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The New Caesars, Part I
An introduction to the political trend that defines our age.
Tomorrow, Vivek, Monique, Dina, and I plan to record a podcast discussing right-wing populism. I thought that in advance of this, it might be worth updating a few of the essays I published here when I inaugurated this newsletter, before it became the Cosmopolitan Globalist.
New readers may not know this, but I’d originally conceived of this newsletter as a vehicle for serializing a book I’d written in the wake of Trump’s election. I had written it in a flood of emotion; I wanted to offer other Americans a perspective on Trump that most of them, I suspected, wouldn’t have.
For these are inherent in plebiscitarian Caesarism, or so-called “Caesarian democracy,” with its direct appeal to the masses: demagogical slogans; disregard of legality in spite of a professed guardianship of law and order; contempt of political parties and the parliamentary system, of the educated classes and their values; blandishments and vague, contradictory promises for all and sundry; militarism; gigantic, blatant displays and shady corruption. Panem et circenses once more and at the end of the road, disaster.
When Trump came on the scene, I was like many Americans shocked, but unlike most Americans, I had a terrible sense of déja vu. I’d recently spent a decade living and reporting from Turkey on the rise and consolidation of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime. I’d experienced every stage of phenomenon Trump represented, a decade before it reached American soil.
Turkish politics tend to strike most Americans as distant, alien and irrelevant to them, but I was certain they were not. Erdoğan was following a template pioneered by Vladimir Putin and used by dozens of aspiring Caesars around the globe. Millions have now lived through this authoritarian cascade in a long list of countries from Hungary to the Philippines. I’d lived through this transformation. I was not sanguine about what Trump represented.
Many seemed to think the United States immune to these global forces by virtue of its constitution, culture, or geography. I didn’t think so. Turkey, too, had strong constitutional, cultural, and geographic safeguards. They failed.
What follows is the introduction to that book and one of its chapters. It’s relevant again in the wake of the election in Italy, but it’s also relevant in that Putin is showing us what can lie at the end of this path. I’ll divide them over several newsletters in the coming days.
If you’ve read them already, you might find it useful to have another look, because I’ve reorganized, updated, and annotated it in places. But you’ll see that I didn’t need to change much. The argument, unfortunately, has held up well.1
This is a bonus for subscribers, not a substitute for our usual fare. I’ll be sending out new articles and Global Eyes on our usual schedule.
When pundits describe Trump’s rise to power as “unprecedented,” they do their readers a disservice. The idea the American experience has neither a precedent nor an analogue is a mutant offshoot of the notion of American exceptionalism. It too often persuades Americans they exist outside of time, history, and the world. This is as wrong as it is harmful. It deprives us of the ability to learn from the evidence of history and foreign affairs.
In reality, Trump has many precedents. Liberal democracy has for years been under worldwide threat from a rival ideology that’s both historically familiar and genuinely novel. There is no single, universally accepted term for this ideology, although political scientists often call it right-wing populism. But this term isn’t ideal. This isn’t the right-left contest that shaped the twentieth century, and a fixation on that dichotomy makes it more difficult to see the contest that is shaping this century.
Nor does the far-right hold a monopoly on the world’s growing illiberalism. It is characteristic, too, of far-left movements. In their rejection of liberalism, far-left figures tend to have more in common with the far-right than with the center. Both tend to criticize liberalism in similar terms and on similar grounds. (You can see this very readily in the romance between Tucker Carlson and Glenn Greenwald, for example.)
A host of terms have been used to describe governments where this ideology prevails: hybrid regime, partial democracy, low-intensity democracy, empty democracy. Some have personalized it, calling it Putinism, Orbánism, or Erdoğanism. Because I like what it evokes, I’ve called it the New Caesarism.
What unites these regimes is this: They are democracies, in the sense that their leaders derive their legitimacy from elections and the public’s widespread support. But their citizens don’t enjoy the rights and freedoms that most of us associate with the word “democracy,” and without which elections are meaningless. These rights and freedoms are not derived from democracy, per se, but from liberalism. Leaders in these regimes use similar strategies to stay in power, democratically, even while failing to protect these rights and freedoms.2
They are united, too, by their hostility to liberal democracies. Successful liberal democracies pose, by virtue of their existence, a threat to illiberal ones. Thus all of these regimes are joined in eagerness to undermine or destroy liberal democracies, and they may be expected to cooperate to this end.3
This form of governance is spreading mimetically and consolidating itself through the new technologies of the 21st century. This is what makes it genuinely new, and one reason why these political transformations are taking place in such an eerily similar way. They emerge from the same larger social, economic, and technological trends, and their leading figures are rapidly learning from each other.
