the sovereign.
“Sovereignty” is a concept with a long and complicated history, grounded in the fantasy of an indivisible, final political authority. German political philosopher Carl Schmitt’s well-known definition of sovereignty — himself a staunch proponent of dictatorship — is very much at the core of Trump’s appeal. “Sovereign,” Schmitt wrote in his classic work of 1922, Political Theology, “is he who decides on the exception.” This definition has become a recurring trope in work on sovereignty in the United States, particularly since 9/11. But what, exactly, is the exception? Schmitt elaborates, claiming that a sovereign:
decides in a situation of conflict what constitutes the public interest or interest of the state, public safety and order [. . .]. The exception, which is not codified in the existing legal order, can at best be characterized as a case of extreme peril, a danger to the existence of the state, or the like. But it cannot be circumscribed factually and made to conform to a preformed law.
The sovereign, in a moment of conflict, determines the interest of the state, public order, and safety, and is able to do so by declaring exceptions to the law which cannot rest on facts, in order to articulate and enact dictatorial powers in a moment of crisis. A shadow of this definition lingers over Trump, who consistently articulates the United States as in a state of perilous crisis.