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.