Opinion: Red Caesarism threatens democracy and the rule of law


Published: 10-15-2023 5:00 PM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

I expect that many Americans remain uncomfortable with the notion that Donald Trump and his MAGA movement are fascist. The word “fascist” is a political football. Both sides of the political spectrum toss it around and use the term to describe their adversaries.

Given that reality, rather than arguing about the correctness of the term, it makes sense to look at what political developments are most worrisome to our democracy. One development is the number of voices on the political right who are calling for a dictatorship because of their dark view of American society.

Maybe readers will remember two years back when on FOX, Tucker Carlson was singing the praises of the Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban. Carlson spent a week in Hungary and he portrayed Hungary as a conservative paradise. Orban has turned Hungary into what he calls an “illiberal state.”

Moving to control much of the country’s media, Orban has followed a model often employed by authoritarians. Stocking the courts with loyalists, he gerrymandered the voting system to make it much harder for opposition parties to win. He floated apocalyptic conspiracy theories about dark forces undermining the will of the people, invoking a version of the great replacement theory. He demonized George Soros and immigrants, promoting antisemitism and xenophobia. Orban wants to remain in power indefinitely.

Support for a strongman solution in the Orban tradition has been gaining ground on the American Right. Kevin Slack, a right-wing author and intellectual from the ultraconservative Hillsdale College in Michigan has written that the “New Right now often discusses a Red Caesar, by which, it means a leader whose post-Constitutional rule will restore the strength of his people.”

In the Guardian, Jason Wilson writes that a theory called Caesarism as an authoritarian solution to the claimed collapse of the U.S. republic has been advocated in podcasts and house organs of the far right especially those associated with the Claremont Institute. Probably two of the most well-known individuals associated with Claremont are former Trump advisors John Eastman and Peter Anton.

The Claremont scholars who represent a variety of extreme conservative perspectives do generally see the U.S. as a decadent failed state. Anton has written the “U.S. peaked around 1965.” The Claremont scholars see the U.S. as dominated by the radical left. While that would no doubt come as a surprise to those on the left, the hard right sees a stew of woke ideology, transgenderism, anti-white racism, open borders, and an overreaching federal government out to take guns away.

Part of the extreme right’s loss of faith in democracy has been their inability to win elections. They see no path to power through democratic elections. In particular, Donald Trump’s loss in 2020 has fueled feelings of desperation and radicalized some of his followers. The argument is that only a red Caesar can cut through deep state dysfunction and constitutional gridlock to impose order.

Donald Trump is the putative red Caesar. As the Republican frontrunner, he is seen by the extreme right as the potential strongman who can seize control to stop the great replacement and restore white and Christian supremacy. He will make the argument that he alone is capable of fixing the chaos.

There is a religious dimension to the Caesarism. A May 2022 University of Maryland poll found that 61% of Republicans favored “officially declaring the United States to be a Christian nation.” Christian evangelicals have been a critical part of the Trump base in 2016 and 2020. The Christian authoritarian trend has been reflected in retired general Michael Flynn’s Reawaken America Tour which has emphasized there is a spiritual and political war going on in America.

Trump’s erratic behavior of late is noteworthy. As the pressure has built on him because of his various criminal and civil prosecutions, his words have taken a noticeably violent turn. Trump said former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley committed “treason” and suggested he be executed. He said Jack Smith was “deranged and a psycho.” He has called on police to shoot shoplifters. He said immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

The historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat has said, “violence is Trump’s brand.” She has written, “Since the fascist years, authoritarians have used propaganda and their personality cults to change the perception of violence among their followers. The goal is to remove hesitation about tolerating or participating in violence against one’s compatriots by presenting that violence as necessary and even morally righteous.”

Democracy is a system where political parties must accept the decisions of the voters. Trump is operating off a different paradigm. He says he will prosecute Joe Biden as well as judges and prosecutors who have held him accountable. He threatened MSNBC calling them “the enemy of the people,” intimating action against a free press. This red Caesar is training his base away from democracy and towards normalizing political violence. He is training his followers to see violence in a positive light.

It is entirely predictable that Trump will be talking about how the 2024 election will be stolen from him. In fact, without any evidence, he already has been saying that. Any election he does not win is, by definition, rigged. If he does lose again, I am wondering about the next January 6. Oddsmakers would not be betting on a peaceful post-election period.

All who believe in democracy and the rule of law must take the red Caesar threat seriously. Authoritarians do not see failure as an option. Authoritarians typically leave office involuntarily.

Trump’s difficult circumstances dictate that he is unlikely to exit without a bitter fight. When you are running to stay out of jail, you are not likely to play by the Marquess of Queensberry rules. The threat is real.