What Do Fascist Intellectuals Think About?
Over the weekend, Jason Wilson explained a term popular among right-wing self-styled intellectuals: red caesarism. The idea is that because “an entire cosmopolitan class that includes much of the entrenched bureaucracy, the military, the media, and government-sponsored corporations” opposes the right-wing anti-democratic project, they need a “post-Constitutional leader,” a dictator.
Wilson wrote that “For the last three years, parts of the American right have advocated a theory called Caesarism as an authoritarian solution to the claimed collapse of the US republic in conference rooms, podcasts and the house organs of the extreme right, especially those associated with the Claremont Institute thinktank. Though on the surface this discussion might seem esoteric, experts who track extremism in the US say that due to their influence on the Republican party, the rightwing intellectuals who espouse these ideas about the attractions of autocracy present a profound threat to American democracy.Their calls for a ‘red Caesar’ are now only growing louder as Donald Trump, whose supporters attempted to violently halt the election of Joe Biden in 2020, has assumed dominant frontrunner status in the 2024 Republican nomination race. Trump, who also faces multiple criminal indictments, has spoken openly of attacking the free press in the US and having little regard for American constitutional norms should he win the White House again.
The idea that the US might be redeemed by a Caesar— an authoritarian, rightwing leader— was first broached explicitly by Michael Anton, a sleazy former private equity executive for CitiGroup and BlackRock and Trump presidential advise, now ensconced at Claremont. He wrote speeches for Rupert Murdoch and Rudy Giuliani. Ardently anti-American and violently Islamophobic, Anton is an Italian-born neo-fascist who argues that “Diversity' is not 'our strength'; it's a source of weakness, tension and disunion.” A crackpot projectionist, he has long claimed Democrats financed by George Soros, are about to stage a coup.
“Anton,” wrote Wilson, “has been an influential rightwing intellectual since in 2016 penning ‘The Flight 93 Election,’ a rightwing essay in which he told conservatives who were squeamish about Trump ‘charge the cockpit or you die,’ referencing one of the hijacked flights of 9/11. He gave Caesarism a passing mention in that essay, but developed it further in his 2020 book, The Stakes, defining it as a ‘form of one-man rule: halfway… between monarchy and tyranny.’”
Anton and others in the Claremont milieu are not simply hypothesizing about the future: their dreams of Caesar arise from their dark view of the US.
Anton wrote the scene-setting essay in Up From Conservatism, an anthology of essays published this year and edited by the executive director of Claremont’s Center for the American Way of Life, Arthur Milikh.
In that essay Anton writes baldly that “the United States peaked around 1965,” and that Americans are ruled by “a network of unelected bureaucrats … corporate-tech-finance senior management, ‘experts’ who set the boundaries of acceptable opinion, and media figures who police those boundaries.”
His diagnosis of US social and cultural life unfolds under a series of subheadings that are almost comical in their disillusionment: “The universities have become evil,” “Our economy is fake,” “The people are corrupt,” “Our civilization has lost the will to live.”
Damon Linker, a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and an author of several books on the American right, was early in noticing the extreme right’s drift towards Caesarism.
Linker told The Guardian that Anton and others in the Claremont milieu “have convinced themselves thoroughly that the current order is decadent, corrupt and far removed from the proper, admirable origins of American government.”
Linker said their current view is related to a long-held position among Claremont scholars that “democracy as they understand has been supplanted by bureaucrats and entrenched executive branch departments.”
“The fact that Trump lost in 2020 has just radicalized a lot of these people— it occurred to them that they might not win a proper election again,” he said.
“That would mean that— excuse the language— they’re shit out of luck unless there’s some other path to power. That’s where Caesarism comes in.”
Linker said that the danger in such ideas is not that the American people will actively choose a dictatorship, but more in how they might shape the rightwing response to a future emergency.
“If Trump wins in 2024, what does the opposition do, and how does he respond?” Linker speculated. “Does he send in the troops? Does that lead to bigger protests?”
“If he then declares martial law, do these ideas prepare people in the Republican party to say, ‘Well, we need law and order’?,” Linker asked.
“Does Trump then listen to people like Michael Anton and his friends about the need to perhaps cancel the next election?”
Underlining this danger is the fact that Caesarism has won converts beyond Claremont as a solution to perceived decadence and the declining electoral appeal of far-right ideas.
Charles Haywood, a former industrialist the Guardian exposed last month as the founder of a secretive fraternal lodge and a would-be warlord, wrote in 2021 that “I like, if not love, the idea of Red Caesar” since “Caesarism, and its time-legitimated successor, monarchy, is a natural, realism-based system, under which a civilization can flourish.”
The idea has been lodged in the broader sphere of conservative debate in rightwing writer Stephen Wolfe’s book The Case for Christian Nationalism, in which he proposes a “Christian prince” whose rule would be “a measured and theocratic Caesarism,” and might perhaps be installed by “a just revolution” against secular rule.
…For Linker, the author and lecturer, a far-right dictatorship remains “a tail-end, worst-case scenario,” but one that is more realistic in the US now than it has been for many decades.
“Thirty years ago, if I told you that a bunch of billionaires and intellectuals on the right are waiting in the wings to impose a dictatorship on the United States, you would have said that I was insane,” he said.
“But it’s no longer insane. It’s now real. There are those people out there,” Linker added. “The question is: will they get their chance.”
