Forget Fascism: In the U.S. and Israel, Caesarism Is on the Rise

Trump's direct appeal to the masses via Twitter and YouTube is only a preliminary expression of this.

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Trump, the American Caesar?
Trump, the American Caesar? Credit: Haaretz / John Locher, AP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

“Caesarism” is an accepted term for a form of regime in which the state is ruled by a strong, charismatic ruler. It’s modeled on the regime of Julius Caesar, the sole ruler of the Roman republic, and the man who brought about its destruction. What is required for Caesarism to emerge is for all groups with political power in the state to be engaged in mutual struggles, so that only the leader can satisfy the desire of all of them. All other institutions and public offices are voided of content; the leader concentrates all the real power in his hands, relying on the army. As the Israeli historian Zvi Yavetz described it, everyone receives conflicting promises, and then only the genius of the leader can preserve unity.

In contrast to a monarchy, however, in a Caesarist regime the institutions of the republic remain intact and all the magistrates retain their old titles. Julius Caesar rejected the trappings of monarchy that his followers wished to heap on him. Nor was “Caesar” his title; that was simply his family name. It’s his adopted son, Augustus, who is considered the first caesar of the Roman Empire.

The regime of the Roman Republic was completely different from a modern democracy. Nevertheless, comparisons between such governments and Rome have been put forward persistently over the years. The sociologist Max Weber argued that mass democracy necessarily leans toward Caesarism, in terms of the existence of a direct connection between a charismatic leader and the people, which undermines the power of parliament.

Modern Caesarism is not entirely distinct from democracy, but springs up within it. A moderate form of Caesarism is discernible in some of the outstanding leaders of modern democracy, such as Abraham Lincoln and Charles de Gaulle. But in its extreme form, Caesarism deteriorates into sheer autocracy, as with Napoleon Bonaparte or his nephew, Napoleon III. The Caesarist ruler becomes an emperor, and the republic an empire. And if all goes well, a new, quasi-royal dynasty is engendered. A “dictator anointed with oil of democracy,” as the historian Theodor Mommsen put it.

It’s been claimed, in recent months, that Caesarism has returned to politics. Donald Trump’s supporters from the alt-right see him as the “American Caesar” they longed for. His election is portrayed as the fulfillment of the prediction made by their prophet, the German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler, who foresaw a century ago that Western democracy would evolve into Caesarism in the 2000s. In any event, even outside far-right circles, there are those who argue that Caesarism is a more accurate description of the essence of the dominant model of rule of the Trump era than the badly worn term “fascism.” According to this view, the American republic began to crack during the terms of the two past presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who, unable to reach agreement with Congress, resorted to presidential decrees in order to govern. But even before he takes the oath of office, Trump is already showing signs of far more radical Caesarism. His direct appeal to the masses via Twitter and YouTube is only a preliminary expression of this.

Trump is not alone. Political commentators in the United States have noted several other countries in which Caesarism has arisen: Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, Modi’s India and Duterte’s Philippines. It’s interesting, in this context, to consider Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel as a republic skewed by Caesarism. Netanyahu, too, enjoys popular support that only grows stronger the more he clashes with the republic’s traditional institutions: the courts, the media and the cultural elite. He too concentrates in his hands a large portion of the executive roles, and in particular dominates propaganda mechanisms such as the free newspaper Israel Hayom and the Israel Broadcasting Authority. And in his case as well, many forces in society prefer that he hold the reins of power, for fear that without him things would only be worse.

A statue of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square. December 6, 2016. Credit: Baz Ratner / Reuters

In this connection, particular significance attaches to the rising power of the prime minister’s son, Yair Netanyahu. Already after the last election, in March 2015, Netanyahu began to introduce Yair to the public – for example, when he was positioned behind his father at the Western Wall after the election victory. “Phase II of Sara and Bibi’s plan was launched this week, namely the measured presentation to the public of the intended heir,” Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz at the time. In recent months, the plan seems to be moving ahead. As reported in Haaretz earlier this month, Yair is deeply involved in the propaganda apparatus of his father’s bureau, particularly with regard to messages in the social networks. Unlike Omri Sharon before him, the young Netanyahu does not draw his power from the Likud Central Committee; the source of his power is his parents.

The stage after Caesarism is dynasticism. Whereas Julius Caesar’s power was based on his charisma and political skill, the Julio-Claudian Caesars who followed him ruled, simply, by dint of lineage. The senators who assassinated Julius Caesar thought they had put an end to the danger of tyranny and had restored the republic. But from the people’s point of view, Caesar represented liberation from the despised elite. The only question that remained after his death was who would fulfill the role of sole ruler. After Augustus’ death, rule passed naturally to Tiberius, his son by his wife Livia. But even before that, Augustus had made Tiberius his right-hand man.

At a certain stage, the dynasty demonstrates its strength through rulers who are actually idiots, sadists or suffering from insanity. They manifest their power through grotesque behavior and brutal actions. The fact that they continue to rule despite their unfitness proves that the decisive factor is not ability but blood. Thus, two generations after Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire was led by the depressive Tiberius, who closeted himself on the island of Capri, where he pursued his addiction to sexual depravity. He was followed by his insane brother, Caligula, who established a brothel in the palace and dressed and actually fought as a gladiator. Yet, throughout a large part of his reign, Caligula enjoyed great popularity among the Roman masses. They loved dancers, and Caligula knew how to dance – and also how to humiliate the upper classes.

At one point in Robert Graves’ novel “I, Claudius,” the eponymous protagonist extracts a fateful confession from his grandmother, Livia, Augustus’ uninhibited wife. She tells him that she killed Augustus, doing so by means of poisoned figs. The reason, she says, is that her husband intended to restore the republic. “And it’s no use arguing with you republicans,” she tells him. “You refuse to see that one [cannot] reintroduce republican government at this stage.”

It’s noteworthy that Augustus’ poisoning by Livia, “the woman who pulls the strings,” seems not to be based on solid historical evidence. Graves wronged Livia, but also made her the central character in his book. You can also see it all in the classic BBC television series “I, Claudius.” Don’t wait too long, though – in a few years it might not be legal.

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