Politics & Policy

The Disturbing Rise of Monarchism in America

President-elect Trump and President Obama on inauguration day, January 20, 2017. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/Pool/Reuters)
Across the political spectrum, longing for a strongman–savior has reached uncomfortable levels.

The current French president, Emmanuel Macron, wants to be king. Don’t take my word for it; take his. His presidency, he has said, will be a “Jupiterian” one — after the Roman king of the gods. He has sought to emulate the grandeur of the great Sun King, Louis XIV, by convening the French parliament at Versailles. He wishes to reduce the size of parliament by a third and to circumvent it by referendum if it won’t approve his proposed reforms. “The French people are not driven by patient curiosity,” he has said, “but by an uncompromising demand. It is a profound transformation that they expect.” So far, it seems, the French are untroubled by the royal tendencies of their just-elected leader.

Now, the French people are known for the wide sweep of their proclivities and I have no interest in judging them for it. I am concerned about Macron’s reception here, not in Paris. While he was busy reinstating the glory of Louis le Grand in the old royal palace, liberal America was fawning over a picture of his being lowered from a helicopter. On the same day that France’s new Jupiterian president announced his thoughts were “too complex” for journalists, he was written up in the Fashion & Style section of the New York Times. It is perhaps the case, of course, that the political distance between America and France has rendered us more sensitive to the pomp and charisma of their new head of state than to his monarchical leanings. But take a close look at America today and it will not be surprising that the reaction to Macron’s pronouncements has ranged from indifference to unconcealed excitement. Americans want monarchy and what Americans want, they eventually get.

First, I should clarify. By monarchy I do not mean hereditary monarchy, which would adapt itself poorly to the relatively egalitarian class structure of modern America. Nor do I necessarily mean absolute monarchy, although there are some who want that. The monarchy I’m imagining could be an elective one, and it could admit certain informal constraints. But I don’t want to weaken my position too much either: I am not referring to the purely ceremonial monarchies of Northern Europe, nor am I making reference to a heavily regulated constitutional monarchy existing within the strictures of a mixed government. I term as monarchy what Polybius calls “kingship,” a rule of one “voluntarily accepted by the subjects and where they are governed rather by an appeal to their reason than by fear and force,” which operates in contradistinction to aristocracy, democracy, or some form of mixed government such as operates in America today. This monarchy might depend on popular ratification in some way, perhaps through regular elections or referenda, but it would not be accountable to representative bodies, appointed councils, or high courts, and it would claim virtually all policymaking and governance under its remit.

Monarchy in America has its most frank proponents in a fringe alt-right group generally called the “neo-reactionaries.” Without undertaking here the mammoth task of outlining neo-reactionary belief in full, we can perhaps summarize the school of thought as a belief that liberal values — meaning everything from modern progressivism to female suffrage and racial equality, depending on the particular brand of neo-reactionary — are deleterious to society and are pushed by elite liberal organs (collectively denoted the “Cathedral”) that subvert whatever pretense of democracy still exists in the West. What’s the solution? Naturally, “a Stuart restoration in an independent England.”

It’s not worth talking very long about these neo-reactionaries, since basically no one of importance supports their ultimate aim. Consider instead Michael Anton’s widely publicized essay “The Flight 93 Election,” which argues that traditional conservative values are at risk of being annihilated by progressives, that the conservative establishment is in hoc to elite liberal organs, and that democratic institutions have been so thoroughly corrupted that they offer no realistic chance of salvation. This may sound familiar.

Admittedly, Michael Anton’s proposed solution in September 2016, when the article was published, was to elect Donald Trump president, not to restore the Stuart monarchy. But his argument is, at its heart, neo-reactionary, and his implicit solution is monarchical. Anton sees the network of American institutions that have always helped maintain our checks and balances as fundamentally compromised. Citing an article by Matthew Continetti as a reference point for the damaged condition of America, Anton helpfully reminds us that “Decentralization and federalism are all well and good,” before proceeding to inquire, “But how are they going to save, or even meaningfully improve the America that Continetti describes? What can they do against a tidal wave of dysfunction, immorality, and corruption?” Ultimately, these solutions just represent “conservatism’s typical combination of the useless and inapt with the utopian and unrealizable.” These do not sound much like the words of someone seriously invested in decentralization and federalism.

