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The American law state's many personalities create its political-legal dysfunction, setting the stage for new eras including the rise of Trump

Table of contents

List of Charts
I.    Distraction and Catastrophe
II.    The Liberal Democratic State
III.    The Administered State
IV.    The Neoliberal State
V.    The Dissociative State
VI.    The Authoritarian Temptation
VII.    The Contest of Diagnoses
Notes on Method


The sudden emergence of the Trump nation surprised nearly everyone, including journalists, pundits, political consultants, and academics. When Trump won in 2016, his ascendancy was widely viewed as a fluke. Yet time showed it was instead the rise of a movement—angry, militant, revanchist, and unabashedly authoritarian.
How did this happen? Twilight of the American State offers a sweeping exploration of how law and legal institutions helped prepare the grounds for this rebellious movement. The controversial argument is that, viewed as a legal matter, the American state is not just a liberal democracy, as most Americans believe. Rather, the American state is composed of an uneasy and unstable combination of different versions of the state—liberal democratic, administered, neoliberal, and dissociative. Each of these versions arose through its own law and legal institutions. Each emerged at different times historically. Each was prompted by deficits in the prior versions. Each has survived displacement by succeeding versions. All remain active in the contemporary moment—creating the political-legal dysfunction America confronts today.
Pierre Schlag maps out a big picture view of the tribulations of the American state. The book abjures conventional academic frameworks, sets aside prescriptions for quick fixes, dispenses with lamentations about polarization, and bypasses historical celebrations of the American Spirit.

Pierre Schlag is University Distinguished Professor & Byron R. White Professor of Law at the University of Colorado.

“Pierre Schlag’s essay describes the development—or degeneration—of the American state from one animated by the principles of liberal democracy through the administered state to neoliberalism and now what he calls the dissociative state. Each state form generates tensions that it is unable to resolve, leaving us today facing the possibility that the authoritarian impulses that have grown out of frustration with the state’s failures will come to control a new state form. Schlag tells us that understanding how we got to where we are is the precondition for doing something about it, though he forgoes prescribing simple remedies. This is a bracing and—alas—somewhat depressing account of American constitutionalism today.”

—Mark Tushnet, Harvard Law School

- Mark Tushnet

“This book is intentionally radical, and it makes an exciting and cutting-edge contribution in the fields of legal and political theory and history. It is beautifully written. Its intellectual contributions are major. Its distinctive voice is simultaneously personal, charming, and haunting. In short: it reads like Pierre Schlag.”

—Mitchel Lasser, Jack G. Clarke Professor of Law and Director of Graduate Studies, Cornell Law School

- Mitchel Lasser