The American right has been busy the past few days. The Republicans in Congress are at war with one another over a possible government shutdown that most of them don’t really want. Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona (channeling the warden from The Shawshank Redemption, apparently) railed about “quislings” such as the “sodomy-promoting” Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and said he should be hanged. Gosar, of course, was merely backing up a similar attack from the likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who over the weekend floated the idea of executing Milley and swore to use government power to investigate a major television network for “treason.”
Normally, this is the kind of carnival of abominable behavior that would lead me to ask—again—how millions of Americans not only tolerate but support such madness.
But today I’m going to ask a different question: Is this the future of “conservatism”? I admit that I am thinking about this because it’s also one of the questions I’m going to tackle with my colleagues David Frum, Helen Lewis, and Rebecca Rosen on Thursday in Washington, D.C., at The Atlantic Festival, our annual two-day gathering where we explore ideas and cultural trends with a roster of stellar guests.
Slightly more than a year ago, I tried to think through what being a conservative means in the current era of American politics. I have not been a Republican for several years, but I still describe myself as a conservative: I believe in public order as a prerequisite for politics; I respect tradition, and I am reluctant to acquiesce to change too precipitously; I think human nature is fixed rather than malleable; I am suspicious of centralized government power; I distrust mass movements. To contrast these with progressivism, I think most folks on the left, for example, would weigh social justice over abstract commitments to order, be more inclined to see traditions as obstacles to progress, and regard mass protests as generally positive forces.
This is hardly an exhaustive list of conservative views, and some on the right have taken issue with my approach. A young writer at National Review named Nate Hochman took me to task last year for fundamentally misunderstanding modern conservatism. Mr. Hochman, however, was apparently fired this summer from the Ron DeSantis campaign after he produced a campaign video that used Nazi symbolism, which suggests to me that I do, in fact, understand the modern conservative movement better than at least some of my critics might admit.
In any case, the immediate problem America faces is that it no longer has a center-right party that represents traditional conservatism, or even respects basic constitutional principles such as the rule of law. The pressing question for American democracy, then, is not so much the future of conservatism but the future of the Republican Party, another question our panel will discuss—and one that continually depresses me.
The United States, like any other nation, needs political parties that can represent views on the left and the right. The role of the state, the reach of the law, the allocation of social and economic resources—these are all inevitable areas of disagreement, and every functioning democracy needs parties that can contest these issues within the circumscribed limits of a democratic and rights-respecting constitution. Today’s Republican Party rarely exhibits such commitments to the rule of law, constitutionalism, or democracy itself.
The current GOP is not so much conservative as it is reactionary: Today’s right-wing voters are a loose movement of various groups, but especially of white men, obsessed with a supposedly better past in which they were not the aggrieved minority they see themselves as today. These reactionary voters, as I have written recently, are reflexively countercultural: They reject almost everything in the current social and political order because everything around them is the product of the hated now that has displaced the sacred then.
(Although many of my colleagues in academia and in the media see Trumpism as fascism, I remain reticent to use that word … for now. I think it’s inaccurate at the present time, but I also believe the word has been overused for years and people tend to tune it out. I grant, however, that much of the current GOP has become an anti-constitutional leader cult built around Trump—perhaps one of the weakest and unlikeliest men ever in history to have such a following—and could become a genuinely fascist threat soon.)
America needs an actual conservative party, but it is unlikely to produce one in the near future. The movement around Trump will come to an end one way or another; as the writer Peter Sagal noted in The Atlantic after interviewing former members of various cults,“the icy hand of death” will end the Trump cult because it is primarily a movement of older people, and when they die out, “there will be no one, eventually, to replace them.” Although the cult around Trump will someday dissolve, the authoritarians his movement spawned will still be with us, and they will prevent the formation of a sensible center-right party in the United States.
