Trump & co: From populism to Caesarism

Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan and Viktor Orban already are. Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and a long list of others really would like to be. What? Little Caesars. Because Caesarism sooner or later grows naturally out of populism. And that is a threat to our Western understanding of republican liberty.

That, at least, was my hypothesis when I was invited to a delightful format of intellectual discussion in Berlin called Politischer Eintopf. It means “political stew”, and you literally get a bowl of stew while you listen to a guest speaker. Then you discuss.

This discussion was lively and good. Because it struck a chord. In Europe, we are about a month away from a populist effort to get Britain out of the European Union. In America, a long, slow-surging wave of populism has washed up the figure of Donald Trump. In Hungary, Poland, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Spain, Greece, and … even Germany there are now populist movements afoot.

But why would I even pose a question about Caesarism in this context? Here is why.

Phenomenon I: Populism

Populism (like so much else) originated in the late Roman Republic. The word populism comes from populus, “people”. During the last century of the Roman Republic, two political styles (not parties!) emerged in Rome. They were called Optimates and Populares

The Populares included some famous people:

The Optimates also included some famous people:

  • Cato the younger
  • Cicero
  • Brutus

It’s important to understand that their differences were not about content, or “policies”. Instead, they were about a style of power–about how to attain power and whence it springs.

The Populares went directly to the populus, the people, in Rome’s various assemblies, through what we would today call referendums. They wanted to circumvent the elites in the patrician families of Rome as represented in the Senate. It was (then as now) ironic but not contradictory that the Populares were usually themselves members of the elite they were trying to outmaneuver.

The Optimates in turn wanted to keep power concentrated in the elite, especially in the Senate. For that was part of their idea of liberty. History had taught them that populism sooner or later yields a tyrant and thus a threat to the republic.

What features did populism already have then, that it still has now?

  • anti-elitist rhetoric. Today that can be (especially in America) anti-intellectual or (as also in Germany) anti-PC, meaning against political correctness. That could also mean anti-“mainstream media”.
  • polarization and personalization: populists want to get people riled up and angry. And they want to reduce problems from issues to people. A personality cult usually ensues. If only there were a “strong leader”….
  • Degradation first of language, then of institutions. Violence metaphors enter language. Soon taboos are broken. Violence becomes physical. People (starting with the Gracchi brothers) are killed.


Phenomenon II: Caesarism

Caesarism eventually arises naturally out of populism. It requires 1) a few cycles of populist softening of republican values through (the aforesaid) coarsening, polarization and personalization and 2) a charismatic leader. That leader promises at last to bring “solutions” to “problems” that the republic with its tedious processes had no answers for. The populus loves it.

Sometimes Caesars go too far too fast. The first Caesar encountered a Cato, a Cicero and a Brutus, and got himself stabbed. Who would be Trump’s Cato today? Perhaps Paul Ryan?

Other times Caesars are more skillful. The second Caesar was. We know him as Octavian in his youth and Augustus in his prime, but his official name was that of his adoptive father, Gaius Julius Caesar. He never officially abolished the republic he ended, just as Hitler never formally scrapped the Weimar constitution. Instead, Augustus became not king but princeps, “first head”, first among equals. The Senate and all other republican institutions were conspicuously maintained. Only they were now hollow in all but appearance.

America’s founding fathers, above all James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, had this example in their minds as they worried about their young nation’s constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. They feared that a future president could become another king in all but name. An anecdote about Ben Franklin sums up the worry. As he left the negotiations in Philadelphia, a lady asked him: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” The meaning is all in the second clause.

The founding fathers’s main answer was based on an idea by the Frenchman Montesquieu. It was the separation of powers. He had in mind what we today call the three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. But in time the West has recognized other powers, above all that of a the media. Today’s Little Caesars (such as Putin or Erdogan or Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński) usually try first to take out the free press.

The problem with checks and balances is of course that they slow things down. Everything becomes a process: tedious, complicated, frustrating. Problems seem not to get swift solutions. The populus gets cranky. If only somebody understood us little people, talked as we talk, solved our problems!

Another French philosopher, Joseph Marie de Maistre, once said : “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” Many of us the West will in the coming years find out just what we deserve.

