Crossing the Rubicon? Mar-a-Lago Raid Enflames Right Wing Fantasies of Christian Caesarism

Emperor Trump float at a carnival in Viareggio, Italy in 2019. Image: YouTube/TIME

A Roman, a Confederate, and a Nazi walk into a political discourse… Sorry, there’s no punchline. This is just how the online conservative pundit machine is dealing with the FBI raid on Trump’s Florida home, Mar-a-Lago—comparing it to the actions of a Roman dictator, calling for a new secession movement, or likening the FBI to Nazi brownshirts

On August 9th, the FBI executed a warrant to search the premises for boxes of classified material that the former president had removed from the White House and never returned. According to Politico, Trump is being investigated “for a potential violation of the Espionage Act.” But before anyone had even seen the warrant, as Bradley Onishi detailed here on RD, the right-wing punditry machine had already begun a round of histrionics, backed up by far-right spaces calling for violence and civil war. 

FBI agents, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and FBI Director Christopher Wray have all received increased death threats. And then there are all of the bad history takes on Twitter, on podcasts, in interviews and on TV, the most egregious of which might be Ben Garrison’s cartoon, putting the FBI together with the Praetorian Guard, the Gestapo, and the KGB. And yet, while all this bad history serves to hide basic facts about the former president, the current administration, the FBI—just about every element of this saga—it does reveal how the Right views this country and the precipice on which it sits. 

All roads lead to Rome—at least according to conservative pundits, politicians and influencers who’ve proclaimed the FBI raid a new “crossing the Rubicon,” among other Rome-themed remarks.

And while Arizona Republican Andy Biggs and the Texas GOP compare the FBI raid to the crossing of “the Rubicon”—thereby painting Garland and the FBI as wannabe-dictators marching to Rome—they would only be too happy to welcome a Caesar, so long as he was their own. As with “law and order” rhetoric, it becomes clear: consequences and laws are not for their own, not for conservatives. As Thomas Zimmer astutely points out:  

Calling for the law to treat different groups differently is hypocritical only if you believe in equality before the law. But conservatives explicitly don’t. A stark differentiation between those who are supposed to be bound by the rules (‘Them’) and those who are not (‘Us’) has always been very much at the heart of the conservative political project.

This is the core of the contemporary GOP: power belongs in the hands of the Elect, the Christian Nationalists, the GOP—and only the Trumpists among them—to be wielded against the Enemy, everyone else. For the FBI to do their jobs, but against Trump, is the collapse of the Republic—because the Republic only exists for the Right.

Meanwhile, others like Madison Cawthorn and Rod Dreher have called the raid on the Trumpist compound in Florida “late Roman Republic stuff,” with Cawthorn likening it “similar in style to when Sulla came to power.” This is ironic, considering that Sulla marched on Rome to conquer the city and install himself as a dictator (sound familiar?). 

Of course, Cawthorn and the rest of the right-wing pundits and politicians don’t care about what actually happened in the past. For the American Right, the rhetoric about the fall of Rome, the crumbling of an empire, a Republic which was over-stretched and battled with corruption, is all about creating an intellectual permission structure for what they see as America’s future: An authoritarian government, led by a strongman, to enshrine White Christian rule. 

Some, like Dreher, have in the past flirted with Caesarism—while openly calling it tyranny: 

Aside from revulsion at the more radical versions of race and gender ideology, the United States is not a culturally conservative country. I hate that, but that’s where we are. You could do it with Caesarism, which is tyranny. Is this what the integralists want? One more time: if it is, then they should say so. If it is not, then they should say why not, and how they intend to get us from this point to what they call a “common good” regime absent coercion.

In other words, I know it’s tyranny, but we’ve got to get there somehow, and if these guys don’t have a better plan… 

The Caesarism the American Right dreams of is neo-fascism. What they’re after, of course, is not a real Caesar—this is nostalgia for a Rome that never existed, a mythical Constantine at best. What they’re after is a new Mussolini; an American one. A Christofascist dictator with stars and stripes behind him, Bible in hand—a Caesar in the White House. The idea that all that’s needed for the US to recover from the throngs of secularism and equality (which the Right considers to be unnatural), is a benevolent dictator—benevolent, at least, to the supporters of the Right. And this idea is not only being touted by the fringe anymore but is working its way into the conservative mainstream

The rumblings of “Caesarism” are the reason why analysts have warned of the danger of one of senator Mike Lee’s favorite ruminations, that the US is not a democracy, but a republic. Lee didn’t invent this beat—it was popularized by the extremist John Birch Society. It rests on the same shady “textualism” that the current Supreme Court hides behind to roll back the Civil Rights that have been established since the 1950s and 1960s. 

At the core of the argument lies deep misgivings about entrusting the people with their own government—something that’s been a defining feature of American conservatism since its naissance, a view shared by William F. Buckley, Paul Weyrich, Pat Buchanan—and today, by the likes of Mike Lee. It should therefore not surprise us that Lee was involved in the plot to overturn the 2020 election—or that Republicans at the state level are plotting the next “legal coup” that would make a second march on the Capitol unnecessary.    

Caesarism first appears in the 19th century, as a philosophy of authoritarian rule emulating Caesar’s takeover of the Roman Republic and installation as dictator. And while the American Right might be praying that Trump is their Augustus, a widely revered emperor who grew the Roman Empire significantly, it’s more likely that he’s their Caligula, the vain and petty tyrant. But most importantly: they don’t care which it turns out to be.  

When it comes to Cawthorn and his mangled history, one might suggest he instead read up on Catiline instead, someone who conspired to take the consulship by force after he’d lost the election—except that conspiracy has already happened and been (at least temporarily) deactivated since the failure of January 6th. But the American Right is more than willing to hitch their wagon to a wannabe-dictator, even one who, like the aforementioned vain and petty tyrant, might decide each and every one of them is his favorite horse

To make their wish of an American Caesar come true, the Right has revived and updated the idea of Caesarism to fit their warped vision of the United States in 2022—and their fantasies of the future: A stale, ancient “Republic,” unable to meet the needs of its people, corrupt and fallen from grace (meaning from Christianity). Partisan gridlock in the Senate (assisted by a media that persists in spreading the blame) supplies the Right with “evidence” that the “Republic’s” institutions are compromised, while blaming this on their political enemy whose godlessness has brought about this sorry state of affairs. Enter a hero who will restore “law and order” and enshrine White Christian minority rule. 

The conservative dream of an authoritarian hero who swoops in and establishes White Christian minority rule has seemingly been answered in Viktor Orbán. Now that praising Putin is no longer seen as politically viable, Orbán has surpassed Trump and become their new model for a dream leader. And that dream leader paid CPAC a recent visit—just a few days after his widely denounced remarks about Europeans “mixing” with non-Europeans were called “worthy of Joseph Goebbels” by one of his own advisers (who subsequently resigned). 

And the dream of a new Trump administration echoes this kind of autocracy—be it Bannon’s calls to dismantle the federal bureaucracy so no one can oppose Trump; calls for what amounts to a new McCarthyism; the ever present anti-semitism of George Soros dogwhistles; or, indeed, the continued reverberations of the Big Lie and QAnon. 

GOP politicians, the right-wing pundits, and others making “Rubicon” comparisons may or may not know anything about Roman history. The rhetoric around Rome is just another symptom of the broader disease. But the mythology of a virtuous Caesar who destroys the Republic, crushes his opponents, and brings on a glorious empire for the sake of those he values? That they do believe in, and that’s why their rhetoric matters.