Too many Americans remain complacent, believing that defeating Trump means defeating the entire threat to American democracy. As the Atlantic contributor Brian Klaas wrote yesterday, Trump’s threats on social media against Milley should have been the biggest story in the nation: “Instead, the post barely made the news.” Nor did Gosar’s obscene pile-on get more than a shrug.
Meanwhile, the New York Times opinion writer Michelle Cottle today profiled Ohio Senator J. D. Vance, a man who has called his opponents “degenerate liberals” and who is so empty of character that even Mitt Romney can’t stand him. Cottle, however, noted Vance’s cute socks, and ended with this flourish: “Mr. Trump’s Republican Party is something of a chaotic mess. Until it figures out where it is headed, a shape-shifting MAGA brawler who quietly works across the aisle on particular issues may be the best this party has to offer.”
Something of a mess? That’s one way to put it.
And what about Fox News, the source of continual toxic dumping into the American political ecosystem? “Fox News,” the Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle said yesterday, “does not have nearly as much power over viewers’ minds as progressives think. I am not cutting Fox any slack for amplifying Trump’s election lie nonsense. But I also doubt that it made that much of a difference.” Having traveled the country giving talks about misinformation and democracy for years, and hearing the same stories so many times of people who now find it impossible to talk to their own parents, I have no such doubts.
If Trump wins in 2024, worries about Fox’s influence or reflections on Vance’s adorable socks will seem trivial when Trump unleashes his narcissistic and lawless revenge on the American people. But even if he does not win, America cannot sustain itself without a functional and sane center-right party. So far, the apathy of the public, the fecklessness of the media, and the cynicism of Republican leaders mean that no such party is on the horizon.
The Supreme Court ruled against an attempt by Alabama Republicans to retain a congressional map with only one majority-Black district.
The Federal Trade Commission and 17 states are suing Amazon in a broad antitrust lawsuit that accuses it of monopolistic practices.
An increasing number of Senate Democrats is calling for Senator Bob Menendez to resign from Congress following his federal indictment.
How We Got ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’
By Martin Baron
I should not have been surprised, but I still marveled at just how little it took to get under the skin of President Donald Trump and his allies. By February 2019, I had been the executive editor of The Washington Post for six years. That month, the newspaper aired a one-minute Super Bowl ad, with a voice-over by Tom Hanks, championing the role of a free press, commemorating journalists killed and captured, and concluding with the Post’s logo and the message “Democracy dies in darkness.” The ad highlighted the strong and often courageous work done by journalists at the Post and elsewhere—including by Fox News’s Bret Baier—because we were striving to signal that this wasn’t just about us and wasn’t a political statement …
Even that simple, foundational idea of democracy was a step too far for the Trump clan. The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. couldn’t contain himself. “You know how MSM journalists could avoid having to spend millions on a #superbowl commercial to gain some undeserved credibility?” he tweeted with typical two-bit belligerence. “How about report the news and not their leftist BS for a change.”
I’m off to The Atlantic Festival, so I’ll be brief today. But I’ll be back on Friday to talk about Barry Manilow, whom I saw this past week in Las Vegas as he broke Elvis Presley’s record for performances at the venerable Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino. If you’re, ah, ready to take a chance again, you might enjoy it, even now, especially as we’ll be talking about the old songs. All the time, until daybreak.
I’m sorry. I promise: no more Manilow puns. See you in a few days.
Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.
When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.
I’ve passed the house of Mrs. Revere
Often enough when her windows were open
To know she’d rather listen to Schubert
Most evenings than watch whatever the networks
Are beaming into her neighbors’ homes.
Now that she’s lived, as I have, far longer
Than twice Schubert’s 31 years,
I wonder if she’d be willing, as I tell myself
I would be, to subtract some of the time still left her
If it could be carried back to his era
And added to his scant sum. My guess
Is she’d gladly donate a year, without any prodding,
While a month might be my best effort.
Not a grand gesture, but still not nothing:
To fall asleep at the end of a balmy June
And wake next morning on the first of August,
Allowing Schubert to develop some themes
He barely had time to sketch. And I hope I’d promise
To give Mrs. Revere a week now and then
To help her recruit more donors to our project.