What Anton really wants, after all, is something – really, someone – to combat the existential threat posed by contemporary progressivism. If “a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto” and “the stakes in 2016 are – everything,” then the case for the procedural conservatism that always has undergirded America’s distinctive system of mixed government is weak indeed. So Anton ends up in the same place as the neo-reactionaries: He sees democratic institutions as incapable of resisting the tide of liberalism – compromised as they are by the media and the administrative state – so he pins his hopes on a restorative figure who can operate outside the bounds of the conventional system. For him, this is Trump, who, “alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want to end the insanity.”

If monarchism on the talk-show right is a panic-driven search for a strongman who can finally roll back progressive victories, monarchism on the American center-left is a cooler affair.

This impulse is the root of monarchism in certain corners of the American Right: a conviction that it is the end of days, that traditional institutions are powerless to stop the Left, and that the office of the presidency is the only defense. This is fundamentally the neo-reactionary narrative, stripped of its most heterodox trappings and tooled for the present political moment. This is the thinking at work when Sean Hannity declares that the Trump presidency is under threat from the “destroy-Trump media . . . joined by the destroy-Trump Democrats, the Washington deep-state establishment, weak, establishment Republicans, and never-Trumpers” and that Congress has “failed the president.” Or when Rush Limbaugh laments that Republican congressmen have no intention of achieving conservative ends and that Trump must no longer “continue to work with Republicans.” For Hannity and Limbaugh, America’s only possible way forward is leadership by Trump and Trump alone, with Congress either ignored or rendered subservient.

If monarchism on the talk-show Right is a panic-driven search for a strongman who can finally roll back progressive victories, monarchism on the American center-left is a cooler affair, embedded in a culture of celebrity politicians that disdains republican checks and extols the virtues of a technocratic leader unencumbered by process or constraint. The liberal fixation with charisma has been much commented on – Obama is only the latest beneficiary of that peculiar reverence progressives once showed for Bill Clinton, Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Wilson – and it has been married lately to a disdain for the grubby work of politics, the messy beliefs of the American people themselves, and the irritating procedural safeguards installed by the Constitution.

In October 2015, Matt Yglesias decided it was time that someone make the too-cute-by-half argument that Hillary Clinton’s e-mail troubles were a point in her favor as a presidential candidate. For Yglesias, Clinton’s willingness to derail her political career in the name of secrecy suggested a hard-headedness that would serve her well as president. “She truly is the perfect leader for America’s moment of permanent constitutional crisis,” Yglesias wrote, “a person who cares more about results than process, who cares more about winning the battle than being well-liked, and a person who believes in asking what she can get away with rather than what would look best.” Democrats, Yglesias argued, would have to come to terms with “a reality in which any policy gains they achieve are going to come through the profligate use of executive authority.” And Clinton would be the best choice for that reality: “More than almost anyone else around, she knows where the levers of power lie, and she is comfortable pulling them, procedural niceties be damned.”

For Yglesias, process simply does not matter, and any sense of constitutional propriety is dwarfed by the pressing need to “win the battle” and pull “the levers of power.” (There is, by the way a certain jaw-dropping gall to the center-left disdain for procedure, given how modest their policy goals actually tend to be; has any political constituency ever hazarded so much for so little possible reward?) Yglesias wanted Clinton as president because Clinton would be a vessel for liberal policymaking, regardless of the constraints that American governance has always imposed on the office of the president. Can’t get something done through Congress? Get it done through an executive order. The implicit logic, as ever, is that achieving something in the wrong way is better than not achieving it at all.

