American democracy, it seems, is in a tailspin. To judge by recent magazine covers, editorials, and cinematic screeds, our governing institutions are failing to turn the tide against “Trumpism,” which, to the Left, means fascist, racist, and xenophobic authoritarianism. The answer, so many say, is in restoring democracy where now reigns the living orange avatar of Lord Krishna.
There is a massive problem with the idea of more democracy as a prophylactic against authoritarianism—democracy, especially mass democracy, cannot help but create authoritarian demands. This is not a new idea either. Minds as diverse as Max Weber, Oswald Spengler, and the little known Laureano Vallenilla Lanz all recognized the lure of democratic caesars long before the American Left began having an existential meltdown in November 2016.
It bears repeating the origin story of Gaius Julius Caesar. Caesar came from a patrician family originally from the southeast of Rome. Thanks to his family’s connections, young Julius became a prominent figure in the teetering Roman Republic by the age of sixteen. In his forties, Caesar was the best military commander in Rome and used those legions under his command (Legio VII, Legio VIII, Legio IX Hispania, and Legio Lusitanians) to conquer Gaul. This conquest, which was done to both expand Rome’s borders and pay off some of Caesar’s considerable debts, frightened Latin conservatives as the swaggering filibuster Caesar positioned himself as the most powerful man in Rome.
The Senate had reason to fear Caesar. On January 10, 49 B.C., Caesar’s Legio XIII crossed the tiny Rubicon River in open defiance of the Senate’s decree against the use of the Legion on Italian soil. Caesar called the Senate’s bluff because, as one of the chief heroes of the Populares, he could count on the support of the mass of Rome’s citizenry, known as the plebeians. As Rome’s dictator, Caesar doled out land and money to his loyal soldiers and political backers, appointed new officials to carry out land reforms, created a new municipal police force, expanded Roman citizenship, and revised the tax code. All of this was done under the auspices of the Republican constitution and under the guise of protecting the spirit and values of the res publica.
Caesar and his offspring have all ruled in the name of the common people. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, President Simon Bolivar, and General Andrew Jackson were all caesarists—populist-minded military leaders who preached a democratic ethos. Despite his lack of serious military credentials, President Donald Trump is very much cut out of the caesarist mold and frequently invokes the might and honor of the US armed forces.
The lure of caesarism is always stability. According to the German sociologist Max Weber, caesarism in Wihelmine Germany came in the form of Prussian domination over the other German states. Unlike in the United Kingdom, Weber saw in Germany a small and weak bourgeoise that had to be manhandled into supporting the modernization required for German greatness. Thus, a caesar named Chancellor Otto von Bismarck corralled both the urban middle class and the Prussian aristocrats into supporting his statist industrial revolution. His actions were rewarded when, before World War I, the German Empire was the undisputed military and economic ruler of Continental Europe.
Despite being one of Europe’s most respected liberals, Weber saw central authority as a perquisite for social harmony, and therefore a prerequisite for economic vibrancy. There is a deep irony in the fact that the liberal Weber played a role in drafting Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, the very same “emergency powers” act that Adolf Hitler invoked throughout his tyrannical reign.
Another German thinker, the pessimist Oswald Spengler wrote in his book, The Decline of the West that “Caesarism…is the final political constitution of Late Civilization.” For Spengler, the rise of caesars coincides with the decline of a once glorious civilization. Autocratic caesars rise when a culture feels exhausted and in need of a new vibrancy. Caesars also flourish in chaotic times when the social rites and rituals that once bound a civilization together have frayed. Sound familiar?
Finally, the last great prophet of democratic caesarism, the Venezuelan polymath Laureano Vallenilla Lanz, supported caesars as the only safe way to guide an unworthy population to Elysium. Lanz was an ardent Bolivarian, and some of his ideas almost certainly influence the “Bolivarian socialism” that is practiced in Venezuela today. Lanz, who published a book called Cesarismo Democrático in 1919, encouraged the idea that mass democracy based around civic, rather than racial nationalism, could be reconciled with a strong autocratic state. Caesarism is especially necessary in advanced or advancing economies, for Lanz recognized that “the existence of classes in misery” during times of economic expansion will always prove corrosive to democracy. Therefore, Lanz provided philosophical and intellectual support to the Venezuelan military strongman Juan Vincente Gómez, who ruled as president from 1908 until 1935. Years later, Lanz’s son provided the most succinct distillation of his father’s caesarist ideals:
Only an enlightened despotism can carry out the revolution that is destined to triumph over ignorance and backwardness, to stabilize institutions, and to form citizens. Liberty is an attribute of citizenship, and citizenship is incompatible with misery. Dictatorship is a transitory evil, the treatment of an endemic illness.
In the case of our fair republic, citizens and institutions may need to be rebuilt. “Make America Great Again” is a slogan demanding a reforging of the American body politick. Right here Democrats and Republicans understand that a rebuilding is necessary, and both in their own way see populist democracy as the answer. Therefore, both are demanding the rise of an American caesar, whether a nationalist conservative or a globalist social liberal.
We have entered the epoch of American caesarism, and frankly we are partially responsible for it. Each vote for greater security in the form of more military spending, more policing, and more government oversight is more votes for caesarism. More demands for gender equality, racial privileges, and a borderless world is a vote for a central strongman capable enough of protecting the people from their passions. Every single crack in the facade of local American institutions or families helps to strengthen the central Leviathan—a Leviathan that cannot help but be headed by a ruler wreathed in laurels.