Our Once and Future Caudillos
It’s been oft said that Barack Obama has turned the United States into a banana republic through his autocratic style of governance, rejection of constitutional principles, and corruption. You will not get argument from me on that. But add to that indictment, at least as things presently stand, the most glaring evidence that he has wrecked the modern world’s first and greatest republic. That his likely successors on either the Democrat or Republican side will continue America’s slide into confused autocratic, corrupt, and authoritarian rule. History demonstrates that once caudillos come to power, their most likely successors are other caudillos. Obama is a caudillo. And so would be Clinton, Sanders, or Trump as president.
It is easy to mock caudillos, whether they hail from Latin America (where the term originates) or other backwaters of the underdeveloped world. But on balance, this is the model that has dominated international governance since nationalist revolutions between the 18th and 20th Centuries superseded monarchal dynasties.
Democracy and freedom, in all their connotations, are the exception to the rule in human history. Most of the time the dynastic model controlled with only rare breaks, e.g. some Greek city states and republican Rome. The political revolutions that began in Britain, its American colonies and France in the 18th Century mostly successfully rejected that model. But the revolutions that wracked Latin America in the early 19th Century diverged into authoritarianism, substituting for monarchal rule that of military strongmen who took the power and trappings of royalty, just not the titles (though in some cases like King Pedro of Brazil they did that too.) These Latin American “republics” substituted the idea of nationalism for that of divine right, but otherwise maintained the monarchal model, and as a mechanism of elite enrichment and control it worked quite well. That model spread without much difficulty to Asia and Africa in the 20th Century.
Most nations today could be said to be under the rule of caudillos, whether their names are Castro, Erdogan, or Mugabe. That doesn’t mean that the societies that these strongmen rule are desirable or prosperous, only that as a model of governance they pretend to be democratic, easily enrich elites, and are relatively simple to maintain. And this is true regardless of confessional orientation or even the absence of it. So the caudillo model fits well whether the government is dominated by Catholics, Muslims, or is secular.
Obama grew up under such a government in Indonesia. He has basically has sought to displace the American constitutional model with the corrupt philo-Islamic authoritarianism of his stepfather’s homeland. To a large extent he has succeeded, ignoring constitutional limitations on his power, attempting to dominate national politics and secure elections through a cult of personality, and favoring ethnicities, races and cohorts that that support his power base. He does this without regard to Enlightenment ideas like equality before the law, while muttering homilies about their importance and of promoting republican governance.
All this might be marked down as an anomaly attributable to Obama’s status as the first African-American president, fraught as that position is with the weight of history, and Obama’s own unusual background. But the political climate dominating the U.S. today as represented by the leading candidates competing to succeed Obama, suggests that his attempt to be a transformative president is succeeding, as the country appears to be sliding into permanent caudillo status.
The caudillo model is hard to displace once installed. That’s because superficially caudillos reject the general ideological framework of monarchal rule and outright dictatorship, and use the trappings and rhetoric of republicanism to maintain legitimacy and repress revolutionary fervor. Thus the international popularity of one-party rule and phony elections. Rome essentially slid into this model after Caesar overthrew the republic. From Augustus on Rome became a monarchy masquerading as republic. The Caesars maintained the trappings of republicanism, the Senate, consuls and magistrates while they actually ruled as absolute monarchs. It worked for half a millennium -- a millennium-and-a-half if you count Byzantium. Post-enlightenment caudillo rule has been about as successful in most of the globe. And America under Obama nicely fits this model. He rules as a virtual monarch, manipulating a vast bureaucratic regulatory state, while playing lip service to the other branches of government and republican principles, aided and abetted by what largely amounts to a government-controlled media.
Among the best evidence that Obama has established caudillo rule is that leading candidates to succeed him (Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Donald Trump) will likely follow this model, thus institutionalizing the caudillo in the U.S. Clinton would most closely adhere to the Obama method, a corrupt philo-Islamic regime that maintains power by manipulating the bureaucratic machine and favoring certain constituencies. Sanders would invoke a socialist model along the lines of the Castros or countless other “social-democratic” autocracies. And Trump would follow whatever his own narcissistic and idiosyncratic conception of governance turns out to be. But it will assuredly be autocratic and based on a cult of personality -- Peronism as implemented by plutocratic Manhattanite.
The past two elections have proven Democrats are comfortable with this model, so electing a second caudillo is not a problem for that party. Trump, though, presents a conundrum for Republicans. His supporters assert that he is a revolutionary, the man who will overthrow the ingrained elitism and privilege of modern bureaucratic republican governance. But in fact he will only be a successor caudillo to one who has already largely overthrown republican rule. Trump’s people are akin to supporters of Caesar -- enraptured by a man, and so intent on attacking a rich and corrupt Senate that they are willing to accept an autocrat in its place. Those Romans had a point, as do Trump’s supporters. But making that point is not worth permanently sacrificing a real, albeit flawed republic, for one of the banana variety.
Trump’s supporters trump card is that they are so put out by Republicans and republicanism that if they don’t have their way they won’t vote for anyone else from that party in the national election, throwing it to a Democrat. But more and more there is the feeling that, in the words of one of those Democrats, what difference does it make?