We’d belong to a band whose members
Would be entitled to see themselves as patrons
As well as clients, benefactors as well
As recipients, joined in a secret fellowship
We’d acknowledge by signs when we passed on the street.
And whenever I wished that Schubert might guess
The role we played in lengthening his career
And dedicate one of his extra pieces to us,
She’d say the last thing she wanted was music
That sounded in any way beholden.
And I might reply by asking why deny him
The pleasure of knowing how much he mattered
To people he’d never meet. A smile from him,
And then he’d turn back to making something timeless
From something destined to pass away.
The upcoming event I’m most looking forward to: The NBA season is starting, andfor the first time in years, my Lakers have an intelligently constructed roster. (Rob Pelinka, all is forgiven.) In the spirit of preseason expansiveness, I will note that this year, the Lakers could possibly—an elastic word!—notch their 18th NBA championship, passing the Celtics, who also have 17. There is even some chance they could do it by beating the Celtics themselves in the finals. As the winter wears on, timelines will branch, and many hoped-for futures will fall away. But so long as that one is alive, I’ll be locked in. [Related:It had to be the Lakers (From 2020)]
Best novel I’ve recently read, and the best work of nonfiction: I’ve been on a Don DeLillo kick, primarily for the line-to-line style. I tore through The Names and am now reading Underworld, but between them I read Libra, my favorite book of his so far. It’s a fictionalization of the Kennedy assassination. DeLillo’s novel alleges a conspiracy, but does so largely within the established facts of the Warren Commission’s report. The result is a dark, paranoid American fable that reads so real, I’m making it my nonfiction pick, too. [Related:Don DeLillo on the anniversary of Apollo and Earthrise]
A quiet song that I love, and a loud song that I love: Quiet: Air’s “Alone in Kyoto,” especially on a train. Loud: Rihanna’s sludgy, wall-of-sound cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” The original was already great, but I haven’t returned to it since hearing her version.
A cultural product I loved as a teenager and still love, and something I loved but now dislike: I fell hard for R&B during its ’90s golden age. At one point, the intro to my voicemail was D’Angelo’s “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine.” No regrets. Almost all of it still bangs, but some of the genre’s more saccharine songs are getting a skip from me now. Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last Forever” is safe. Most Boyz II Men songs aren’t, except for the one with Mariah.
An author I will read anything by: Lauren Groff. As a result of some bad decisions, I once had to spend nine hours at the Denver airport. I coped by bingeing Fates and Furies, Groff’s much-copied dueling-perspective take on marriage. I liked that book a lot, but it was her fourth novel, Matrix, that really set the hook. It takes place in a 12th-century convent in England that she reimagines in great sensory detail—to have read this book is to remember the chill of the convent’s stone walls. Groff always has at least one eye on the natural world, and I love that she’s unafraid to write in a spiritual key. It puts her books into larger, more ancient conversations than your average work of Brooklyn autofiction. [Related:The writer who saw all of this coming]
The last debate I had about culture: I’ve been making a regular, if somewhat half-hearted, case that Lewis Strauss, Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Oppenheimer, is misunderstood. [Related:Oppenheimer’s cry of despair in The Atlantic]
Something I recently rewatched, reread, or otherwise revisited: My son and I just saw a rerelease of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Alamo Drafthouse. It was nominally for research; I’m writing a nonfiction book about a team of scientists who are trying to make first contact. But he and I also have history with this movie. A few years ago, we saw a 70-mm print on the IMAX screen at the Smithsonian. The late Douglas Trumbull, who did many of the special effects, gave introductory remarks. This viewing couldn’t match that, but the images still cast a spell. There was a small collective gasp among the audience when the screen filled up with the famous tracking shot of Dave, the red-suited astronaut, walking through a shimmering octagonal corridor toward the pod-bay doors and the deeper human future.