29 thoughts on “Trump & co: From populism to Caesarism

  1. “It was (then as now) ironic but not contradictory that the Populares were usually themselves members of the elite they were trying to outmaneuver.”
    Weren’t the Romans who ruled already the elite? That is, didn’t they already have power (and riches) by birthright?
    I have a slightly different theory: that, eventually, politicians learn to “game the system”… that is, to use it in such a way as to gain and expand power. And so the only power to struggle against (in order to rouse the people) are themselves? I think of the emergence of the nobility and the “divine right of kings.” I am not a Trumpist but I understand now the allure… it’s very similar to the way Democrats have sought, gained, and maintained power for decades. As for a modernistic tyrant, I would point to FDR who could have gone on to reign over the US for much longer had he not died in office.

    • Well, you’re right that all people, I guess, have the will to power, and politicians even more than most. But the problem here is how you keep a republican system from collapsing GIVEN that every individual in it would rather have all power to him/herself.

    • Again, Andreas, I would point to the Clintons as desirous of power and the expansion of it… through the destruction of their perceived opponents and through lying. Especially when considering the obvious “for me and not for thee” attitudes today seen on some college campuses in terms of freedom of speech.

  2. I used to evoke horror in my school years when I remarked, “the basic vice of democracy is that the common man is an idiot.” But I stand by that even more today, and I do mean idiot in an etymological as well as colloquial (versus clinical; it used to be a distinct denotation of a degree of retardation) sense.

    People do not ponder issues or vote, sometimes for years, then want a quick fix that they think they can get by electing someone glib and contrary who will upend the situation that some phantom “they” supposedly created. No indication of understanding that absence of even a minimum of civic awareness and involvement by multitudes led to the unpalatable state of affairs that they want changed.

    I haven’t an earthly idea what to do about it. Monkeys chatter, humans tend to be social animals who relish pack behavior, thinking seems to be valued only in pockets of time and space on this planet. And in America, people claim to value education and intelligence but in practice appear to despise both. I’m not just frightened of Trump, but of the population that can imagine him as a chief executive. Roosevelt, at least, knew the gravity of the responsibility, whatever the understanding of the people who voted for him.

    • You knew it was coming, and here it is: a Winston Churchill quote. (Isn’t there always one available?)
      “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

    • 🙂 During Bush II, my nerves snapped at the lame blethering that issued from our Chief Executive, and I logged onto Amazon and ordered a book of Churchill’s speeches just as an anodyne.

  3. Donald Trump as something that was “washed up” by a wave of populism made me laugh. That’s a fun visual: some lifeless, bloated thing; signature hair strewn like seaweed in the shallow water. If degradation of language precedes degradation of institutions, a person can fight back by paying attention to what charms in language. Everywhere.

    Next thought: How was the stew?

  4. Of course Trump is a populist that wants to be a little Caesar, but I’m not sure in what way the others aren’t. All presidential candidates, it seems, this time around as in previous elections, attempt to appeal to a frustrated, impatient, and emotional electorate by promising to unite everybody and fix all that’s broken lickety-split the moment they assume office, manifestly confusing the presidency with a kind of kingship. Based on what are we to believe that Trump craves unilateral power any more than, say, Obama did in ’08? Why are we calling the one but not the other a worrisome populist that would, if only he could, hollow the two counterbalancing branches so as to become primus inter pares on the Augustan model?

    • you could have said that same in ancient Rome: they all wanted power, yes. Even Cicero enjoyed it. And a lot, in fact. And Obama also wanted it, yes. But there is a differences between those politicians who basically wanted to stay within the norms of the existing order and those who are ready to go to the populus to circumvent an order, perhaps even blow it up

    • Well, that’s basically Douglas’s point above. yes, sure, they all want power. Even Cicero did. Obama did too. But there is a difference, no? Most politicians will stay within in the norms of the existing order, some want to break out of it with the help of the populus

    • I have a hunch that whether we perceive a politician as inherently noble, i.e., respectful of the system and its rules, or as a dangerous populist intent on circumventing — or “blowing up” — the system by pulling the wool over people’s eyes hinges primarily on whether or not we appreciate their ideology and policy proposals. If we like their message, we care much less about how roughshod they intend to run over systemic obstacles that may stand in the way of its implementation than if we take exception to their message, in which case we are more given to sound the alarm bells about their use of popular demagoguery to increase their power such that it may facilitate the efficient implementation of their unsavory policies. In the end, our core concern, I think, is that the right thing be done and wrongheaded ideas (as per our personal judgment) don’t stand a chance. Most of us are probably much less concerned about the “how” than than we care to admit.

