The New Caesarism
The end of complexity
Western populations have suffered a profound degradation of reason, intellect, and moral integrity. The symptoms of this are many and flagrant. Among the most telling: Americans are rapidly losing both passive and active vocabulary. Both declined at a fairly steady pace postwar until the advent of e-mail and the text message; vocabulary loss then accelerated.
Reading skills have been lost. Only a small minority of Americans now have the ability to read and understand a book—book-reading now is the purview of the personality type drawn to endurance sports—which means most of us are functionally illiterate for democratic purposes. Those who can’t read at book length cannot follow a sustained, linear argument. The brain is highly plastic, and we have changed ours in a way that makes it much harder for most of us to think beyond 140 characters—slogans, not arguments—even as we have created in the Internet such a riveting system of rival entertainment that reading a book now requires exceptional personal discipline whereas once it required only the desire to be relieved of boredom.
Our shrinking vocabulary is not merely a curious linguistic trend. It signifies that we are losing our capacity for complex thought—and liberal democracy cannot survive this. Liberalism, and the tolerance it demands of citizen, relies upon the public’s sense of, and respect for, the near-infinite complexity of life generally, and human societies, in particular. Caesarism takes root easily in cultures where the capacity for complex thought and reasoning has for one or another reason been atrophied. Trump’s rise to power was presaged by decades of cultural simplification that manifested itself across every domain: American Pop music, for example, has become demonstrably less complex with every postwar decade, to the point that it now often lacks a musical motif at all and is not much more than the sound of an electronic heartbeat.1
To make an effective case against the New Caesars, we must understand them. But most of us cannot understand them because we have so limited our own powers of speech. Yes, yes, of course—you understand them. But you are not typical: You are reading this. To make the case against them, our wider public must reclaim its powers of speech. It must be capable of understanding and using language with precision, language that is not shot through with clichés. This is the very opposite of our contemporary political discourse, which every day closer approaches a series of primitive, pre-verbal grunts.
We are losing this war of ideas because we have become growingly stupid and increasingly delicate about calling stupidity what it is. Stupid people—that is, people who have not been educated to think in rigorous ways, or who are incapable of being educated in those way—are particularly vulnerable to believing improbable things, believing in implausible conspiracies, and knowing too little about history and politics to appraise what they’re being told about either. This, mixed with the Internet, allows what we now call “post-factual” politics to take root.
It need not be this way. This has occurred in large measure because our system of education is absurd, from preschool to graduate school. This is not the cause of lapsed attention spans and the loss of deep reading skills—the Internet is. But our education system does not compensate for this loss, and indeed operates as if it were not taking place at all. It is given over to empty and meretricious educational, academic, and philosophical doctrines that reinforce the worst instincts of people who can no longer concentrate or read. It is a system designed to produce unreasoning and unreasonable people, a superabundance of the type of man well described by Ortega y Gasset:
The Fascist and Syndicalist species were characterized by the first appearance of a type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his opinions. That was the novelty: the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: ‘the reason of unreason.’
That Western academics have become enamored of the idea that nothing is true and only power matters was not an inevitable consequence of our freedom, but a contingent accident of our intellectual history. Nonetheless, academia, and with it our intellectual life and all that is downstream of it, has been degraded by this empty and trivial orthodoxy. This, combined with the revelation that our politicians have lied to us so many times, about so many things, has given rise to widespread cynicism about truth itself. None of this must happen in a free society; there was nothing inevitable about this. It just happened to happen. But this is precisely the climate that allows a New Caesar come to power.
New Caesarism is a regime of lies. Such systematic lying cannot be as effective as it is unless the public believes already that there’s not much of a difference between truth and a lie—that “truth” is a fiction created by power, and that it is natural and legitimate to manufacture facts and arguments to serve a desirable aim or power structure.
The forces bringing the New Caesars to power in the West are threefold: first, a technological and economic revolution; second, the invention of a recipe for a new form of authoritarian governance; and third, a global crisis of confidence in liberal democracy.
We’ve seen, in our lifetime, technological change comparable in historic significance to the invention of the printing press. Our lives have been entirely reshaped by the advent of the Internet and the invention of the cell phone. Other new technologies—containerization, fiber-optic cables, air freight—have been revolutionary too, but less widely appreciated as such. They are. Their widespread adoption means we can’t roll back globalization’s trade effects, even if we would wish to.
People old enough to remember the world as it used to be (people born, roughly, before 1980) understand very well the revolutionary impact of these technologies have had on their personal lives. They may not yet see that their impact on our political lives has been just as revolutionary. But this will become increasingly clear in the coming decades.
This is why there is something genuinely new about the form of authoritarianism now sweeping the world. Conservatives of the old-fashioned kind—the ones who aimed to stand athwart history, yelling Stop–have been made irrelevant by these changes. It’s too late. Whatever conservatism was, its moment has passed; while we were yelling Stop, history ran over us.
The Whig Delusion, along with our unexpected sudden victory in the Cold War, left us exceptionally slow to recognize the threat these new regimes pose. We came to take it as axiomatic that unfree societies could not really compete with liberal democracies. What’s more, we assumed that the unfree societies of the future would resemble the unfree societies of the past. But the new authoritarian regimes don’t look like the old ones—nor do they suffer from the same weaknesses. They are pioneers in the political exploitation of the Internet and the other revolutionary technologies that define our era—and in this, they are not only able to compete with liberal democracies, but to run us over casually and leave us as roadkill.
