The Threat of Authoritarian Regimes


Dr. Paul Rahe joins Hugh Hewitt to discuss Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, and the threat of authoritarian regimes.


HH: At the end of an extraordinary week of interviews, it’s time to step back and take a big view, which is what I do every single week on a Hillsdale Dialogue with either Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, or one of his wonderful colleagues. Today, Dr. Paul Rahe is back. He is a political historian. His website is www.paularahe.com, by the way. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues, including many in the past with Dr. Rahe, are available at www.hughforhillsdale.com. And all of Hillsdale’s offerings are available at www.hillsdale.edu, including the opportunity to sign up for Imprimis, their free speech digest, which you absolutely should be getting. Dr. Rahe, great to have you back, thank you for joining me this week.

PR: Oh, it’s a pleasure.

HH: You know, Dr. Arnn could not be available, so we’re taking a break from Lincoln. And I asked him who could I talk to about what I talked to Donald Trump on Wednesday, the authoritarian temptation that happens in republics when they collapse into despotism and authoritarianism. And he said well, your man would be Rahe. And so he nominated you. But then he told me you’ve got a new book coming out on Sparta as well, so let’s put a plug in for that at least. What are you writing about Sparta?

PR: Well, it’s coming out, technically, it’s released on 24 November, but it’s up on Amazon now, and it’s called The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge. And it’s about, in the abstract, it’s about the relationship between foreign policy and domestic concerns. And my argument, again in the abstract, is that regimes matter, that you can have a geopolitical situation that might favor two different polities cooperating with one another, but that regime differences, and regime hostilities, often get in the way, as happened during the Cold War, as happened during World War II, where regime differences mattered. It mattered that Nazi Germany was Nazi, that Great Britain and the United States were democracies. It mattered that the Soviet Union was communist, that Great Britain and France and the United States and West Germany were democracies. And it mattered that in classical antiquity, it mattered that the regime of Xerxes was a religiously-driven regime oriented towards the conquest of the world under Zoroastrian auspices, and that they simply had to be aggressive with regards to the Greeks, because there were imperatives built into the very nature of the polity that gave rise to a deep hostility between the Greeks and the Persians, over the issue of liberty.

HH: And the Persians invade, and Dr. Arnn mentioned to me you kind of consider this to be the first attack from the Middle East into the classical West.

PR: Yes, and it’s like a jihad. That is to say, the motive is religious, and the aim is to establish a universal monarchy in which the king is the viceroy of a universal god. This is the first time that’s happened in human history. So it’s a very interesting story.

HH: How did the Greeks react to that? Do the Greeks understand it as a theological challenge as well as a political, you know, just a struggle for territory and turf?

PR: Yes, you can see that in Herodotus, and in his account of the religious difference, and of the outlook of Xerxes, that he wants to be in a world where the sun, wherever the sun shines, he rules. And that’s religiously-driven. And so they know this. And you know, look, it’s a really remarkable story, because the Persian empire may have been the greatest empire in human history in the sense that it dominated a larger proportion of the world’s population than any subsequent empire. Think of it in this way. In antiquity, the only places where population is dense is by the great river valleys – the Nile River valley, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus River and the Yellow River in China. Xerxes ruled three of these four river valleys. So you know, if you judge by absolute power, no, Persia’s not as great as the United States is today. But if you judge it in terms of the number of people, the proportion of the world’s population they ruled, and the proportion of the world’s resources they had, it’s astonishing. And then you look at the Athenians. In 480, there are 30,000 adult male Athenians, 30,000.

HH: Huh, that’s it?

PR: The Spartans, there are 8,000 adult male Spartans.

HH: So 38,000.

PR: And what did these reduce to fighting one another?

HH: Yeah.

PR: They’ve never cooperated. And cooperation’s almost beyond their reach, and yet they pull themselves together and they defeat this colossus. And not only do they defeat it in the Persian wars, they hold it at bay for a good, long time thereafter, and eventually using the techniques developed by the ancient Greek cities in warfare. Alexander the Great conquers the Persian empire, and you get Greek cities in Afghanistan, I mean, real Greek cities.

HH: You know…

PR: …with philosophers visiting them.

