“Thought leaders” of the far right talk openly about a 2025 dictatorship. People need to be alarmed.
The incredible scenes this week on Capitol Hill — leaving the U.S. House without a speaker and promising an autumn of sheer chaos in Congress — marked a rapid escalation of the downward spiral of American democracy. And most of the folks who get paid big bucks to understand politics could not make any sense of it.
TV pundits compared a near-shutdown of the federal government and Kevin McCarthy’s subsequent ouster as speaker to the iconic sitcom Seinfeld — a show about nothing. In capitals around the globe, world leaders and baffled analysts struggled to make sense of the utter dysfunction paralyzing the nation that just a generation ago held itself out as the lone superpower.
Yet to a small but influential gaggle of so-called “thought leaders” on the edge of the stage — the pseudo-intellectuals of right-wing think tanks, and chaos-agent-in-chief Steve Bannon — the growing rot infecting another key U.S. institution is just more evidence for their stunning argument now flying at warp speed, yet under the radar of a clueless mainstream media.
The D.C. dysfunction is more proof, they would argue, that the nation needs a “Red Caesar” who will cut through the what they call constitutional gridlock and impose order.
If you’re not one of those dudes who thinks about Ancient Rome every day, let me translate. The alleged brain trust of an increasingly fascist MAGA movement wants an American dictatorship that would “suspend” democracy in January 2025 — just 15 months from now.
The guru of this push for a president seizing dictatorial powers to overthrow what far-right activists see as a “deep state” of liberals — corrupting institutions rangingfrom government agencies to the media to large corporations and the Pentagon — is a professor of politics at Michigan’s ultraconservative Hillsdale College, Kevin Slack. (Yes, the same Hillsdale that GOP-led school boards, including Pennridge in Philadelphia’s northern exurbs, are hiring to whitewash their curriculums.)
In War on the American Republic: How Liberalism Became Despotism, in which he rails against the “cosmopolitan class” of unelected elites he claims is running America, Slack writes 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 a recent Guardian article, writer Jason Wilson — who deserves enormous credit for tying together these threads — finds anti-democracy arguments like Slack’s are gaining traction in the small but influential world of far-right think tanks like Hillsdale and the Claremont Institute. That’s been tracked here in Philadelphia by another writer, the centrist liberal Damon Linker at UPenn, who sees a dangerous conspiracy theory taking root not just with obscure professors but with the iconoclastic billionaires who back the right.
“Intellectuals play a certain kind of role, especially on the right, in legitimating actions of elites in the party and [the] movement,” Linker told me in a recent interview, adding: “They’re giving people permission to do terrible things,” labeling shameful measures as “acts of virtue.”
Things are getting more terrible by the day, whether it’s the mob on Staten Island tormenting residents ofa temporary shelter for refugees by bombarding themwith noise or flashlights, or the shockingly ugly social-media swarms of right-wingers mocking the murders of liberals like Philadelphia journalist Josh Kruger or New York’s Ryan Carson, or the MAGA gunman in New Mexico who smirked after shooting a Native American during a vigil. But thechaos at the bottom of the political food chain is coming from the same instincts tearing apart the top of the government: A desire to blow it all up.
When these raw instincts are translated by the extreme right’s “intellectuals” into an explicit plea for a dictatorship, you can see that America is poised to cross the Rubicon — a metaphor rooted in the river in northern Italy that Julius Caesar had to cross with his army in 49 B.C. in order to drive out Rome’s democratically elected government and seize power.
America should be having a robust, life-or-death conversation — when TV’s cable talkfest signs on at 6 a.m. until the last words at midnight, on the floors of the House and Senate, in newspaper editorial boards and down at the barber shop and in Starbucks — about whether we really want to end this country’s 247-year uneven experiment in democracy, and whether one man should have the power to override elections, jail his enemies, free his friends, and eviscerate federal agencies.