The so-called techno-dystopians—for example, Evgeny Morozov—long warned of this. Morozov was quick to spot as cant the idea that the Internet would liberalize authoritarian regimes; he argued that it would be, instead, a powerful tool for mass surveillance, political repression, and spreading regime propaganda. He was right. (It is not incidental that Morozov is from Belarus. People who have lived under authoritarian regimes instinctively understand authoritarianism in ways Americans don’t—water, fishbowl, etc.).
Illiberal democrats quickly learn from one another these techniques for acquiring and keeping power. No such regime has been as successful as a liberal democracy—not, at least, if we define “success” as “creating broadly prosperous, fair, and humane societies.” But they have been far more successful than their totalitarian forebears, and they have been successful enough to be confusing—and tempting—to Westerners who are unsatisfied.
Simultaneously, the number of unsatisfied Westerners has risen dramatically. Liberal democracy has suffered a devastating crisis of confidence and prestige. Although our loss of faith in liberal democracy is vastly disproportionate, it is not without cause. A series of real failures have devastated our confidence—and the world’s—in our system of governance. Above all, the 2007 financial crisis and its sequelae, and the West’s inability decisively to win any of the conventional wars it has undertaken since September 11, have shattered our faith.
Elected governments have failed effectively to respond to the disruptive effects of globalization and technological change. They have presided as well over growing inequality of wealth, and a stagnation—for many—in standards of living. Whereas previous generations enjoyed large increases in their standard of living from one generation to the next, this is no longer the case.2 We have real enough cause for complaint. So on the one hand we have growingly unsatisfied, growingly stupid Westerners. On the other, we have the recipe—a dangerous combination.
The recipe is as effective as it is for reasons that are profoundly ironic. A century of American efforts to promote democracy—through example, persuasion, propaganda, rifles, and bombs—was phenomenally successful. We won. The United States persuaded the better part of the world that democracy and only democracy—the holding of regular elections—confers legitimacy upon a regime.
We failed to realize, however, how easily democracy could be divorced from the liberal consensus that had for generations underpinned the American experiment. For no good reason at all—and certainly contrary to everything the founders of the United States knew and believed—we convinced ourselves that “democracy” entailed these values. So gravely did we conflate democracy and liberalism, not only in our own minds, but in the minds of most of the world, that we achieved the most bitter of foreign policy victories, a victory we cannot even really describe, because our vocabulary is no longer adequate to describe it. Somehow, we succeeded in making the world safe for democracy and lethal to freedom.
Nothing quite like this form of authoritarianism has been seen before in human history, which is one reason we have been so slow to recognize it and sense its dangers. Unlike such totalitarians as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot—or the 20th century fascist and military regimes such as Franco’s or Pinochet’s—the New Caesars’ regimes rest upon on elections and propaganda, not violence. Because we have been so successful in promoting the idea that elections confer legitimacy, they are widely viewed by the public as legitimate—even as they systematically destroy the institutions that make democracy meaningful.
They do not come to power through coups. They do not rely upon mass terror, killing, martial law, mass arrests, or summary executions to solidify their control. They studied the failures of those regimes and learned from them: They appreciate not only that regimes based chiefly on violence were moral horror, but they do not work, instrumentally, to secure either the regime’s aims or the regime itself. Gulags and killing fields are not necessary, because the New Caesar’s aims, for their aims, unlike their totalitarian forebears, are modest. The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century sought to transform the human soul. The New Caesars seek only to boost their popularity ratings.
Violence and terror are in the regime’s toolkit, to be sure. But unlike their forebears, who proudly displayed the state’s capacity for violence pour encourager les autres, the New Caesars tend to hide their hand in political murders, which become “unsolved mysteries.” Murder it is the seasoning, not the meat; it is reserved, in the main, for disfavoured minority groups, dissidents, and journalists. (They cultivate a special loathing of journalists—they are perennially accused of bias, treason, or lack of patriotism—to the point that the public is rarely overly exercised when occasionally journalists meet with misfortune.) The public, generally, understands that the people who get whacked are not really people like them, and thus that they have no special reason to fear. If you don’t mess with Caesar, he won’t mess with you.
Rarely do they kill opponents outright. Instead they harass them, humiliate them, or accuse them of fabricated crimes. Where 20th Century dictators would have thrown a dissident from a helicopter into shark-infested waters, a New Caesar will hack their iPhones, commandeer the camera, and leak the inevitable sex tape to their cronies in the media.
When things are functioning properly, little violence is needed, because the New Caesars are genuinely popular. Voters believe they are doing a good job—particularly compared to the leaders of other countries, whom they believe to be making of things an anarchic mess. But why are they so popular? Why do the people believe other leaders are making of things an anarchic mess?
This is an important question.
The political technologists
Consider Bertolt Brecht’s response to the East Berlin rising in 1953:
The Secretary of the Authors’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Which said that the people
Had forfeited the government's confidence
And could only win it back
By redoubled labour. Wouldn't it
Be simpler in that case if the government
Dissolved the people and
We now live in an era where this isn’t a joke. In effect, the New Caesars dissolve the people and elect another—or more precisely, they systematically re-engineer the public’s beliefs about reality. This sophisticated ability to control what the public knows is the essence of New Caesarism. They do not rely upon the traditional clumsy tools of censorship to achieve this—or at least, they do not rely primarily on those tools. Instead, they shape the information environment by exploiting the effect that the 21st century’s communication technologies have on our attention.