HH: When this book comes out, we’re going to have to spend a Hillsdale Dialogue talking about it. I mean, that’s fascinating to me, and we can go backwards as well as forwards in the Hillsdale Dialogue. We’ve always moved chronologically forward, but now we’ll go back to the beginning. But Dr. Rahe, help me set up my subject. Donald Trump is appealing to a very large group of people in American right now, and I asked him point blank do you think you’re tickling the authoritarian temptation that we’ve seen throughout history, and I didn’t violate Godwin’s Law by going to the regime of the last century that was so evil. I just pointed to Caesar and Napoleon and a lot of the bad regimes of the last century that didn’t go that far, just you know, tough times in democracies bring on this desire for a man on a white horse. How deeply rooted is that in history? And why did it begin in the Roman Republic?

PR: The Roman case is complicated. And it may not, the analogy may not work perfectly, although let me push it a little bit. There are two things that brought down the Roman Republic. The most important of them was overextension. That is to say it grew beyond the capacity of a republic to govern. You know, it dominates the entire Mediterranean basin, it dominates the Atlantic coast and inland from the Atlantic coast to the Rhine River. It eventually will dominate Britain and so forth, but not at this particular time. I mean, Caesar does visit Britain, but he doesn’t conquer it. It dominates all the way to the Tigris and Euphrates basin. So it’s simply huge. And you know, Montesquieu, who studied this carefully, and wrote a little book called Considerations On The Causes Of The Greatness Of The Romans And Their Decline, he put his finger on it. The institutions of the ancient republic, which were quasi-direct democracies, you know, this is modified slightly in the Roman case by the Senate, which an oligarchic institution, but you know, big decisions are made, the elections of the magistrates and so forth, in mass assemblies. It can’t function very well in this regard. And look, the ancient republics are built on militias. That is to say they’re built on denying the distinction between citizen, between civilian and soldier. Every citizen is a civilian, and every citizen is a soldier. What happens is when you get a massive empire, you have to have people who specialize in war. You have to have standing armies. And you can’t have standing armies of civilians, because these people can’t maintain their farms while they’re serving in the military on the Tigris and Euphrates River, or in the military in Spain, or in the military in North Africa. And so it’s mercenary armies, essentially, that destroy the Roman Republic. That’s what Caesar does. He appeals to his army against the people who are in control at Rome. That’s one aspect for…

HH: But he had, he represented the popular party, didn’t he? He represented the people who were dispossessed, largely.

PR: Well, let’s put it this way. He took advantage of them./

HH: Yes.

PR: Representing them is strong. You know, he’s a patrician. He’s from the most ancient of, you know, there’s kind of various layers of aristocracy at Rome. And the patricians go back to the very beginning. What he does is he takes the side of those at Rome itself who want to freeload.

HH: Well…

PR: You know, the other problem is a great empire produces enormous wealth, and it corrupts the people, especially the people in the cities.

HH: Well, that does diverge from modern analogies. When we come back from break, we’ll pick it up there, because that is in fact very, very different, isn’t it, Dr. Rahe, from…

PR: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.

HH: So he was representing people who wanted to use the wealth of the empire, not those who resented the use of the wealth of the empire.

PR: That’s right.

HH: Okay, when we come back, we’ll talk about the authoritarian temptation, and what Napoleon differs from Caesar and the modern authoritarians, whether it’s Juan Peron in Argentina or Franco in Spain. Again, I’m not going to violate Godwin’s Law here and go to the Third Reich, because that’s its own evil case without parallel.

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HH: Dr. Rahe, when we went to break, we were talking about Caesar. And of course, I put forward the theory to Donald Trump earlier this week, and I did it right to him. I said you know, some people are going to say you’re playing to the desire for a tough man in tough times, and we see that repeatedly, republics give into that over history. But you’re saying that’s not Caesar. Is it Napoleon? Or maybe you want to expand on the Caesarism?

PR: I don’t think it’s Napoleon, either. Napoleon, you know, the model for Napoleon is, in a way, it’s Caesar, in a way, it’s Oliver Cromwell. You know, Edmund Burke looks at the situation in 1789, especially when they begin to move away from legality, and he’d been favorable to the French Revolution up to a certain point. And then he though oh, my God, they’re going to repeat what happened in England between 1640 and 1660. And he said it’s going to end in a military dictatorship. And it did. The key there is you have a revolutionary situation, and you end up with revolutionary wars. And in a wartime situation, men of supreme talent, often very ruthless men, come to power. So that’s what’s…

HH: And so why is that? What is it that is at the desire for order out of chaos that allows the most ruthless to triumph, because there are a lot of ruthless people running around Rome. I mean, Sulla preceded Caesar, and there a lot of ruthless people running around Paris in the revolution, off with their heads people. So what is it that allows one to use the means of democracy to become, or crypto-democracy, to become the number one guy?

