An introduction to the political trend that defines our age.
Although I greatly appreciate this work and, in general, fully agree with its contents, I still have to point out the presence of a rather relevant inaccuracy: Trent and Trieste were conquered, not lost, by Italy at the end of World War I. As a Triestine, however, I can say that there are many, despite the fact that more than a century has passed, who even today would have appreciated more the alternative outcome indicated in the article :)
I don't think this is helpful. All of the competing political philosophies in the world have failed, including liberal democracy. The world is devolving to a uniform sea of oligarchies and kleptocracies with stylistic flourishes of liberalism and macho communalism.
People spend far too much time criticizing competing value systems. If you don't like liberal democracy's competitors, fix liberal democracy itself. Make it a more attractive system than the alternatives. Figure out how to properly discipline elites and motivate them to act in the best interest of their host societies. How do you prevent elite self-segregation leading to a breakdown in the rule of law? No one is even asking this question despite the unfolding utter disaster that is U.S. law right now.
I wanted to yell "Yes, yes, yes!" a dozen times while reading this introduction to the phenomenon of New Caesarism. Excellently conceptualized and presented.
I do disagree profoundly with the sentiment that America is somehow "armored" against it; the example given in Thomas M Gregg's comment ("There's no central point, no commanding height, that if seized by a group of putschists would give them power") illustrates how America is perhaps armored against old-style fascist or communist takeovers, but it in no way undermines Claire's point that "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."
As I wrote in my comment to the second part of this series, "Caesarism will only flourish when a sufficient plurality of the populace is unwilling or unable to secure some rights and, increasingly, privileges for themselves and turns to a "savior" to fight for them." That is my reading of Trump's continued appeal.
Thanks for helping define populism. I have struggled with that. Now I need some examples of left wing populists to argue with my progressive friends who think every conservative politician is a right wing populist.
Readers of The CG, and Americans in particular, benefit from being reminded of the original (I am tempted to add, “and true”) meaning of the term “fascism.” Claire’s article, along with Thomas Gregg’s comments give essential context needed to distinguish authoritarian or illiberal democracy from the Fascism of Mussolini or the National Socialism of Hitlerian Germany.
Putting these revolutionary movements into their particular historical contexts defines the terminology, and in so doing removes it from being mere epithets for politics or people which the average American can identify as antithetical to liberal democratic values. Before reading the article and commentary I doubt I could have made such a fine distinction between Mussolini’s Fascists and anodyne “blood and soil nationalists”, for example.
If we are to fight our political battles with words, not swords or muskets, it behooves us to use words with care and precision. We are only sowing confusion, instead of understanding, if we use words — even correctly — whose meaning is unclear to our listener, or imprecise and subject to multiple interpretations.
Speaking of the meaning of words, I am reminded of this quote from Lewis Carroll.
“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
“The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
I hope the podcast gets uploaded. I’m still waiting on Dina’s second interview and the one with Steenblik and Koplow. 😉
Good luck with the book!
I would argue that Mussolini’s roots lie in Socialism- state control of the economy, as well as the view, fairly widespread amongst educated elites in the early 20th century, that advances in scientific reasoning allowed an informed elite to make all the right decisions for the ignorant masses. Communism was nominally about rule by the proletariat and committee but devolved into “scientific” decision making by an elite. Mussolini started with the view that the elite should command the economy and added the militaristic/patriotic angle to keep the masses in line. Wilson and FDR and many American socialists weren’t far off Mussolini in their view of the wisest course for management of an economy (elite decision making and planning) but thankfully weren’t particularly oppressive Or censorious (well, at least FDR wasn’t), perhaps because there wasn’t a lot of grass roots appeal in America for “order” having been spared the massive changes and wars in Europe late 1800s-WWI. I see communism, state socialism and Mussolini’s fascism as labels enshrining the concept that a few smart people at the top could plan for a whole country and should be given maximum leeway (by vote by law or by force)and relieve the ignorant, inferior masses of any decision-making responsibility. Different countries/leaders tried different ways to impose elite/“scientific” planning and decision-making- communism, fascism, socialism. Before his alliance with Hitler, Mussolini was sometimes envied by many western socialist elites (akin to Tom Friedman’s envy of the PRC’s command and control decision-making).
I agree there aren’t many fascist parallels with today’s populist authoritarians. They are after political power and patronage but don’t really seek to control the all aspects of the economy or “manage” anything except staying in power. When they can, they use state power or imprisonment to silence the opposition (or sometimes use corporations run by their donors to censor the opposition and their “inappropriate” thoughts), but every authoritarian leader (and sometimes every pol who can get away with it- Adams, Wilson, Nixon, GW Bush, Obama, Biden) tries to silence opponents. This doesn’t make them fascists- merely pols.
To me a populist is someone who picks an enemy, others them, and either blames them for all of ones troubles or portrays them as a threat to the nation. Often they promise to “get” or punish this enemy. The enemy could be the Chinese, illegal immigrants, Muslims, egghead elites, the Woke, the unvaccinated, white supremacists, MAGA republicans, members of parties who wish to “put Blacks back in chains” or launch “a war on women”, the 1 percent, big pharma, Pfizer, Fauci, the Supreme Court, CRT, Evangelicals, big oil, tech tycoons, etc.