This, indeed, is the implicit argument behind Yglesias’s lengthy essay arguing that gridlock is an existential crisis for American governance and that the only solution is to disband the American presidential system entirely in favor of a parliamentary system that could get things done. But, here, too, the monarchist sympathies shine through: What, after all, attracts Yglesias to a parliamentary system? “A head of government who strongly believes the nation needs actions the legislature won’t approve can dissolve parliament and hold a new election to decide the issue.” This is not, of course, how parliamentary democracies actually work, since a prime minister without support in his own party would not likely be prime minister for long. Indeed, under Yglesias’s model, there would be little practical need for the legislature, since it would exist either to rubberstamp the policies of the head of state or to be disbanded. What Yglesias is actually arguing for here is something much closer to elective monarchy operating through plebiscites – indeed, almost exactly the imperial-minded reforms proposed by Macron.

Yglesias is no outlier here. When Obama was president, adoration for the might of the executive grew to remarkable proportions on the Left. It was as if no problem could not be solved by some clever application of presidential power. Disputes over the debt ceiling? Mint a $1 trillion platinum coin. Republicans don’t want gun control? Just have the president confiscate all the guns. Senators won’t hold hearings on Merrick Garland? Execute a bizarre, incoherent, and illegal parliamentary maneuver to get around them. Thomas Friedman did a good job summarizing liberal attitudes toward checks on Obama when he suggested in September of 2009 that “there is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy,” by which he meant the refusal of Republicans to join Democrats on energy and health-care legislation. For Friedman, China-style one-party rule would literally have been better than a multi-party system of checks and balances where one party refused to play ball with the president. To be fair, monarchy is only one authoritarian system among many, but, like that of nearly everyone who shares his ideology, Friedman’s particular model of authoritarianism is organized around charismatic liberals such as Obama. This fixation — the obvious examples today are Macron, Justin Trudeau, and, somehow, Angela Merkel, who is neither charismatic nor left-wing – is ubiquitous among American liberals, and forms a dangerous concoction when mixed with the disdain for process and constitutional limits so baked into contemporary liberal thinking. How else to explain the positive mourning among Democrats when Obama’s two terms finally came up? Obama was never seen as just a president playing a carefully defined role in the broader framework of a republic; liberals ascribed to him an almost mystical role, both symbolic and actual, as an instantiation of all their political desires.

Setting aside the neo-reactionaries and a surprisingly broad swath of Twitter, there are, to be sure, not many self-declared monarchists in America. On the Right, even Sean Hannity and Michael Anton are careful to tout their dedication to the Constitution, while on the Left, supporters of almost limitless executive power phrase their ambitions as a response to gridlock, supposedly urgent social problems, or defects in the American political system. But the American fondness for checks and balances, for the mixed government that has so long served us well, is fast being replaced by a bipartisan fervor for unchecked presidential rule, elective monarchy in form if not in name. In the near-term at least, we still possess the institutions capable of ensuring that no individual leader truly runs away with the American government: The decisions of the Supreme Court will still be respected and Congress will still be at least somewhat autonomous. But this won’t last forever without a cultural recommitment to truly republican principles: The president must heed the Supreme Court in large part because he knows that there are limits to what the American people will let him get away with; congressmen must act as checks on the president because their constituents expect them to do so. If, someday, these expectations no longer hold, then the American system of government truly will have failed. And, for now, the prognosis is grim.

The case, then, is as strong as it has ever been to march in the opposite direction as Michael Anton and to pursue ever more vigorously a policy of decentralization and federalism. American politics is as dysfunctional as it is in large part because we are a diverse, disparate nation and we have abandoned many of the mechanisms that once served to localize, decentralize, and democratize policymaking. Increasingly, our national politics is approaching a winner-take-all system where all decisions are made in Washington and the best outcome for Massachusetts and Montana alike is to pray that a sympathetic president restructures the nation as much as possible to their advantage in his brief time in office. Is it any wonder then that the party of the president is perpetually clamoring for him to be made king? Our last, best recourse is to deescalate, to move policymaking back to the states and to local governments, and to refrain from turning every local dispute over politics into a national referendum on the future of America. The future of our nation depends on it.

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Max Bloom — Max Bloom is an editorial intern at National Review and a student of mathematics and English literature at the University of Chicago.

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