As the sociologist Zeynep Tufekçi has put it, and it is a profound observation, the Internet has created a world in which information is abundant but attention scarce. If the political implications of this aren’t immediately clear, consider her exchange with this interlocutor on Twitter:
@dansinker: Without Trump's Hamilton tweets, we'd all be talking about the $25M he just shelled out to settle the Trump University lawsuit huh?
@Zeynep: Or fifty other key things after an election. Controlling attention is power—21st century goes to those who get this.
The large majority of the world now receives all of its information through a handful of technology monopolies: Google and Facebook, primarily. Facebook has become the world’s de facto public square. Facebook is designed—this is its business model, not a bug—to seize your attention and hold it as long as possible. The longer you are on the site, the more likely it is that you will click on the ads. All of their exceptionally sophisticated algorithms serve this end, and this is why they collect an enormous amount of political and social information about you: They are collecting it so better to figure out what will make you click on the ads.
Putin’s insight—and it is pretty obvious, really, so perhaps we should not call it an insight of genius, but it was certainly an insight of significance—was that this technology, which everyone loves, and to which everyone is addicted, could be used to conduct surveillance on a hitherto unimaginable scale and transform the electorate’s view of the world.
The New Caesars are thus the first Caesaars in history who don’t need violence to ensure that no opposition party wins an election, no protest movement gets off the ground. All they need to do is target their citizens attention by controlling key information networks—search engines, hosting sites, and social media—and thereby keep them so distracted that they pay no attention to opposition and protest movements. In an attention-scarce world, you don’t need to kill a dissenter to suppress his voice. You just need to flood the Internet with something more entertaining—real or fake, it doesn’t matter, so long as it’s more interesting than a dissenting opinion. Atrocity stories are particularly good for this purpose.
The New Caesars closely studied the failure of their predecessors’ propaganda efforts and learned from them. The Soviet Union’s propaganda, for example, was notoriously not only untruthful, but wooden, stilted, and boring—this to the point that it was endlessly parodied. Every American who grew up in the 1980s remembers the Wendy’s Soviet Fashion Show commercial, which was indeed extremely close to the way the Soviet Union portrayed itself—and to the way it really was. American culture, by contrast, was our propaganda: The full creative apparatus of American capitalism gave flower to the world’s best entertainment industry; entertainment was one of our leading global exports, and no one could take their eyes off of it. Not only did it show the world how wealthy our country was, it showed them how much more fun we were having. When the Berlin Wall fell and the prisoners behind it were liberated, they ran straight toward the Playboy and the Levis.
The new Russian propaganda is nothing like grim Soviet propaganda. It is equally untruthful, but it turns out that this doesn’t matter as much as we assumed. The Putin regime understands that propaganda must entertain—indeed, new authoritarian regimes everywhere understand that theirs must be regimes of endless amusement and spectacle. Russian propaganda has become brilliant: sly, ironic, creative. The low end is inspired by the lowest (and most compulsively readable) specimens of the West’s tabloid press. The high end is a note-perfect parody of modern Western political science journals, packed with the same kind of mindless jargon and ornamental statistics. Sophisticated readers can of course distinguish them at first glance: Russian journals aren’t behind a paywall. That would defeat their point. But most readers are not sophisticated, and to them, these look like very excellent and authoritative sources.
For every new authoritarian regime you might wish to study, there is what appears to be a serious academic journal, or many of them, produced by institutions that look like serious think tanks, complete with pedigreed scholars and a board of directors, indeed often with a few well-paid Western scholars on board. They are almost indistinguishable from real think tanks and real scholarly publications (which is as much to the discredit of those thinks tanks and scholarly publications as it is to the credit of their impersonators)—save for their tendency to publish articles sympathetic to the regime. They tend not to be universally sympathetic: There is usually a piece or two meant to create the appearance of serious dissent. You will find both these sleazy, compulsively readable tabloids and these sophisticated, pseudo-academic journals very easily; if there’s anything these regimes are good at, it’s search engine optimization. Economists, historians and other scholars throughout the West are paid by Russians (and Turks, and other such states) to spread the regime line at conferences and on their blogs. This is particularly effective, because our own knowledge economy has collapsed, putting hundreds of thousands of journalists and academics out of work, or on the ragged edge of economic insecurity. What these regimes are offering is just too tempting, and they are exceptionally good at devising face-saving schemes for purchasing influence.
The New Caesars 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 propaganda budgets of these regimes are breathtaking; in fact, the percentage of the public budget devoted to this effort is an objective measure by which such a regime may be recognized. Their ability to tap state budgets in the propaganda effort permits them to obliterate political rivals who don’t possess the financial means to mount an equivalent operation. The aim of the propaganda is to create demand for political actions that only an illiberal regime could satisfy, ensure the public has no clue what is true and what is not, offer a wildly inflated impression of the regime’s competence and performance, a wildly deflated view of life in other countries, and get the regime elected and re-elected, forever.
Russia Today—alone—has an annual budget on the order of $300-400 million—comparable to the budget for the BBC world service. If you include ITAR-TASS, Ria, a dozen TV channels, Zvezda, and many other outlets devoted to reality-manufacturing, it easily adds up to four billion dollars. But this isn’t counting the thousands upon thousands of paid Russian trolls and the millions of bots who people everyone’s social media timeline, the comments on YouTube, and newspaper comments sections in every language—which is where the real action is, anyway.