PR: Well, you know, look, when you have prolonged wars, armies have a way of becoming loyal to their leaders. That’s what happened in Rome. The armies off in distant places looked to their generals to provide for them when they came back home. And so they became the tools of those generals. That’s more or less what happened with the New Model Army. They had a leader. He was a fabulous general, one of the greatest in human history. And when other…

HH: And that’s Cromwell. You’ll have to explain that.

PR: …ways of governing failed, it fell into his lap. And that’s what happened with Napoleon.

HH: The New Model Army, you’ll have to explain that to people, because that might, that’s definitely going over the heads of the Steelers fans, Dr. Rahe.

PR: Yeah, okay. Look, the old armies of Europe are based upon cavalry. They’re based upon knights on horseback. And beginning in the time of Machiavelli, people begin to rethink the possibility of reestablishing the primacy of infantry. One of those who inherits that movement to reestablish the primacy of infantry is Oliver Cromwell. And his New Model Army is new modeled in part because they throw all the politicians out, except him. And it’s done because they don’t want the army politicized, but they leave one guy in there who is both a member of the long Parliament and the leader of the army. And they leave him in there, because they desperately need him.

HH: And he’s also a very, very good general. He knew war.

PR: Oh.

HH: He was a superb …

PR: And they probably would have lost without him. You know, in other words, and that’s true of Napoleon as well. You…

HH: So you’re saying that every one of these circumstances are unique unto themselves, that we cannot extrapolate some unique flaw in democracy that inevitably over centuries yields to this?

PR: No, I don’t think it works that way. I think you’ve got to look at, in the case of Caesar, in the case of Cromwell, in the case of Napoleon, you’ve got to look at representative government or forms of democratic government, or something like that, that are inadequate to the situation that the country faces, and you have the emergence of a man of undeniable military skill, enormous military skill, and of political savvy, who takes advantage of it, but also in a way, it gets force on him.

HH: All three of them are extraordinary…

PR: Oliver Cromwell really didn’t want to end up where he ended up.

HH: And Washington is the same guy, but he turns it down.

PR: Yes, and he also participates in an attempt to quiet the turmoil, that is to say to bring the Revolution to completion through the establishment of a Constitution that would be adequate to the needs of the country. So you know, he does two things. He sidesteps becoming a Cromwell and a Napoleon, and he does so knowing perfectly well about Cromwell and Napoleon and having thought about it. That’s the first thing he does, and he does it ostentatiously. And he emphasizes the primacy of civilian government. The trouble was the civilian government to which he surrendered his powers was inadequate. And so the next stage takes place about five, six years later is the American Constitutional Convention. And what does he do? He agrees to go. Very important. He puts his prestige behind it, and he chairs it. And he’s then the one who conveys the document to the Continental Congress to be sent on to the states for ratification. So he puts all of his prestige…

HH: And then he, not only did he govern…

PR: …on establishing a government in which he will be unnecessary.

HH: And when he does take up the presidency, and I’ve often read arguments that this would not have been ratified had not Washington been looming to be the first president, he lives within is strictures.

PR: Yes, and he only does two terms.

HH: Yeah, and so that…

PR: He would like to have gotten out after one term, but he looks at the situation in Europe, and the developing troubles and the impact that the French Revolution is going to have on America, and he thinks okay, four more years.

HH: So what I’m coming to is I’ve been watching the steady deterioration of Constitutional practice over 20 years, and thinking it’s Roman Revolutionesque, and that President Obama has simply thrown off the Constitution in so many places, ignored it, right, just ignored it.

PR: Yes.

HH: So I asked Donald Trump, people are going to accuse you of being an authoritarian, will you live by the rules, and he said absolutely. President Obama is not living by the rules. Very reassuring, but do you worry about this evolution in means that is underway?