A poem, or line of poetry, that I return to: Rilke: “Spring has come again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”
A painting, sculpture, or other piece of visual art that I cherish: As part of a recent career retrospective, the artist Laurie Anderson painted an entire room at the Hirshhorn Museum, here in Washington, D.C., with a base layer of slick black. She then used chalky white paint to cover its floor and walls with illustrations and quotes, many of them existential in one way or another. When it first opened, I went with my daughter, and we were both taken aback by its forcefulness. No matter where you looked, you couldn’t escape Anderson’s thoughts. A lot of what gets marketed as immersive art these days is a warm bath—a swirly Van Gogh light show set to tinkly music. Anderson’s room is confronting. I’ve taken several people to it since, and they’ve all come out wobbly, but grateful.
A favorite story I’ve read in The Atlantic: Our October cover story, “Jenisha From Kentucky.” Among its other virtues, it’s a brilliant detective tale. The writer, Jenisha Watts, conducts a thorough and painful excavation of her childhood. She uncovers family secrets and holds them up to the light. She reimagines her past, present, and future selves. The language is beautiful and direct. It’s perfect for a Sunday morning. [Related:What it’s like to tell the world your deepest secrets]
The Week Ahead
Land of Milk and Honey, a novel by C. Pam Zhang about a chef who escapes a dystopian smog by taking a mysterious job on a mountaintop in Italy (on sale Tuesday)
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved tale, directed by Wes Anderson and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (streaming on Netflix this Wednesday)
Season 4 of Lego Masters, where enthusiasts compete in various building challenges, (premieres Thursday on Fox)
Dogs Need Understanding, Not Dominance
By Kelly Conaboy
In 2022, the researchers Lauren Brubaker and Monique Udell recruited 48 parents and their children for a study on the behavioral effects of different parenting styles. The adult subjects were given a survey about their expectations for their children, and how they typically respond to their needs; the children were tested to determine their attachment style, sociability, and problem-solving skills. I should probably mention that the children involved were dogs.
The dogs who were cared for by owners with an “authoritative” style, meaning one where high expectations matched a high responsiveness toward their dog’s needs, were secure, highly social, and more successful at problem-solving …
The language might sound familiar to those acquainted with the concept of “gentle parenting,” a philosophy that’s become popular in recent years. Tenets of gentle parenting, including a focus on empathy in parent-child interactions, and avoiding punishment in favor of helping the child understand the reasons behind their actions and emotions, have been linked to positive outcomes for kids.
And although children are obviously very different from dogs, a parallel shift in approach has been happening in humans’ relationships with their canine kids.
To see a great white shark breach the waves, its powerful jaws clasping a shock-struck seal, is to see the very pinnacle of predatory prowess. Or so we thought. Several years ago, in South Africa, the world was reminded that even great white sharks have something to fear: killer whales.
Long before they started chomping on yachts, killer whales were making headlines for a rash of attacks on South African great white sharks. The killings were as gruesome as they were impressive. The killer whales were showing a deliberate sense of culinary preference, consuming the sharks’ oily, nutrient-rich livers but leaving the rest of the shark to sink or wash up on a nearby beach.
After the initial news of the attacks, the situation only got weirder. Great white sharks started disappearing from some of their best-known habitats around South Africa’s False Bay and Gansbaai regions, in the country’s southwest.
“The decline of white sharks was so dramatic, so fast, so unheard-of that lots of theories began to circulate,” says Michelle Jewell, an ecologist at the Michigan State University Museum. In the absence of explanation, pet theories abounded. Some proposed that overfishing of the sharks’ prey to feed Australia’s fish-and-chips market led to the sharks’ decline, although some scientists were critical of that idea. Others thought the disappearance was directly caused by the killer whales. Perhaps they were killing all of the sharks?
“Any time you see large population declines in local areas, it’s cause for conservation concern,” says Heather Bowlby, a shark expert with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “In a place where animals used to be seen very regularly, and suddenly they’re not there anymore, some were concerned that they all died.”