The New Caesars must bring the Internet under total political control while maintaining the fiction that access to it is unimpeded. Old-style dictators suppress the Internet tout court—or, in China’s case, build a parallel system. The New Caesars understand that Internet access is essential to participation in the global economy and the illusion of pluralism. So the Internet in seems free enough, on first inspection—until you poke around a bit and discover that large parts of it have disappeared. This can be subtle: I’d been reporting for years on the censorship of the Internet in Turkey, but still had no idea how pervasive it was until I flew to Delhi, in 2013, checked the news from Turkey (as was my daily habit), and suddenly saw that everything had changed. A host of sites I’d never seen before turned up in my Google search results. It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder, in Turkey, why I couldn’t access those websites, because I hadn’t known they existed in the first place. If this was true of me—an American investigative journalist with a keen interest in Internet censorship in Turkey—imagine how true it is of Turkish villagers who, like most Turks, have never travelled outside their country. How could they have a clue that they’re the only people in the world who can’t read the tens of thousands of sites about Turkey the government blocks—including those of Turkish civil society organizations and opposition parties?
They do this lawfully: Regimes like this tend to take great care to maintain the illusion of rule of law. They pass legislation that incidentally—this part is in the fine print—allows the authorities, without a court order, to block web pages and collect users’ browsing histories. Inevitably, the more technologically sophisticated human rights group or press freedom advocates try to point out the danger of that fine print, they try to make the public aware that the state has just arrogated to itself the power to decide what citizens will or won’t know, that to have this ability in the 21st century means total information control. But the regime always wins, and wins handily. They always offer the same argument: It is essential to the fight against terrorism. If protesters kick up too much of a fuss, the regime brings out the big bazooka: the words “child porn.” That always works. Don’t you realize what’s on the Internet? We must protect our children! And true enough: The second parents get a look at what’s on the Internet, they beg the government to censor it.
Large hosting platforms cooperate enthusiastically with this kind of censorship, selectively filtering content in response to regime requests. Geolocational filtering allows companies like Facebook to block content that is illegal in one country without removing the content globally. YouTube has used geolocational filtering this since 2007, and Twitter since 2012. Articles I’ve written about Turkey have even disappeared from American news sites—that’s how easy it is for the regime to get them taken down. A lawyer sends a letter to the hosting service warning that they’ll sue for “defamation.” The hosting service caves instantly, because hosting services aren’t in the business of protecting freedom of expression. They don’t want legal fees and hassles. Another common tactic is to disrupt the content host’s server through DDoS attacks or targeted hacking. There are a million ways to make information and dissenting views disappear in the Internet age—but the best one is distraction.
The Russian regime speaks of information, Peter Pomeransov has written, “not in the familiar terms of ‘persuasion,’ ‘public diplomacy,’ or even ‘propaganda,’ but in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert, and paralyze.” In the early 2000s, the regime established the “web brigade” (Веб-бригады)—the infamous troll army. The army churns out pro-government views around the clock. It simply drowns out voices the regime doesn’t want people to hear, usually with floods of pure distraction. The Internet Research Agency, in St. Peterburg, produces content for every popular social media network in Russia, as well as the comments sections of all its newspapers:
Every day at the Internet Research Agency was essentially the same, Savchuk told me. The first thing employees did upon arriving at their desks was to switch on an Internet proxy service, which hid their I.P. addresses from the places they posted; those digital addresses can sometimes be used to reveal the real identity of the poster. Savchuk would be given a list of the opinions she was responsible for promulgating that day. Workers received a constant stream of “technical tasks” — point-by-point exegeses of the themes they were to address, all pegged to the latest news. Ukraine was always a major topic, because of the civil war there between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian Army; Savchuk and her co-workers would post comments that disparaged the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and highlighted Ukrainian Army atrocities. Russian domestic affairs were also a major topic. Last year, after a financial crisis hit Russia and the ruble collapsed, the professional trolls left optimistic posts about the pace of recovery. Savchuk also says that in March, after the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered, she and her entire team were moved to the department that left comments on the websites of Russian news outlets and ordered to suggest that the opposition itself had set up the murder.
“There are three hallmarks of the Russian approach,” writes Tim Wu of the Knight First Amendment Institute:
The first is obscuring the government’s influence. The hand of the Kremlin is not explicit; funding comes from “pro-Kremlin” groups or nonprofits, and those involved usually disclaim any formal association with the Russian state. In addition, individuals sympathetic to the cause often join as de facto volunteers. The second is the use of vicious, swarm-like attacks over email, telephone, or social media to harass and humiliate critics of Russian policies or President Putin. While the online hate mob is certainly not a Russian invention, its deployment for such political objectives seems to be a novel development. The third hallmark is its international scope. Although these techniques have mainly been used domestically in Russia, they have also been employed against political opponents elsewhere in the world, including in the Ukraine and in countries like Finland, where trolls savagely attacked journalists who favored joining NATO (or questioned Russian efforts to influence that decision). Likewise, these tactics have been deployed in the United States, where paid Russian trolls targeted the 2016 presidential campaign.
The regime’s goal in tracking and harassing dissenters is not to censor them, per se, but to create a climate in which self-censorship is a reflex. It’s messy to put journalists in jail and makes for awkward conversations at the G20 after-parties. It’s much better and simpler for everyone to know what not to say in the first place. It really doesn’t take much to persuade people that speaking out isn’t worth the hassle or the risk—especially when there are such enticing rewards for loyalty to the regime. Play by the rules, win your government contract, retire to a handsome dacha on the Black Sea. Make a nuisance of yourself and not only will you and your family live in poverty, but the whole world will learn about your keen interest in Japanese tentacle porn.