What these movements are not is fascist. The fascists who rose to power in the interwar period rejected democracy outright. It’s a measure of the success of liberal democracy that the better part of the world now believes that legitimacy in governance rests upon winning elections—and this includes leaders of these new movements and their followers. But a significant part of the world has not been persuaded (despite the evidence) that liberalism is as important as democracy, both instrumentally, as the key to achieving the outcomes associated with the success of liberal democracies, and inherently, as a moral good in itself. This failure of persuasion and failure of legitimization has had significant consequences.
If not fascist, per se, these movements nonetheless have distinct historic antecedents. Their routines, slogans, promises, displays, corruption, and political vocabulary are very old. The term New Caesarism comes the historian Lewis Namier, who coined the termed Caesarian democracy:
Such morbid cults have by now acquired a tradition and ideology, and have evolved their own routine and political vocabulary. … Napoleon III and Boulanger were to be the plagiarists, shadowy and counterfeit, of Napoleon I; and Mussolini and Hitler were to be unconscious reproducers of the methods of Napoleon III. For these are inherent in plebiscitarian Caesarism, or so-called “Caesarian democracy,” with its direct appeal to the masses: demagogical slogans; disregard of legality in spite of a professed guardianship of law and order; contempt of political parties and the parliamentary system, of the educated classes and their values; blandishments and vague, contradictory promises for all and sundry; militarism; gigantic, blatant displays and shady corruption. Panem et circenses once more and at the end of the road, disaster.
As Namier pointed out, it is a form of governance that tends to lead to true Caesarism.
But Caesarian democracy should not be confused with the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century. They are different, first, in their emphasis on elections and propaganda over force. The New Caesars don’t disdain elections; indeed, they love them, often transforming the system as much as they can to a plebiscitary rather than a representative democracy. They are particularly fond of referenda, which they’re apt to use to enact sweeping constitutional change, sometimes under the cover of a bundle of clauses that include popular handouts and thus obscure the poison pill.
Second, they’re distinguished by their reliance upon modern technology, particularly the Internet. The Internet permits their ideas rapidly to spread across borders and gain legitimacy; it enables them to rise, consolidate, and sustain their power by monopolizing public attention; and it offers them new forms of authoritarian control.
This is a genuine evolution in authoritarianism, one that devolves from the failure of the older forms. The New Caesars have carefully studied the problems that caused the old forms of authoritarianism to crumble, and they have learned from experience. They have devised a modern adaptation that is more nimble, subtle, and adroit.4
Unlike such totalitarians as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot—or fascist and military regimes such as Franco’s or Pinochet’s—leaders of these regimes don’t seize power by force, and they don’t rely upon mass terror and killing to remain in power, at least not at first. They tend to appreciate that those regimes were moral horrors; what’s more, they did not work, instrumentally, to secure either the regime’s aims or the regime itself. They are more sparing in their use of violence than their twentieth century forebears, although they are capable of becoming brutally repressive, quickly, when rebellions and protests get out of hand. (They tend to crush these with paramilitary forces cultivated for their loyalty.) When they begin killing en masse, however, it usually signifies the end of the regime.
“Words are fine things, but muskets are even better,” said Mussolini; for the New Caesars, the maxim is reversed.
The New Caesars thus tend to be less cannibalistic than their predecessors, and much better adapted to the twenty-first century’s economy and technologies. They enjoy genuine popularity, at least at first; often for many years. Voters perceive them as good at delivering what they want, even though by standard objective measures, they govern badly.
To achieve this, they must systematically change the electorate’s beliefs about reality. But their propaganda doesn’t aim, as communist or fascist propaganda did, to transform the human soul. It aims to boost popularity ratings. Opponents aren’t killed—all that often, anyway—but rather harassed, humiliated, accused of fabricated crimes, and encouraged to emigrate. Their coercive tool of choice is not the gulag, but the hidden camera and the leaked sex tape. The press is not abolished tout court, but censored on grounds that please the public (to protect them from child pornography, or terrorists), and what remains is purchased or skillfully bribed.
The New Caesars understand that killing fields are not necessary for authoritarian control. It’s far more effective to shape the public’s beliefs by controlling what they know. “Words are fine things, but muskets are even better,” said Mussolini; for the New Caesars, the maxim is reversed. The key concern of such regimes is to shape the information environment in such a way that the regime will be elected, again and again. The communication technologies of the twenty-first century make it much easier to do this than before.
Governments of liberal democracies spin, shape, and manipulate the news, to be sure, but they’re constrained—by the social norms and institutions of liberalism—from simply inventing it. The New Caesars are not constrained. They pump an unremitting flood of propaganda onto their citizens’ television screens and into the Internet. They spend a huge proportion of their budgets on this effort. (The percentage of the public budget devoted to this is an objective measure by which such a regime may be recognized.) They mobilize battalions of loyalists or paid employees to disseminate their propaganda. The aim is to create demand for political actions that only an illiberal regime could satisfy, ensure the public has no clue what’s true and what is not, and offer a wildly inflated impression of the regime’s competence and performance.