Now, though, scientists know a bit more about what happened. In a recent paper, Bowlby and her colleagues argue that the sharks’ disappearance was caused by the killer whales. But the sharks aren’t dead. They just moved. Across South Africa, the scientists found, the white-shark population has undergone a pronounced eastward shift.
To Jewell, who wasn’t involved in the research, this makes sense. “We know that predators have a huge influence on the movement and habitat use of their prey, so this isn’t really surprising,” she says. “The issue is that lots of people weren’t used to thinking of great white sharks as prey.”
Alison Kock, a marine biologist with South African National Parks and a co-author of the study, says researchers cracked the mystery after reports of white-shark sightings started flowing in from sites farther east y. “As False Bay and Gansbaai had major declines, other places reported huge increases in white-shark populations,” she says. “Too rapid to be related to reproduction, since they don’t reproduce that fast.”
“It had to be redistribution,” she says, adding: “The white sharks moved east.” Places like Algoa Bay had seen great white sharks before, but not anywhere near this many.
In the white sharks’ absence, South Africa’s west coast is changing. New species like bronze whalers and seven-gill sharks have moved into False Bay. For the tour operators who ran shark dives in the area, however, the shift has been difficult. Some have survived by switching to offering kelp-forest dives—driven in part by the popularity of the documentary My Octopus Teacher. Many, though, have gone under.
But what of the great white sharks’ new home farther east? No one quite knows how these regions are adapting to a sudden influx of apex predators, but scientists expect some significant ecological changes. They’re also warning of the potential for more shark bites, because people living in the white sharks’ new homes are not as used to shark-human interactions.
We may never know exactly how many white sharks died in killer-whale attacks. The prized and presumably tasty livers targeted by the killer whales help white sharks float, which means many dead white sharks may have sunk uncounted. Overall, though, Kock is glad to see the mystery solved.
“This has been very worrying for me, and it was good to see evidence that they hadn’t all died,” she says. “But it’s still unbelievable to me that I can go to [False Bay’s] Seal Island and not see any white sharks. It’s something I never expected, and I miss them a lot.”
Caesars are back, big caesars and little caesars, in big countries and little countries, in advanced nations and developing nations. The world seems to be full of self-proclaimed strongmen strutting their stuff, or waiting in the wings and plotting a comeback after a humiliating fall. And we thought it couldn’t happen here. How can these uncouth figures with their funny hair, their rude manners, and their bad jokes take such a hold on the popular imagination? How can anyone bear to listen to their endless resentful rants? Surely, they can’t get away with this? People will see through them before it’s too late.
But no. Here they are again, and in numbers. Look who’s leading in Argentina’s presidential race: Javier Milei, a former tantric-sex coach with a wild mop of dark hair and Elvis-impersonator sideburns, known as El Peluca (“The Wig”), who stumps the stage to the backing of a hard-rock group. El Peluca promotes monetarism, free love, and the sale of human organs; claims that climate change is a hoax; and wants to burn down the central bank and close the ministry of education—in short, a ragbag of eye-catchers, because eye-catching is what the would-be caesar is all about.
The little caesars of today seem to get along quite nicely without any systematic ideology worth the name. For what consistent line have Donald Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Narendra Modi, China’s Xi Jinping, and even Britain’s Boris Johnson been operating on, beyond a shouty sort of nationalism and a carefully advertised hostility to immigrants—a mixture familiar from ancient times? The great Pericles himself instituted a law barring anyone not of Athenian parentage from claiming citizenship (his own, foreign-born mistress fell foul of the law).
Yet why should this surprise us? Dictators of one sort or another have been an ever-lurking threat throughout history. They interrupted and betrayed the constitutional traditions of ancient Greece and the Roman Republic: Peisistratos, Critias, and the Thirty Tyrants in Athens; Sulla, Marius, and Julius Caesar in Rome. As early as the time of Thucydides and Plato, the word tyrannos had mutated from a neutral term for “king” into our modern pejorative sense of “tyrant.” Absolutist rulers broke up the city-states of medieval Germany and Italy.