Jake Tapper interviewed former Trump chief of staff John Kelly yesterday. Asked if he wanted to weigh in on his former boss in light of recent comments made by other former Trump officials, Kelly let loose. “What can I add that has not already been said? A person that thinks those who defend their country in uniform, or are shot down or seriously wounded in combat, or spend years being tortured as POWs are all ‘suckers’ because ‘there is nothing in it for them.’ A person that did not want to be seen in the presence of military amputees because ‘it doesn’t look good for me.’ A person who demonstrated open contempt for a Gold Star family— for all Gold Star families— on TV during the 2016 campaign, and rants that our most precious heroes who gave their lives in America’s defense are ‘losers’ and wouldn’t visit their graves in France. A person who is not truthful regarding his position on the protection of unborn life, on women, on minorities, on evangelical Christians, on Jews, on working men and women. A person that has no idea what America stands for and has no idea what America is all about. A person who cavalierly suggests that a selfless warrior who has served his country for 40 years in peacetime and war should lose his life for treason— in expectation that someone will take action. A person who admires autocrats and murderous dictators. A person that has nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution, and the rule of law. There is nothing more that can be said. God help us.”
Now keep that within the context of the possibility of Trump winning. Sunday, Brian Klaas— in The Case for Amplifying Trump's Insanity— noted that part of the Trump Horror can be lain at the feet of the media. “We live,” he wrote, “in dangerous times— when citizens need top quality information to make informed, wise choices. But the press is failing to meet the moment. This isn’t some cheap shot at ‘the media.’ It’s a good faith critique of a key democratic institution that hasn’t adapted enough to a dangerous authoritarian threat. There are now two leading candidates for the American presidency. One of them is a 77 year-old racist, misogynist bigot who has been found liable for rape, who incited a deadly, violent insurrection aimed at overturning a democratic election, who has committed mass fraud for personal enrichment, who is facing 91 separate counts of felony criminal charges against him, and who has overtly discussed his authoritarian strategies for governing if he returns to power. The other is 80 years old with mainstream Democratic party views who sometimes misspeaks or trips. (There may be other reasons to criticize Joe Biden, but the main one discussed in the press is his age). One of those two candidates faces relentless newspaper columns and TV pundit ‘takes’ arguing that he should drop out of the race. (Spoiler alert: it’s somehow not the racist authoritarian sexual abuse fraudster facing 91 felony charges).
How is it possible that it’s not front page news when a man who soon may return to power calls for law enforcement to kill people for minor crimes? And why do so few people question Trump’s mental acuity rather than Biden’s, when Trump proposes delusional, unhinged plans for forest management and warns his supporters that Biden is going to lead us into World War II (which would require a time machine), or wrongly claims that he defeated Barack Obama in 2016.
On the political left, there has long been a steady drumbeat of admonishment on social media for those who highlight Trump’s awful rhetoric. Whenever I tweet about Trump’s dangerous language, there’s always the predictable refrain from someone who replies: “Don’t amplify him! You’re just spreading his message.”
The press, to an astonishing extent, has followed that admonishment. I looked at the New York Times for mention of Trump calling to execute shoplifters, or water the forests, or how he thinks an 82 year-old man getting his skull smashed in his own home by a lunatic with a hammer is hilarious. Nothing. I couldn’t find it.
This approach has backfired. It’s bad for democracy. The “Don’t Amplify Him” argument is disastrous. We need to amplify Trump’s vile rhetoric more, because it will turn persuadable voters off to his cruel message.
Right now, Trump is still popular, still getting his message out. The people most likely to be radicalized by him, or to act on his incitement already hear him loud and clear.
Meanwhile, with the broader public, he’s on pace to either win, or to turn the 2024 election into a nail-biter. But here’s the truth: when the press doesn’t cover his deranged incitements to violence, people who follow politics closely still find out about it. I knew about Trump’s Friday night speech. You may have heard of it. But what percentage of the US public knows about him calling to execute a general? Five percent? Less?
Most voters don’t think about politics in their daily lives. Only the big stories that make headlines cut through. And for those hundreds of millions of Americans, they have no clue that Trump wants to kill shoplifters, or thinks it’s funny that an innocent man nearly died after being hit on the head with a hammer. Instead, many think of Trump as a rough-around-the-edges guy, but not someone who’s actively dangerous. Plenty hide behind their ignorance of his worst, vilest behavior to justify voting for him.
Consider this: Americans soured on Trump when he held daily press conferences about covid-19, because they saw him unscripted and unvarnished. When he proposed injecting disinfectant to “clean” the body or using a “very powerful light” to cure covid in a patient, ordinary people saw the true Trump— and they didn’t like him very much.
Maybe, just maybe, it would be better for all of us if they knew about the other insane, dangerous rhetoric he spews on a daily basis. Maybe it would be better if voters couldn’t claim ignorance of Trump’s disturbing cruelty.
There’s a puzzle at the heart of Trump news and it’s this: why doesn’t the press go FULL BLOCK CAPITALS when a leading presidential candidate, yet again, incites violence?
If Joe Biden called to execute shoplifters, do you think there’d be a big headline in the New York Times, or do you think you’d have to scroll well past the articles on pumpkin spice lattes and DogTV to find out about it?
We all know the answer.
When Joe Biden didn’t trip but nearly tripped last week, it was headline news. How absurd is that? A candidate who didn’t quite fall over is a bigger news story than a candidate calling to execute shoplifters? (For the record, roughly ten percent of the US population shoplifts, so millions would face potential execution under Trump’s proposal).
This is what I call the Banality of Crazy— and it’s warping the way that Americans think about politics in the Trump and post-Trump era.
…Bombarded by a constant stream of deranged authoritarian extremism from a man who might soon return to the presidency, we’ve lost all sense of scale and perspective. But neither the American press nor the public can afford to be lulled. The man who, as president, incited a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol in order to overturn an election is again openly fomenting political violence while explicitly endorsing authoritarian strategies should he return to power. That is the story of the 2024 election. Everything else is just window dressing.