In the US, most of the practitioners of this sort of hate mongering (from Obama, Biden, Sanders and Warren to Trump and the new right) are merely craven and are following this strategy because it works politically and because hate mongering and division is quite easy to implement using digital and social media. Obama was the first to realize and leverage this from 2010 onward. If we want to stop hate and division from being the winning strategy we have to call it out (and call out demagogues who rule and bait via “wedge” issues). Most people have only one eye open, focused on their political opponents.
I don’t really equate the trend of craven pols in the US trying to pick winning messages and leveraging social/digital media for hate mongering (or censorship) as having much overlap at all with the Orbans and Erdogans of the world, who rule countries with no real tradition of democracy and human rights. One election, one time, is a saying for a reason.
The US pols are going to stick to their current strategy until it stops working, and then they will try something else. Meanwhile, does anyone really believe Trump hates elites (having hobnobbed with them for decades) or Bernie hates the 1 percent (of which he is a member) or Warren hates tycoons? They are all merely picking opportunistic strategies that resonate with us (we are the problem). Erdogan and Orban, on the other hand, are true believers. I don’t see any Erdogans on the horizon in the US- not even Trump. He is impulsive and unhinged, to he sure, but also unserious.
I’ll read your book, though, to see if I am wrong.
There's a lot in this, for sure. Particularly useful is the distinction drawn between fascism and contemporary left- and right-wing populism. The term "illiberal democracy" is apt. So is "Caesarian Democracy"—for those familiar with the career of ancient Rome's man who would be king.
A few words about Donald Trump. It's certainly true that he rode the wave of American populism, but surely he was no true believer. In assessing his political career, one must bear in mind that Trump the politician was a product of America's celebrity culture. He never shook off the persona of the game show host; recall his performance as ringmaster of the daily pandemic briefings. Recall as well how quickly the parade of cranks and clowns that followed him into the White House were sent away again. The presidency of Donald J. Trump was all about—Donald J. Trump. He certainly had illiberal impulses, but he had no illiberal principles.
Besides, if you look at his actual record as president up to 2020, you'll find that his administration was a pretty conventional Republican one. He did some dumb and objectionable things, as did the presidents who preceded him, not to mention the one who followed him. But it wasn't until he lost the 2020 election that Trump really fit the profile of an illiberal democrat and that, I'm convinced, was the product of sheer adolescent egotism. It was a disturbing and dangerous moment but the insurrection, if such it was, came to nothing.
I believe that America is armored against Caesarian democracy by the sheer weight, complexity and inertia of our political system. There's no central point, no commanding height, that if seized by a group of putschists would give them power. I'm not suggesting that America has complete immunity from the virus of illiberal democracy. But we do have strong antibodies—as, I believe, the events of late 2020-early 2021 showed.
As it happens, I took up the question of fascism's definition last May on my own little corner of Substack. For those who may be interested, here's the link:
I do not know whether to be amused or dismayed by the popular notion that erosion of truly liberal values in America began with Trump. At the very least it began when the entire country accepted George Bush's de facto elimination of the 1st amendment with the creation of "Free Speech Zones" with barely a peep from the nation's institutions. It was that very moment when the democratic institutions of the US began their slow decline into disrepute.
I laughed out loud at Clinton campaign talking points that Russians were undermining confidence in American institutions when to any thinking person, it was so clear that these institutions were doing an admirable job of it all on their own, and had been doing so for two decades.
Republican and Democrat alike, each successive administration participated in chipping away the bill of rights in the name of security. In this context, there was no travesty of justice worse (although many equal) than Clapper's outrageous lies to congress all tacitly approved (certainly never punished) by the Omaba administration.
Although it is arguable that some subsequent administration -might- have committed this illiberal atrocity at some future point, it is nonetheless unavoidable fact that Obama's -did- do it, and as such is directly responsible for the Snowden affair, and all subsequent loss of faith attendant to it.
To write "The press is not abolished tout court, but censored on grounds that please the public" as though it was/is purely a "Trump" phenomenon is to willfully ignore the active participation of the Federal administrative state in activities such as the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story (from "all the hallmarks of a Russian disinformation campaign" to phone calls to Facebook), to name just one of uncountable examples attributable to the administrations that bookend Trump. It is just that when it is *your* sensibilities that the censorship is playing to - perhaps, for example the suppression of "medical misinformation" - you do not even see it for what it is.
I do not disagree with all that you wrote, but I find that your TDS detracts from the otherwise interesting political analysis. Do you really need to score hits on such a soft target in order to garner credibility for your arguments, or are you actually, seriously, convinced that Trump was/is the alpha and omega of the illiberalism so rampant in the US today?
Is there not perhaps a deeper problem at play in American Society? Is it possible that Trump is a symptom, not a cause?
Thank you for providing a lot of historical context!