  5. It is a fiction to suppose, as you impliedly assume, Andreas, that there can be any consensus among the people on who rules and how. A democratic system is at best only an indication of the degree of acceptance of the ruler that the system yields. If that degree represents an overwhelming number then that is the source of the ruler’s power. One way or another the system has to incorporate a way of removing a ruler who is no longer so accepted. Ultimately the success of a system rests upon the people’s confidence in it – an elusive consideration.

    How a ruler behaves once in power depends purely upon his individual character and personality and not according to any such discernible rule or pattern as you hypothesise, except to say that power corrupts. The separation of powers is an important safeguard, but it acts in a vacuum and is not, as you suggest, the main answer in the American Constution to preserving the will of the people.

    In reality, day to day government is effected by sustainable sanctions and methods of dispute resolution. These have their roots in prehistory. A strong central ruler can through sanctions and dispute resolution according to custom establish a system of law – a truly common law- that derives from the people and not by decree of the elite. This happened in England, principally in the twelfth century under Henry II, in a piecemeal, pragmatic way and largely as a consequence of the rise of the King’s courts rather than on purpose. Advisedly, therefore, the American constitution incorporates the Common Law as the main answer to preserving the will of the people: helped by the separation of powers, but not deoendent on it.

    It is significant that in England it was not until the seventeenth century, after the execution of a monarch who claimed to rule by divine right, that the Common Law finally prevailed over the Justinian Codes and the Canon Law of the academic elite.

    As for Statute Law, the roots of the English Parliament go back to the Saxon Witenagemot. William the Conqueror preserved the old systems. Alfred the Great visited Rome in childhood and there was a strong Roman influence upon him and his learning. Local courts administered local customs, however, and there was no laying down of precedent. Their decisions, therefore, did not make law.

    Today’s trend to resist the development of the Common Law through the courts and a preference to legislate by statute – the result of an erroneous conception of democracy – is a major cause of disgruntlement in England with the EU, although it is rarely recognised. It is the effect on the day-to-day lives of the people by the arbitrary acts of the EU institutions and the initiation of new laws exclusively by officials – a supposedly virtuous elite on the platonic model – that rankles so, and stands in the way of acceptance of the EU as ruler for a substantial minority of British citizens. Whatever the result of the referendum, there is a rough road ahead for a people restless under authority.

  6. Very interesting to take the historical perspective. This phenomenon is a symptom of bigger cracks in the system. The problem with the alternative to populism today is that the elites are economic elites, not altruistic intellectuals and therefore focus their efforts on furthering their elite status rather than countering the effects of populism.

  7. I had this thought. A big part of history (apart from the re-distribution of wealth) amounts to doing two things at once; (1) figuring out what the rules (really) are, and (2) obeying the rules.

    It’s a lovely morning. It appears that hundreds of years of bloody European history have converged on a solution. It is possible to simultaneously figure out the rules while obeying them — especially after you kill the people who disagree and before the sun gets too hot. Regardless of being a Populist or a Caesarist, it’s about getting the rules you want.

    You are asking/saying; are the right rules created organically (like Wikipedia or crowd sourcing) or do they come from “smart people” (the Old School who read books). Maybe that’s the magic of Trump. His message is that of a Populist who “knows a lot of smart people” (Caesarsists who he intends to hire).

    I’ve watched a lot of Game of Thrones, so I know my European History pretty darn well by now. Keep that in mind before you start any arguments with me. For example: any Lannister is a Caesarist. What’s her name (Mother of Dragons) is a Populist. Right?

    • The Lannisters are Optimates/eltisists who also want to be Caesars. The Starks are closet Republicans. Targaryen is a populist Caesarist, yes. Come to think of it, Game of Thrones has it all ….

  8. I have been reading CM Bowra’s Periclean Athens.

    I gather that after the expulsion of Hippias the tyrant from Athens in 510, Clisthenes, an aristocrat, appealed to the people by promising democracy. Success over his rival aristocratic Alcmaeonids led to his constitutional reforms, the Athenian navy, the flowering of the city and its dominance over other Greek states not allied to Sparta.

    Would you call Clisthenes a populist? If so, how, may I ask, did Caearism grow naturally out of Athenian democracy?

    These are not mere trifles. Democracy itself is commitment to the will of the people, as variously expressed, whatever that may be.

  9. I should mention that I read the op-eds of the Washington Post and see a number of comments from people seem desirous of a single-party system (their party, of course) and that bothers me… a lot.

  10. If you want to frighten yourself, read (or re-read) Ronald Syme’s “The Roman Revolution”. Read it as a study of motives and methods. Then look at what Trump is doing. That should scare the bejesus out of you.

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