October 13, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
The Claremont Institute is behind the right’s ‘Red Caesarism’ craze
It was at the forefront of Trump’s J6 coup attempt and it’s leading the charge to end democracy in America, writes Lindsay Beyerstein.
The far-right is flirting with an antidemocratic ideology called “Red Caesarism.” The term was coined by Michael Anton, a former Trump national security official and a onetime fellow of the Claremont Institute. Caesarism means one-man rule, halfway between monarchy and tyranny. It’s supposed to end democracy while preserving small-r republican rule.
Why would anyone want to do that? Anton’s blunt: If current trends continue, conservatives will become electorally irrelevant. Simply put, their policies aren’t appealing to voters. Rather than developing a more attractive policy agenda, Anton would prefer to end voting. And he’s not alone. On Fox, Greg Guttfeld recently proclaimed that “elections don’t work” and suggested civil war as an alternative.
Caesar’s gory death sparked a series of civil wars that ended the Roman Republic and ushered in the Roman Empire. The fact that anyone regards this dismal period as aspirational is disturbing.
Anton’s argument riffs on Julius Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon with his army and return to Rome to become a dictator. Proponents like to say that Caesarism is better than democracy because it’s more stable. But Caesar sustained one-man rule for less than a year before being assassinated. His gory death sparked a series of civil wars that ended the Roman Republic and ushered in the Roman Empire. The fact that anyone regards this dismal period as aspirational is disturbing.
The name “Claremont” probably sounds vaguely familiar. That’s because John Eastman, the intellectual architect of Trump’s 2020 procedural coup attempt, is a senior fellow there. He argued that Mike Pence could unilaterally declare victory for the Republicans on January 6.
Michael Anton thanks no fewer than four Claremont Institute presidents for their unwavering support in the forward of his latest book, The Stakes, in which he presents the term “Red Caesarism.” “As if all that were not enough,” he continues, “I have the Claremont Institute to thank for my best friend, David DeRosiers, and my wife.”
Far-right activist Chris Rufo was also a Claremont fellow. You may remember him as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ main hatchet man at New College of Florida. There, Rufo is implementing a strategy pioneered by Hungarian strongman Victor Orbán of abolishing gender studies as the leading edge of a rightwing remake of public education.
The Orbán and DeSantis administrations share an affection rooted in love of autocracy and hope that each can legitimize the extreme agendas of each other. “You can say I am autocratic, pro-Putin, pro-everything that is bad, but look, in Florida, in the United States, the Republicans are doing the same,” an Orbán spokesman said.
Last month, Rufo garnered further notoriety for hosting a debate about whether it’s okay for conservatives to pal around with Nazis. If a hypothetical white nationalist dictator promised to eradicate the left, would it be OK? On the affirmative was Charles Haywood, former shampoo mogul turned wannabe warlord – whose secretive network of fraternal lodges receives funding from the Claremont Institute. Haywood is an enthusiastic proponent of Red Caesarism.
Rufo isn’t even the most extreme of Claremont’s roster of current and former fellows. In 2019, they inducted Jack Posobiec, the father of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory that culminated in a deranged acolyte firing an AR-15 in a DC pizza parlor in a bid to “liberate” non-existent children from the restaurant’s non-existent basement.
“When we’re talking about people like Franco or Pinochet or even Salazar … they did kill people. They killed people justly, they killed people unjustly, and that’s just a historical fact,” Haywood said during Rufo’s debate. “But they saved a lot more people than they killed.”
Haywood wrote in a blog post that he admired Spanish fascist dictator Francisco Franco because the left hates him. But “after reading up on him, my impression of him has changed. Now it is positively glowing.”
Every movement needs intellectuals, and for all its anti-intellectual bluster, the MAGA movement is no different. Red Caesarism sounds buffoonish, but thought leaders within the GOP are pushing it in earnest. They’re backed by rich donors and pseudo-academic PR shops like Claremont. They finally feel secure enough to stan dictatorship.
Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.