Russia’s techniques have been studied, admired, and emulated the world around. The Turkish government was an early adopter. As Tufekçi has written, and as I can personally confirm, critics of the Turkish state confront “an enormous increase in challenges to their credibility [on social media], ranging from reasonable questions to outrageous and clearly false accusations.”
These took place using the same channels, and even the same methods, that a social movement might have used to challenge false claims by authorities. …[The goal is to create] an ever-bigger glut of mashed-up truth and falsehood to foment confusion and distraction [and] overwhelm people with so many pieces of bad and disturbing information that they become confused and give up trying to figure out what the truth might be—or even the possibility of finding out what is true.
Again, it’s not incidental that Tufekçi is from Turkey. People who grew up under authoritarian regimes sensed what they would do with this technology well before any American did, and they warned of it as loudly as they could. We lacked the imagination to take them seriously.
Inherently—by their nature—liberal democracies cannot compete with governments that are prepared to weaponize information. Governments of liberal democracies spin, shape, and manipulate the news, to be sure, but they can’t simply to invent it out of whole cloth. They are too constrained by liberal norms and laws and the reality of a real opposition press. The New Caesars are utterly unconstrained. We’ve been slow to realize the significance of this because we’ve been looking for the wrong thing—we’ve been looking for Soviet-style censorship, for heroic dissidents who pass around precious, smuggled Samizdat, for old-style propaganda slogans and posters: With what marvellous speed the Uzbek farmer has flourished and blossomed under the gentle sun of Soviet nationality policy! But that’s not what it looks like at all. There are a plethora of newspapers and television stations; some are even highly critical of the government. These allow the regime to insist that the press is free—look at the terrible things they write about us!—even as journalists languish in prison. Television news, especially, tends to be exceedingly slick. The high production values and the entertaining content reassure: This is nothing like the controlled media of yore—no, this is modern; why, it looks just like our media. “Vibrant!” the Economist says. (For some reason, they always use the word “vibrant.” The word is always a dead giveaway. If your country’s press is described as “vibrant” in the Economist, you’re in deep trouble.)
What you don’t see is that the state or its oligarchical allies own, or have co-opted, all the key sectors of the media. Yes, independent and critical outlets survive, but they can’t reach wide audiences and they have little influence. Putin, as always, pioneered the strategy that every aspiring Caesar now follows. Immediately upon taking power, he delivered a solemn address on national television: “The state,” he intoned, “will stand firm to protect the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, the freedom of the mass media, ownership rights, these fundamental elements of a civilized society.” By the end of the year, not a single one of Russia’s major television stations was still independent. Through intimidation and bribery, he persuaded the media moguls to surrender their outlets directly to state-owned corporations or his political cronies. NTV—Russia’s lone independent television channel—was taken off the air mid-broadcast. It is now part of Gazprom, the state-controlled gas giant. Jeffrey Gedmin, the former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, puts it thus:
Putin is not the leader of the Soviet Union and that is meant in more ways than one. This is not a communist totalitarian state in a pre-high-tech era where he could block, and jam, and manage, and control the information space. But what has he done? He has decided that mass media is very important in Russia, television. He has decided that small print publications with modest circulation where intellectuals publish is less important, tolerate that a little bit. What he’s done is he's created the image or the idea of pluralism.
Aspiring Caesars around the world were fascinated by Putin’s achievement, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan studied it with special diligence. When his AKP party took power in Turkey, four large private groups owned almost all the country’s media. The largest was the Doğan group, which controlled some 70 percent of the nation's print and broadcast outlets. In 2007, its outlets began reporting details of the Deniz Feneri scandal, the biggest charity corruption case in German history. Billions of dollars raised by this Islamist charity, Doğan newspapers reported, had found their way into AKP coffers. Soon thereafter, the Turkish Ministry of Finance began investigating the group, then levied upon it the largest tax fine ever assessed on a Turkish company.
The Doğan group also has massive investments in energy, trade, finance, insurance, and tourism—businesses that are heavily reliant on the good favor of government regulators. Among other ventures, Doğan was the developer of a strikingly large and tasteless building in Istanbul’s commercial district, one that could not possibly have been built without the greasing of many a palm and the blessing of many a bureaucrat. Imagine you’re a businessman, responsible to your board of directors and your shareholders. What sounds like a better plan: Get taxed into oblivion for reporting on Tayyip’s shady campaign financing, or shut up about that and get a permit to build Trump Towers Istanbul?
When Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010, he immediately passed new media legislation—a “corrective,” he said, to the media’s leftist bias. The law was modelled on Putin’s example, particularly in the vagueness of its language. It required the media to be “balanced”—whatever that means. Those who violated the law faced steep fines. Step by step, Orbán taxed, fined, and purged the opposition media into oblivion. Last July, the Austrian publisher Russmedia sold the remaining independent local papers—Hajdu-Bihari Naplo, Eszak-Magyarorszag and Kelet-Magyarorszag—to Orbáncrony Heinrich Pecina. Oligarchs close to the Fidesz party now own or control 90 percent of the Hungarian media. Yes, of course Orbán wins election after election. How would anyone in Hungary know one single thing that he doesn’t want them to know?