Nice-minded people may shy away from lumping together the excesses of a petty charlatan with the horrific deeds of a mass murderer. How can there be any comparison between a Johnson and a Putin? But only a dullard could fail to notice the painful similarities in their methods:the unabashed mendacity; the contempt for law, parliaments, and due process; and, above all, the relentless propaganda, inflaming old resentments and provoking new ones. “Propaganda, propaganda, now it all depends on propaganda,” Adolf Hitler declared at a tense moment during the Beer Hall Putsch. The putsch failed. But the lesson was learned, and not just by Hitler.
Big caesars may come to power by outright lawless violence or by more or less legitimate means, as Louis-Napoléon, Benito Mussolini, and even Hitler did, and then consolidate their dictatorship in a so-called self-coup or autogolpe. Little caesars go only as far as they need to within a reassuring constitutional framework, which of course they cynically abuse by fixing elections, neutering parliament, and manipulating the courts. “Tinpot dictators” says it nicely. Yes, caesars occupy a broad spectrum, but the caesarist style is always much the same.
It is an uncomfortable thought that caesars may pop up in any country and under all sorts of economic and political conditions. Which is why so many of us prefer not to think it. We would rather look back on any such experience as an unlucky blip that left scarcely a scratch on the body politic, mere “kerfuffle,” as Boris Johnson notoriously brushed aside Trump’s impeachment and acquittal on charges of inciting insurrection against his own government.
But the damage is real enough. In Britain, the tendency on the political right is to concede, at most, that Johnson was too chaotic to be prime minister, too much of a joker to get anything much done. But it was largely Johnson’s personal achievement to smash the U.K.’s legal and political ties with Europe and cripple its continental trade. Less noticed are Johnson’s Five Acts, which came into force last year: restricting the right to judicial review; dissuading the poor from voting by requiring ID at polling stations (which even Johnson’s ally Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg described as a form of “gerrymandering”); bringing the Electoral Commission under the direct control of the government; granting the prime minister the unrestricted right to dissolve Parliament; giving the police the right to ban “noisy” protests; and, of course, stringent (but so far wholly ineffective) immigration controls. These measures bear a strong family resemblance to the repressive Six Acts of Lord Liverpool’s government in 1819, and are likely to be remembered with equal loathing.
Those who continue to indulge the memory of Johnson as an overpromoted but endearing clown who kept us amused for a while should also recall his power-grabbing and obnoxious style of government. He purged the party of 21 senior members of Parliament, including two ex-chancellors of the exchequer. He sacked some half a dozen top civil servants in defiance of constitutional tradition. He expanded the Downing Street apparatfrom a few dozen to more than 100 functionaries. He diluted the ministerial code, so that offenders might escape with a reprimand instead of automatic dismissal, and then proceeded to let off or ignore a string of gropers and chiselers. And he repeatedly lied to Parliament about Partygate, which forced him to slink out of office in a humiliating exit never before experienced by a British prime minister.
Last year in the U.K., the Year of the Three Prime Ministers, may not have been as bloody as A.D. 69 in ancient Rome, the Year of the Four Emperors (two of them were murdered and a third topped himself). But it was a uniquely excruciating moment in our modern political history, when chaos collapsed into farce, and at ruinous expense to the nation, while the world looked on in amazement and contempt.
And how has America fared? There was nothing original about Trump’s agenda. Protectionism, hostility to foreign entanglements, persecution of immigrants (the title of Most Hated Immigrants passing over the years from the Italians to the Irish to the Jews, to the Chinese, to the Japanese, to the Mexicans)—all of this has been the staple fare of the American right since the 19th century. What is original about Trump, as is true of all caesars and would-be caesars, is the technique: the tweets, the rallies, the bullying, the nicknames, the floodlights, the slogans.
