When James II was deposed in 1688, and replaced by William of Orange, it was a bloodless affair. That so-called “Glorious Revolution” gave England a constitutional monarchy — as well as a remarkably nonviolent political order.

In the centuries that have followed, not a single monarch has been assassinated, and only one Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, has suffered such a grim fate. And he was killed not by political rivals, but by a merchant with a grievance. Before 1688, though, deposed kings and other politically inconvenient royals often faced a darker end than the exiled James II. Royals including two Edwards, Henry VI, and Mary, Queen of Scots, either died mysteriously in captivity or were executed publicly.

This is not especially surprising. In a monarchy proper, as opposed to the constitutional kind, political legitimacy rests not in the system so much as in the person of the monarch: a king only becomes meaningfully a king when enough powerful people perceive him as having that special extra something that elevates him to royalty. And a pretender is someone else competing to be seen in this light — either by the same cadre of the powerful or by a rival cadre. In this situation, the only sure-fire way to eliminate the risk posed by a pretender is to eliminate the pretender.

Whatever name Vladimir Putin gives his system of government, its operations in practice make more sense in monarchical than liberal democratic terms. Take, for example, the death in prison of Alexei Navalny last Friday. While of course reprehensible from a democratic perspective, his death was wholly predictable from a monarchical one. For Navalny was, in effect, a pretender to the Russian throne, with considerable public and international support behind his protests against Putin’s regime. Thus, much as with Henry VI in 1471, the only way to eliminate the threat he posed was to eliminate him.

Writing against the French Revolution, the Savoyard reactionary Joseph de Maistre argued, in 1794, that the government of a people is not something that can be composed in the abstract; rather, it emerges from the distinct history, culture, and disposition of the people as a whole. With this in mind, we might suggest that, notwithstanding superficial changes of regime, from the Romanovs through Stalin to Putin, Russia has never really abandoned rule by tsar and aristocracy.

This is more difficult to grasp from the vantage-point of the anglophone West, though. For here we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of the Anglo-Saxon model as the only sane and decent way of doing politics. First formalised in the 1701 Act of Settlement — then, across the Atlantic, stripped of its vestigial monarchy 75 years later by the Declaration of Independence — this model views politics as properly a contest of ideas rather than individuals, conducted in a political space that at least aspires to neutrality. Political rivalries, in this order, are to be contained via a matrix of shared norms — one that, importantly, includes a convention of not imprisoning, persecuting, or bumping off one’s rivals.

But this modus operandi has arguably only come to seem so self-evident and eternal by virtue of the outsize role played first by the British Empire, and subsequently by the American one, in shaping the modern West. Both these regimes share a common intellectual and religious legacy and, initially at least, some considerable common demographics. But today the Old and New Worlds are diverging increasingly sharply — including in political outlook. Notably, in today’s England, even supposedly insurgent Right-wing parties colour dutifully inside the conventional political lines. By contrast, the Anglosphere nation now most openly debating direct autocratic rule is the Land of the Free.

There, after Biden’s victory, Trump was mockingly linked to James II. More recently, though, jibes about an impotent king in exile has morphed into mounting anxiety about a Caesar-in-waiting. Those on the Right have made their contribution, not least via mischievous memes comparing the profile of Trump’s son Barron with surviving images of rulers from classical antiquity. And Trump himself has done little to assuage those who fear he aspires to Caesarism, declaring recently that he would not govern as a dictator on election “except on day one”.

In response, Republican Never Trumper, Liz Cheney, has warned of “a sort of sleepwalking into dictatorship in the United States”. Is this really happening, though? In a political attention economy that incentivises hyperbole, it’s hard to say. But if it is, the surest evidence in favour of an American tilt towards autocracy comes not directly from Trump, or even from neoreactionary writers or online shitposters. Rather, it lurks in the political class, in the tiers just below Presidential incumbents or hopefuls — and especially in the weaponisation of American institutions as tools of political persecution.

“Autocracy lurks in the political class — and especially in the weaponisation of American institutions.”

This is, increasingly, a bipartisan strategy. On the day Navalny died, a court in New York City ordered Donald Trump to pay a $354 million fine in a civil fraud trial, one of a plethora of ongoing efforts to impeach or otherwise hamper Trump via the courts. Trump now claims himself subjected to a Putinesque campaign of persecution, calling the ruling “a form of Navalny” and declaring: “If I weren’t running [for president] none of this stuff would ever happen.”