Orbán’s party won a two-thirds majority in parliament in 2014. “It was this majority,” reports Newsweek, “that allowed Orbán to change the Hungarian constitution and systematically dismantle democratic institutions—including the constitutional court and the civil service—that challenged his power.” Note the language: “democratic institutions.” We must start calling these what they are—liberal institutions. Why? Because otherwise, we wind up with garbled nonsense like this: “[The] rise and reign of Orbán,” Newsweek continues, “… has been achieved for the most part democratically and on the back of genuine support from millions of Hungarians.” The word democratically, as used here, is an affirmation of legitimacy. If we keep exporting the idea that democracy equals legitimacy, we will keep making the world safe for democracy but lethal to freedom.
The advent of the Internet gives the New Caesars another advantage their predecessors could not have hoped to have: The ability simply to bypass or marginalize the traditional custodians and gatekeepers of public knowledge—the established media, academia, and other authority figures. Meanwhile, these regimes systematically discredit those traditional gatekeepers of knowledge: They are portrayed as inherently, structurally hostile to true democracy—to the Peoples’ Will.
But above all, the Internet gives these regimes tools of total surveillance the likes of which the Stasi could not even have dreamt. We all live on the Internet now—and we are all an open book. It’s trivially easy to hack into a smart phone, and no one can participate in the modern world without one. The Stasi had to actually break into people’s homes to install listening devices. We cheerfully pay for our listening devices—we line up for the latest model, we cannot be separated from them, we carry them everywhere, we tell them everything. These regimes don’t even have to invest the money to develop their own technology to track their citizens’ every thought and move—the commercial market for computer and cell phone surveillance tools is massive, worth an estimated $5 billion, and we’re the market leaders.
There is no one—no one—who doesn’t have an embarrassing secret. Once upon a time, there was a world in which authoritarians had to work to figure out what they were. They had to spend time, money, effort, perhaps even take a bit of risk—citizens had some hope of privacy, if only because it would take too much time, you would need too many people, to listen to everyone’s phone calls, all the time. Not anymore. Now it can be done with robots. Voice-recognition software is growing better by the day. We’ve created a world where there is truly only one way to keep those secrets off the front page of the local newspaper: Keep your head down. If your profile is low enough, no one will care about you. Don’t mess with Caesar and he won’t mess with you. Who is going to think, “You know, I don’t like Putin’s policies. I’m going to run for office against him” in such a climate? Who is going to think, “I’m sure other people are dissatisfied with his policies, too. I know what to do: I’ll speak out against him and organize a protest.” (Said Trump: “He’s got an 80 percent approval rating done by pollsters from, I understand, this country. Okay? So it’s not even done by his pollsters. He’s very popular within Russia.” Do you imagine that Donald Trump was merely naïve about how Putin achieves this? Think about it: He and Putin shared a campaign manager.)
But don’t citizens dislike this constant surveillance? Don’t they yearn to be free? Not so much, it seems. Think about it: Chances are, you’ve given Facebook enough personal information about yourself that it can figure out whether you’re pregnant before you do. Do you hate the fact that such a powerful, unaccountable organization is tracking your every move? Do you yearn to be free? Probably not that much. Almost certainly you wouldn’t risk your life, or your career—or your children’s life and careers—to put an end to it. We’ve created astonishingly attractive tools of total surveillance, tools people just can’t resist. We’ve all simply accepted that this means the end of privacy—even in the freest countries in the world, we all grasp the principle: Our security rests on keeping a low enough profile that no one can really be bothered to destroy us.
Life in New Caesarstan
Because winning elections is the key to their legitimacy, the New Caesars are exceptionally skilled at doing so. Their professional political operatives—in Russia, they’re called “political technologists”—are as sophisticated and industrious as their counterparts in the United States. Their goal is not to win an election as we would generally understand it—that is, one in which the outcome is uncertain until election day. It is to organize a system that appears to be genuinely competitive while ensuring that it is no such thing. As Freedom House noted, when in 2011 members of the Russian opposition obtained video evidence of ballot stuffing by Putin’s United Russia party, Putin was outraged, although not for the reasons we might expect. He was livid because it signified the party’s complacency and laziness. If you have to resort to ballot stuffing, you’ve allowed things to get entirely out of hand. The outcome of the election should have been fixed well before election day, and it should have been done elegantly, not crudely—through laws and policies that guaranteed the opposition stood no chance.
Precisely because their legitimacy rests upon democracy, the New Caesars are keen to cultivate the illusion of pluralism. Opposition parties are of course allowed to participate in regular elections. Often they campaign noisily and vigorously. It would not be obvious to a casual visitor that the opposition has been co-opted or defanged. But it has been.
How so? First, as we’ve seen, through the state’s control of the media—and thus reality. Next, and just as importantly, through the state’s control of the economy. What’s confusing here is that the economy, on superficial inspection, looks free enough, or at least bon pour l’orient, as the French colonialists would have had it. The New Caesars have no interest in command economies or autarky; to the contrary, they cultivate extensive economic connections with the rest of the world—those promises to end globalization disappear after election day; they either knew full well to begin with, or realize quickly, that fulfilling those promises would swiftly bring the economy to its knees. They welcome foreign investment. Indeed, these regimes tend to hire the best in the West and learn from them. In particular, they hire high-powered Western election consultants, PR firms, and advertising agencies. (Of course Ukraine hired Paul Manafort. He comes with is a double benefit. He’s good at getting Russia’s kleptocrats elected, and he’s a walking tutorial in state-of-the-art American techniques in election manipulation. That kind of knowledge is invaluable when you’re ready to graduate from manipulating Ukraine’s elections to manipulating American ones. To call such regimes undemocratic is absurd: They are completely committed to holding elections and doing whatever it takes to win both theirs and ours.)