A caesar creates his own visual culture and basks in it. Emperor Augustus had the text of his boastful brief autobiography, Res Gestae Divi Augusti, cast in bronze or carved in stone and then erected in public spaces all across the empire; today you can still see surviving fragments of this huge exercise in global PR. Ever since, the caesar has been a pioneer in the use of new media, including the inventions of printing and photography, the development of advertising, later cinema, radio, and television, and finally—perhaps most potent of all—social media, which gives him unrivaled direct access to every voter. Trump said quite frankly, “Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here.”
The caesar’s delight in the visual image is no accident. He thrives in the moment; he is the enemy of long-winded statutes and codes of law and practice, and is the king of the photo opportunity. He is an endless source of stunts, gestures, masquerades: He may appear in the guise of a Greek god or a Roman emperor, or a construction worker or a fighter pilot, never resting in his efforts to convince the public that life is simply more vibrant, more fun when he is around. His verbal messages are deliberately simple, aimed at the lowest common denominator in his audience (a method extolled ad nauseamby the author of Mein Kampf). These communications also necessarily involve a good deal of distortion of the truth. Caesars are shameless liars. After two millennia, scholars have cottoned on to the fact that Julius Caesar embellished or invented large parts of his history of the Gallic Wars. Napoleon’s communiqués were so overblown that “to lie like a bulletin” became a catchphrase.
Caesars know how to intimidate as well as charm, to frighten and shock, often by the use of foul language. Remember how Johnson scuppered Theresa May’s deal with the European Union by repeatedly denouncing it as “polishing a turd.” When, in the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell was attacked by judges for his lawless actions, he reportedly vilified them for invoking “Magna Farta,” and called the Petition of Right “the Petition of Shite.”
Only a caesar can get things moving by making the circumstances abnormal. Otherwise, the new “national conservatism”—or the less pleasant inflections that its name brings to mind—is likely to remain the niche pursuit of a disgruntled minority. Yet the one thing that the movement’s Statement of Principles does not mention is leadership, because its promoters know that this is an indecent subject. The yearning for a strongman cannot be openly admitted. But they can’t do without him.
Only a caesar has the chutzpah to break the rules, and to break open the treasury, as Julius Caesar did to grab the gold and silver needed to prosecute his war against Pompey, and Trump did under his emergency decree 9844 to grab the billions of dollars to build his Mexican wall, which Congress had denied him. By contrast, the idea that there is some hidden continuity between the conservatism of, say, Margaret Thatcher and today’s new right is fantasy. Thatcher was bossy and overbearing, and she made quite a few bad mistakes (her attempt to impose a poll tax, for one), but she was a stickler for the rules—as well as being a qualified lawyer, not a profession followed by most caesars—and she was deeply distressed when she was thought to have broken the code, as, for example, over the Westland Affair.
Political analysts are rather reluctant to consider the phenomenon of caesarism. They prefer to think up new abstractions, or revive old ones, to describe the political tendencies of our day: authoritarian populism, white nationalism, illiberal democracy, neofascism. These terms may convey the broad outline of what we see around us, but not the motive force: We get a good idea of what the cart looks like, but where’s the bloody horse? Without the spark of a caesar, the rumbling discontents are unlikely to catch fire. Caesarism isn’t just a cute trope; it’s an ever-recurring danger. The crucial thing is to spot the incoming caesar before he crosses the Rubicon—and above all, to stop him from doing the comeback-kid act. Nobody said it was easy.
But it can be done. This is an age of caesar-toppling, too. In the past three years, a U.S. president has been impeached twice, before and after being thrown out by the voters, and a British prime minister has been forced to resign by mass defections among his own ministers and then forced to leave the House of Commons by the Privileges Committee. The constitutional checks and balances worked. Accountability kicked in. We must never fall into the complacency of assuming that we have reached some liberal-democratic nirvana. History goes on, and it is still ours to make and remake. If applied with a little persistence, the rules can always break the rule-breakers in the end.