The advent of the Internet has also given the New Caesars something their predecessors could not have hoped to have: the ability to bypass or marginalize traditional custodians and gatekeepers of public knowledge—the established media, academia, and other authority figures—without imprisoning or killing all that many of them. Their ability to tap state budgets in this effort permits them to obliterate political rivals who don’t possess the financial means to mount an equivalent propaganda operation. Since these regimes have access to the public purse, this tends to be most of their rivals. Simultaneously, they systematically endeavor to discredit the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge as a class, portraying them as inherently, structurally hostile to the peoples’ will.
To call the leaders of these regimes fascists is historically illiterate.5 Fascism was a specific political theory, put into practice in real historic events. Mussolini invented the word, developed the theory, and built the first such regime in history.6 He explicitly repudiated parliamentary democracy as a lie based upon the illusion of human equality and rationality. A manifestly superior elite, he believed, had both a right and a duty to rule over the bovine masses by means of violence, which he endorsed as salutary to moral health and the health of the state. Statism was the tool that would allow men to transcend their moral limitations. His answer to the Marxist concept of class war was corporatism—the harmonization of the ambitions of all social classes under the state’s direction. He was profoundly influenced by Darwinism and biological determinism, evident in his emphasis on the power of the will; he held violence to be purgative and the will of great men primary.
His economic philosophy was productionism: increased production (not distribution) was, in his view, the key to the state’s health, and the state must mobilize and develop its resources toward that end. Great myths, he believed, had the power to mobilize nations, and the myth of national solidarity must replace the failed myth of class solidarity. He proposed to militarize the nation by creating a new class of warriors, and demanded of citizens the performance of civic duties in the interest of the states. His foreign policy was colonialism: He believed in an inherent conflict between plutocratic nations like Britain and proletarian nations like Italy; the former were denying the latter its rightful colonies, which it required, economically, for its growth.
There are perhaps echoes of these concepts in modern right-wing populist movements, but these are not the foundational ideas. The ideas really make very little sense outside of their historic context. Italy had achieved unification precisely as Europe was swept by messianic and Utopian doctrines—communism, anarchism, imperialism—and just as Darwinism was entering public imagination. Then came the Great War, which was carnage not just on the Western and Eastern fronts but the Italian front, as well, as evoked by Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms. Although Italy gained Trent and Trieste and its enemy Austria was destroyed, Italians had hoped to join France and Britain in gobbling up Germany’s colonial possessions.7 They found themselves, instead, receiving lectures from Woodrow Wilson.
The end of the war was a profound disappointment, particularly for the elite commando units known as Arditi (distinguished by their black shirts). Peasants had been encouraged to fight with promises of land reform; they returned home to discover no such reforms were forthcoming. Urban workers returned to mass unemployment. Demobilized officers were appalled, when they returned, by the prevalence of socialist hoodlums who to express their revulsion with war and militarism spat on mutilated veterans.
Universal suffrage—the price of the draft—came into effect in 1919, giving the vote to the democratically inexperienced. They soon flooded the parliament with socialists and popolari—a new Catholic party—who replaced the more experienced liberal party. Italy’s institutions were young and weak. Parliamentary democracy had solved none of Italy’s great problems. The kingdom’s leaders had plunged Italy as well into a catastrophic war that had resulted in nothing that had been promised to the men who fought it. It is in this context that Mussolini developed the theory of fascism and in this context that it became a mass movement. It’s worth noting that none of these conditions apply to any country now performing a right-wing populist experiment on itself.
So no, they are not fascists. They’re something sui generis.
But this doesn’t mean they’re something benign.
Part II: What do they believe?
I’ve been working all week on an essay about that election. You’ll read it this weekend.
Update: In this respect, it’s important to note that Trump never said, “I lost the election but intend to stay in power anyway.” His insistence that he won the election is a tribute to the widespread acceptance that legitimacy devolves from elections.
Update: If you were surprised that Saudi Arabia and Russia recently found common cause at OPEC, consider this point.
Update: When Putin abandoned this very successful formula in favor of something closer to Stalinism’s brute force, he set down the path that will cost him everything.
It is now getting much closer, in Putin’s case—but even in this case, as Dina Kaphaeva points out, there are important points of ideological discontinuity: Fascism was a modernist movement; Putin’s, a neo-feudal one.
There are many edge cases—historians debate, for example, whether Franco’s regime was truly fascist given the Falange was and remained a junior partner in Franco’s coalition and the principle purpose of Franco’s regime was not mass mobilization but mass depoliticization—but Mussolini’s Italy is not an edge case.
I’ve corrected this sentence; there was a mortifying error in it.