If mainstream pundits and scholars weren’t already frightened of Donald Trump, that surely changed during the second presidential debate when he threatened to jail Hillary Clinton. Trump’s off-hand threat to Clinton—“because you’d be in jail”—drew criticism from commentators and scholars across the political spectrum for his clear disregard for the principles of rule of law.
Of course, this was neither the first, nor the only time that he revealed his attitude towards legal principles and conventions. From his unconstitutional calls to round up and deport millions of Muslims, to his rejection of the exoneration of the Central Park 5, to his refusal to abide by the rulings of the National Labor Relations Board, Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he holds the same instrumental view of law that he holds for basic facts.
Trump’s legal ideology reflects a worldview that reduces everything down to deal-making. Indeed, with over 3,500 legal actions, Trump is America’s most litigious president. Like a socio-legal scholar, Trump understands that law is an arena where “the haves come out ahead,” using lawsuits to bully his critics and workers. His crude legal ideology could easily be described by the Soviet legal theorist Evgeny Pashukanis’ critique that the Western “concept of justice is drawn from the exchange relationship, and expresses nothing outside of it.”
Yet Trump not only exploits law for his own gain, he has also claimed to speak on behalf of it. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump howled “I am the law and order candidate!” against a brooding dark backdrop festooned with American flags. By painting an apocalyptic portrait in which, “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life,” he drew on the specter of violence and racial anxiety to claim his own authority.
Trump’s mimicry of Nixon’s law-and-order rhetoric along with his less-than-subtle racism reflects a world in which some populations—people of color, women, and queers—are more subject to punitive legal measures than others.
As we confront the looming horizon of his presidency, how must we address this contradiction? What does this election teach us about law? And, how can we prepare ourselves and our students for the Age of Trump?
These questions have been at the top of my mind as I have reflected on the way I teach my undergraduate “Law & Society” course. Trump’s victory came amid a module on law and social change, in which we were examining what historian Carol Anderson has recently termed “White Rage” in response to the Brown decision. While this election appeared to be an echo of the past—a re-entrenchment of white heteropatriarchy in the face of popular uprisings by people of color and legal victories by the LGBT movement—the reduction of this counter-mobilization to racial or sexual antipathy fails to account for the larger political shifts that we are not only seeing domestically, but also globally.
Anxieties of Power and Racial Populism
Seen from a global perspective, Donald Trump’s election, like the Brexit referendum, reflects a rising tide of right-wing political movements that are exploiting popular concerns over declining economic power and long-standing racial anxiety to launch their parties to power. The similarities and shared symbols between these two major votes is instructive.
In Britain, Nigel Farage, the former head of the UK Independence Party, stoked the fears of distressed working class Brits about immigrants that, he claimed, were taking over their jobs. Like Trump’s election, the Brexit vote was won by a coalition of white working class voters. Moreover, like Trump’s mantra to “Make America Great Again,” Farage called on Brits make Brexit their “Independence Day” and “take back control.” A giddy photo of Farage and Trump set amidst the gleaming gilded elevator of Trump Tower days after the US election, confirmed Trump’s hope that the US election would be “Brexit times 10.”
Both Brexit and Trump—as well as the growing political strength of right-wing nationalist parties in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Brazil—serve as a reminder of the enduring ties between race, national sovereignty, and economic power. Indeed, as post-colonial scholars have demonstrated, sovereignty is often articulated within a grammar of racial difference that serves to secure access to economic resources. In settler colonial states, such as the United States, continued articulations of racial difference are asserted within a global political economic context of declining economic strength.
Today, as the economic center of global capitalism pivots away from its former transatlantic axis and domestic economic inequality grows, those workers who once embraced a more egalitarian redistributive economic vision during times of prosperity are now left clinging to the symbolic wages that W.E.B. DuBois referred to as the “psychological wage of whiteness.” (It is no wonder that White Nationalists are now enjoying mainstream popular attention as they celebrate the rise of Trump.) For as economic inequality widens, Trump offered a voice for his white working class supporters’ affective and symbolic sentiments of superiority.
As socio-legal scholars, we know that these forms of power—racial, economic, and political—are facilitated by law. Indeed, as critical race theorists such as Ian Lopez have demonstrated, race is a socio-legal construction that has been constituted physically, symbolically, and materially through the violence of law. Global trade agreements, campaign finance laws, voter suppression, and mass incarceration are critical sites of law that were crucial in constructing neoliberalism. In an Age of Trump, Brexit, and other movements of right-wing populism, these sites will remain essential in constructing new racialized regimes of power.
In short, Trump’s election reminds us that we cannot teach Law & Society solely within a domestic context. To do so reproduces a narrative of American exceptionalism that conceals the relationship between race, power, and global political-economic formations. Perhaps more importantly, however, it prevents our students from understanding the global coalitions of solidarity that are increasingly important within a context of global interdependence and governance.