Because they are open to the global economy, such regimes are not only more prosperous than their miserable communist forebears, but less apt to invite foreign criticism and pressure to reform. Welcoming foreign investment bolsters the regime’s claim to legitimacy, domestically and abroad. “Don’t be silly, of course we are free,” it proclaims; “Don’t you see we have a free market?” A corrupt one, to be sure, but free enough to persuade global capital that the country is “on the right path,” or “a promising emerging investment opportunity.” Western investors can make money in these countries. Shrewd ones can make a lot—and that kind of money translates into lobbying power in Congress and perennial optimism about Russia’s (or Turkey’s, or Poland’s) nascent democracy.
Behind this illusion, however, state enterprises and crony tycoons dominate the economy. With the assistance of a compliant judiciary, the New Caesars and their corrupt entourage set the price of participation: The price is loyalty to the regime. So the punishments for dissent are subtler than they used to be—there’s less of the business with the helicopters and the sharks. But the tax authorities scrutinize your accounts with unusual zeal. Your firm never wins government contracts. Zoning laws that don’t apply to loyalists apply to you.
The rewards for cooperation aren’t subtle at all, however. If you are an important player and you support the government, you will have a an oil pipeline, a timber forest, a platinum mine, a football club, a real-estate company incorporated in Cyprus, a home in an upscale neighborhood in London with Carrara marble countertops, a terrific mistress or three—underage gymnasts, perhaps—whatever you need. Precisely because the economy is open to global investment, there is always enough cash on hand to buy off or corrupt a challenger who might actually be on the verge of becoming genuinely popular.
What about civil society? As with the media, a superficial inspection might persuade you that it’s doing well enough. Most NGOs are welcome to set up shop—they’re proof of the country’s “vibrant civil society.” And true enough, civil society organizations that specialize in health issues, say, or education, are warmly received. But life is a bit more challenging for the ones that focus on human rights or political reform. Russia, for example, has passed extensive legislation regulating and limiting the funding of NGOs. Vaguely worded laws, shepherded through rubber-stamp parliament and enforced by a pliant judiciary, allow these regimes to maintain the twin fiction of rule of law and vibrant civil society—and to harass any serious challengers to the point that they go broke and give up.
The final commonality among these regimes is the most important to grasp. They are structurally hostile to liberal democracy. They will work strenuously to undermine liberal democracies, and cooperate with one another opportunistically to this end.
By structurally hostile, I mean this: To survive, these regimes must discredit liberal democracy. Why? Precisely because illiberal democracies are genuinely democratic. Someone like Putin, for example, cannot afford to just let us be, because Russians vote. They are not, like North Koreans, hermetically sealed from the world. You can only shape people’s beliefs up to a point. Information enters the country; Russians travel abroad. If the Russian people come widely to believe that liberal societies are vastly more successful, they will insist upon Russia’s liberalization, which would spell Putin’s doom. Chaos and dysfunction in liberal democracies are necessary to the argument the Kremlin makes to the Russian public; to wit, that liberalism does not work there, and it will not work here. Because he cannot jam or switch off all knowledge of the external world, as his totalitarian predecessors could, this means that it is essential to his regime’s survival that liberal democracies genuinely be in a state of chaos and dysfunction, so that Russians, and the world over which Russia seeks to exert its influence, can watch this dysfunction endlessly on our own television news channels, to which of course (being a free society) they have unimpeded access on the Internet.
This is why, as it is all-too-slowly dawning on us, Russia spends billions to influence the West’s information environment. The goal is just to create the biggest mess he can create. The West must be in a state of chaos and dysfunction.
Thus they study and prey on the inevitable divisions and grievances of the countries they then saturate in propaganda. They have aided—to a degree that can’t be quantified, but is surely considerable—the transformation of mainstream American conservatism into the hellish political incubus it has become. What’s critical here is how easy it is for them to do this. The Soviet Union pursued the same aims, using the same techniques. They planted false stories in newspapers abroad; they spread rumors; they stoked racial and ethnic tensions. But this was done by a small division—Service A—of highly trained and skilled operatives who worked abroad under obviously dangerous conditions. The same job can now be done from a basement in Moscow—by robots. Russia’s budget for overseas propaganda operations now massively exceeds the Soviet Union’s—and they are get so much more bang for the buck out of it.
Because Russia is exceptionally experienced and skilled in information warfare, Russia’s efforts to undermine our stability now pose the primary threat to liberal democracy—what’s left of it. But all illiberal democracies will strive to undermine liberal democracies just as Russia does, because they are all under the same constraint. We should expect them all to do so in the future—in the same way—particularly since they have now seen how easy it is to do. We should also expect such regimes to cooperate opportunistically to our detriment, even if the geopolitical logic of such their alliance isn’t immediately obvious. We should expect, for example, these regimes systematically to work to undermine international human rights bodies, treaties, and norms. They will disparage these as interference in their “internal affairs,” or attacks on their “sovereignty.” They will support each other in undermining every institution, norm, and treaty upon which the liberal order was built. We have already seen a critical such norm destroyed—the Geneva Convention on refugees. Much more is to come.
It is essential that we understand this. We must not naively imagine that our relationship with illiberal democracies will improve if we cede to them their sphere of influence and mind our own business. Hostility to liberal democracy is an essential, not an optional, element of this regime type. Just as capitalism and communism were inherently hostile, liberalism and illiberalism are inherently hostile. For their regimes to succeed—for the New Caesars to gain and wield as much power as possible within the formal parameters of democracy—our regimes must fail.