Two days before the Trump fraud ruling, meanwhile, a parallel Republican mobilisation of the formally neutral institutions of justice produced a special counsel report, which found Biden had “wilfully retained and disclosed classified materials”. When the special counsel nonetheless declined to prosecute on the basis of these findings, this was interpreted as further evidence of partisan abuse of neutral institutions, and denounced by Republican House Conference Chair Elise Stefanik as a sign of the “unAmerican, two-tier justice system that exists in Joe Biden’s America”. The outrage only grew louder the following day, when a key witness in the Trumpist attempt to impeach Joe Biden was charged by the FBI with fabricating allegations about the President and his son taking bribes.

To be clear: I am not taking a stance here on the truth or justice of any of these allegations or campaigns. Nor, unlike Trump, am I drawing an equivalence between efforts by Republicans and Democrats to wield American state machinery against their political rivals, and the tendency of Vladimir Putin’s enemies to die in plane accidents or (like several English medieval royals) mysteriously in prison. Nonetheless, it should be clear that a new consensus is solidifying among the American political class: one that departs increasingly dramatically from its British constitutional forebear.

In this emerging order no one expects to persuade their opponents. This is perhaps understandable: polarisation is now so acute in the Land of the Free that almost two-thirds of young Americans would reject a prospective partner based on incompatible politics. There is no point contesting ideas, if people’s loyalties are tribal. But if this is so, how do you win? The answer appears to be: by capturing institutions, then going after the other tribe’s leader. There is no such thing as neutral regulatory, governance or administrative infrastructure in this existential struggle against political opponents.

A similar institutional trench warfare is also being fought today in Poland. Since the deposition of the conservative PiS party, a coalition led by former EU President Donald Tusk has taken over and fired key personnel from the state broadcaster, is legislating to pack the judiciary, and is also reportedly preparing to prosecute key PiS officials. Supporters see these actions as an “iron broom” sweeping out anti-democratic distortions. Opponents, though, view Tusk’s efforts themselves as the assault on democracy.

But perhaps again this makes sense from de Maistre’s perspective. Poland’s tradition of liberal democracy is so short as to be practically non-existent. The country enjoyed four years as a fully independent democratic state, from 1922 to 1926, and then another 13 between the end of the Cold War and before EU accession in 2004. Otherwise, the lands and peoples known as Poland have been ruled with vacillating boundaries by an assortment of monarchs, strongman rulers with largely cosmetic parliaments, and Eastern or Western empires.

Thus the face-off between Tusk and PiS represents, if anything, a reversion to the Polish norm, following a brief outlier effort at doing politics on something like the Anglo-Saxon model. And seen across the globe and through time, this is also more generally true: Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy is the outlier, and assorted forms of autocracy and empire are the historic and cross-cultural norm. So perhaps we should greet the competing claims of institutional capture now emanating from America’s rival factions with a measure of fatalism, even if these suggest that American political-class support for the legacy Anglo system is fading.

And again, perhaps, from de Maistre’s perspective this development makes sense. For while its founding political order drew heavily from England both in sensibility and in core assumptions, it is less obvious why modern America should continue in this vein. A “propositional nation” from inception, over time the Land of the Free has become, by design, ineluctably less Anglo in demographic terms. And seen thus, it is perhaps unsurprising to note how many American culture war issues, from statues to “whiteness”, cash out as disputes over how (or whether) to value the nation’s Anglo cultural legacy.

Following the same de Maistrean logic, it’s to be expected that as the demographic composition of a nation changes, so too will that nation’s emergent — as opposed to written — constitution. It is not unthinkable that one casualty of this change might be the once-unshakeable baseline of public support for a style of procedural politics strongly associated with America’s early Anglo-Saxon Protestant settlers.

What will emerge in its place? Will a rapidly-diversifying 21st-century America find itself, by virtue of its changing composition, more inclined towards more autocratic governance? Certainly, albeit in a less violent fashion than Russia, an order seems to be emerging in which victory requires more than just defeating opposition parties: it necessitates the annihilation of rival pretenders. And in turn implies the replacement of a politics of ideas, by one of divinely marked persons. Should this order consolidate itself, it will, whatever the window-dressing, be a monarchical regime.

At present, the keenest supporters of American diversity are generally also those loudest in expressing anxieties about a putative Trumpian Caesar. It will be ironic in the extreme if it does turn out that the real bulwark against autocracy was America’s now rapidly dissolving Anglo heritage.

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Source: UnHerd Read the original article here: https://unherd.com/