And yet the elites that far-right extremists claim are “all powerful” seem incapable of grasping these very real threats to constitutional government or a free press. That’s particularly true of the mainstream media and its pacesetters like the New York Times or the Washington Post, which seem determine to “both sides” the descent into dictatorship — with headlines that blame dysfunction on Capitol Hill on “Congress” instead of Republicans, or that place the 80-year-old President Joe Biden’s verbal or actual stumbles on a level pitch with rising GOP fascism.
It’s all the more remarkable since we all know who the actual “Red Caesar” is — even if he is, technically, orange. Donald Trump, the 45th president who seems to have already locked down the Republican nomination to become the 47th, has been accused of running a rambling, ideas-free campaign — except that’s not true.
As the Los Angeles Times recently noted, Trump has been pretty specific in recent speeches and interviews about the actions he would take if he takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2025 — such as naming a special prosecutor to go after his political enemies, blowing up civil service protections to fill the government with his acolytes, deploying the military in a massive deportation campaign, and sending troops to “control crime” in Democratic-led cities. If Julius Caesar were still here, he’d surely be giving a Trump 47 presidency a Roman salute.
But the media and others struggle to understand how someone like Trump — twice impeached with 91 pending felony indictments, found in New York courtrooms to be both a rapist and a fraudster — has a 50-50 chance of returning to the White House. That requires understanding the role of the right’s No. 1 chaos agent — Bannon, who was Trump’s 2016 campaign manager — and his ability to move pawns like the foot soldiers of the McCarthy ouster, such as Reps. Matt Gaetz and Nancy Mace, across his messy chessboard. Bannon, now a popular podcaster who was pardoned by Trump but faces new charges, understands better than anyone that creating political mayhem is laying the groundwork for a strongman to declare — as Trump did in 2016 — that “I alone can fix it.”
In a 2022 article, a former Bannon associate, Benjamin R. Teitelbaum, wrote that the Trump ally frequently told him “about the destiny of the United States and the role he sees for chaos and destruction — for ‘craziness’ — in it. The worldview he laid out to me was one where things he might otherwise consider harmful, like the dissolution of our electoral process or the erosion of shared understandings of truth, were to be embraced as fated stages in a process of national rebirth.”
So now that Bannon’s craziness is here, the phony intellects of Trumpism at Hillsdale or Claremont are seizing the opportunity to make their case for the “Red Caesar” to bring about that “national rebirth.” In addition to Hillsdale’s Slack, proponents of suspending the Constitution include the likes of Claremont’s Michael Anton, the leading academic proponent of Trumpism, who in a 2020 book floated a similar theory about a “form of one-man rule: halfway … between monarchy and tyranny.”
Dictatorship can happen here, but why, and why now? That would probably take another book to explain, but it feels partly the ultimate outcome of America’s college/non-college divide that I wrote about in 2022′s After The Ivory Tower Falls, which looked at the root causes of mostly white-working-class resentment of educated elites — not just in academia but in the media, the bureaucracy, and elsewhere. But it also reflects the desperation of a conservative movement struggling to win free and fair democratic elections yet determined to impose its cherished hierarchies — including white supremacy and the patriarchy — by any means necessary.
The Guardian’s Wilson noted that Anton, in an essay decrying the power of elite, liberal-minded “experts,” wrote that “the United States peaked around 1965.” What was that year’s landmark event? The passage of the Voting Rights Act, which empowered Black voters and led to the election of thousands of African American office holders.
After the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, Republicans could win elections through the backlash politics of Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan or the demagoguery of 1988′s “Willie Horton ad.” They then turned to tactics like voter suppression or extreme gerrymandering as their electorate shrunk. In 2024, the right sees dictatorship as its final “Hail Mary” pass. And it just might work.
But in thinking about a “Red Caesar,” it’s helpful to remember what the actual Caesar said right before crossing the Rubicon: Alea iacta est, meaning, “The die is cast.” But in the United States in 2023, the die is not cast, not yet. The majority of Americans do notwant to live under a dictatorship, and we have the power to stop this. But America is never going to prevent the “Red Caesar” unless we start talking about it, loudly and right away.