It is almost needless to say at this point that the rise of this type of regime in Russia, Turkey, and Eastern Europe is a significant threat to the unity and political stability of Europe, in particular, and to liberal democracy’s strength and global influence, everywhere. But we do not yet seem to grasp it. Throughout the Cold War, it was widely understood in the West that communism was a serious competitor to liberal democracy. Western statesmen, and ordinary citizens in Western countries, correctly appreciated that communism was an intellectual competitor, in that the ideology purported to explain the world—its history and trajectory—more accurately than liberal democracy; it was a moral competitor, in that it purported to be a superior solution to eternal human problems; and it was a power competitor, in that states such as the Soviet Union and China advanced their national interests under the banner of this ideology. Every American who grew up during the Cold War understood that our system of governance had a rival. We took this rival seriously. We were uneasily aware that liberal democracy could lose to it, and we struggled to ensure it would not.
The New Caesarism, too, is a deadly serious competitor. Powerful states have harnessed this ideology—as they did fascism and communism before it—to serve their interests globally. The implications of this still do not seem clear to us, even as the headlines daily reveal more evidence about the extent of Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections. We listen thoughtfully to scholars who tell us we have succumbed to Cold War propaganda, that Russia no longer poses the threat it did in the Soviet era because its rulers no longer embrace an ideology that pretends to universalism. This is wrong. They do and it does.
When Secretary of State John Kerry said of Russia, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” he revealed a world of incomprehension. That’s exactly how states will behave in the 21st century. We cannot afford this kind of incomprehension: It is precisely why we failed to anticipate Russia’s efforts to hijack our elections. It is why we were stunned. It is why we were defenceless. It is why we now find ourselves facing a disastrous constitutional crisis. These countries are not a group of benighted “backsliding” nations. They are the global vanguard, and they are our deadly enemies.
Liberal democracies possessed great inherent strengths compared to Soviet communism, particularly in their creativity, their openness to new ideas, and their economic dynamism. We still have these advantages. But liberal democracies have inherent weaknesses compared to illiberal democracies. Like judo masters, these regimes specialize in using our strengths against us. The simile is painfully apt in Putin’s case, and a journalistic cliché at that, given that he is literally a judo master, but it is indeed the right simile.
Like their authoritarian forebears, these states are, in reality, repressive, dangerous to their citizens and their neighbors, and an affront to human dignity. The nations in its thrall are neither happier, more prosperous, nor more decent than liberal democracies. To the contrary. But this does not matter. This did not prevent their forebears from advancing their interests through the vehicle of their ideology. The new authoritarian states are much better at doing this. The evidence of this is everywhere, but to start with the obvious, look at the Oval Office. Until very recently, this scenario was literally unimaginable, outside of fiction. The capture of the highest office in the land by a New Caesar—aided by Russia, the world’s foremost state sponsor of New Caesarism—has happened.
The reader may by now be suspecting, uneasily, that Donald Trump is reading from a script, down to the smallest details. They would be right. Every scene we’ve seen emanating from the White House is part of a movie that much of the world has already seen. It has been superficially adapted to American culture, but only superficially. Make a note of those metaphors: “This scene.” “This script.” They’re not careless or accidental. That’s a key aspect of the New Caesarism: the conflation of entertainment and politics.
Could it be a coincidence? Of course not. The New Caesars keenly study one another. They closely follow and emulate each other. They pass similar legislation. Putin’s Russia has been a model and inspiration to aspiring Caesars the world around. They carefully study the way he captured the media through state enterprises and oligarchic cronies. They model their laws on Russian laws designed to dismember civil society. They study his use of the judiciary as an instrument of harassment. They emulate his methods of propaganda and disinformation. Do you really think this idea just spontaneously popped out Donald Trump’s empty head?
@realDonaldTrump With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!
We have safeguards that few other countries have: Our founders deliberately built our country to be resistant to Caesarism. But too few of us understand these safeguards, or the ideas behind them—and many of the safeguards have already failed. We are in trouble.
 Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (Yale University Press, 2017).
 Adrien Chen, “The Agency,” The New York Times, June 2, 2015.
 Orlando Crowcroft, Viktor Orban: How One Man’s Will to Power Created 'Fuhrer Democracy' In Hungary, October 20, 2017.
 Cotton Delo, “Does Facebook Know You’re Pregnant?” AdAge, September 10, 2012.
 The UK is about to demonstrate what happens to a country that tries to make good on such promises. Ironically, it is because Britain is a liberal democracy, not a managed one, that its leadership is obliged to take the result of that referendum seriously. New Caesars do not willingly commit economic suicide.
This trend toward simplification has had an important secondary effect. Our entertainment industry has become so simplistic—and so violent, degraded, coarse, and stupid—that it is no longer functioning, as once it did, as an advertisement for our system of governance. To the contrary, we’re noisily pumping out propaganda against our way of life. If your assignment were to design a psy-op aimed at persuading the world that liberal democracy causes mental retardation, you could not excel the halftime show at the Superbowl. Most of the world is revolted by us—and truthfully, we are revolted by ourselves.
It is crucial, however, to remember that standards of living are nonetheless improving, albeit more slowly than they did before. The New Caesars argue that standards of living are declining—which is untrue—and tend to favor policies apt to slow or even reverse economic growth.