PR: Yes, I do tremendously. It’s, let me draw an analogy with the Roman Republic. It’s not quite the same, but there’s this similarity. We are now in a situation where the form of government that we have, I’m not talking about the real Constitution, I’m talking about what the way we run our country, which departs radically from the Constitution, is inadequate to our circumstances. And it’s inadequate in the following way. You cannot centralize government over a territory as large as our territory and actually have legislative supremacy. And the reason is the details of running the show over so large an area is greater than Congress can manage. And so what you think? You set up these…

HH: Hold on to that thought. I’ve got to go to break. I’ll be right back with Dr. Rahe. What happens when we reach that situation?

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HH: Dr. Rahe, when we went to break, you were saying as you look at our Constitutional republic today, we’ve centralized power beyond the capacity of the centralized power to actually use it effectively.

PR: Yes, or another way of putting it is it’s not beyond the capacity of the centralized power, because if you had a dictatorship, you could be effective. It’s beyond the capacity of the legislative power, and the reason is it’s too big, it’s too complicated. And so from the Roosevelt administration on, we have set up executive agencies. Congress has ceded to them rule making power. They make rules that have the force of law, meaning it has given up the legislative power to them. This has concentrated enormous power in the hands of presidents. And this particular president has shown what you can do with that power, and he has shown that he can work around Congress, and he can work around the courts, ignore the spirit of their decisions and doing what he wants to do. And it’s very hard to stop him.

HH: So the analogy…

PR: So what we’re doing is we’re evolving into an executive dictatorship.

HH: So is the analogy to the Roman Republic good or bad?

PR: Well, the Roman situation’s not the same, but it is also the case that the government that they had was no longer adequate to the size of their empire. So here’s where the analogy works, and this is something Montesquieu points out. It’s very hard to sustain a republic on an extended territory. The founder fathers’ answer to challenge is to put most government in the hands of the state. In other words, all of the police powers, and almost all the regulatory powers, and you have a central government of limited purpose aimed mainly at foreign policy, which the states can’t do for themselves, and also aimed at interstate, not commerce inside of state, but commerce between the states, because otherwise, you’ll have squabbles over tariffs between Pennsylvania and New York and so forth.

HH: Sure.

PR: That limited government at the federal level worked well. But with the progressives, and in particular with the New Deal and the Great Society, and you know, Obama calls this government the New Foundation. It tells you a lot, doesn’t it?

HH: Yes.

PR: And with all of that, and with the expansion of the scope of the federal government in detailed regulation of all sorts of aspects of our lives, Congress can’t debate these issues. There isn’t time. So what it does is it writes a vague law, and it cedes power to executive agencies. And the executive agencies are ultimately dominated by the president, who picks the people who run them.

HH: And mediocrity breeds what I have here in Colorado, which is a yellow river, right? It breeds an EPA administrator who had been the mayor of Boulder and served in a political White House, and had absolutely no idea what he was doing when he authorized this thing. And that replicates itself, and then people get angrier.

PR: Correct.

HH: So there’s a cycle, we’ve got about a minute to the break, where do you see this going? And do you think the rhetoric of the campaign thus far is adequate to the problems we face?

PR: No. No, no, it’s not adequate at all. I mean, nobody, Trump included, and I don’t think much of Trump, but none of the candidates thus far have articulated the problem very well. And the reason is they’re trying, all trying to avoid making mistakes that will cost them popular support. And they don’t discuss the crucial issues, which is the administrative state. No one’s suggesting that we take this thing apart, and we send these powers back where they belong to the states, so that people in local areas can run their own lives. Instead, what we have are administrative agencies at the center of things, over which we have no control. You know, look at that EPA business. Is anyone going to be sued? Is anyone going to go to prison? Is anyone accountable in any way for that blunder?

HH: Well…

PR: If it was done by a private entity, there would be people in prison, and there would be huge lawsuits.

HH: Well, there will be lawsuits by the people injured against the federal government, so you and I, Paul Rahe, and everyone listening, will pay for that.

PR: Yes.

HH: And they will actually be recompensed out of the judgment fund in the Department of Justice. It happens all the time whenever the federal government screws up someone’s property. But no one will get fired. No one’s been fired. It’s remarkable.

PR: Right. We don’t have accountable, responsible government anymore.

HH: When we come back from break, I’m going to talk with Dr. Paul Rahe about the rhetoric of this campaign, because I think he articulated something there that if any of the campaigns are listening, and actually, they all listen to every single broadcast, they might want to think long and hard about saying.

— – — –

HH: So Dr. Rahe, before we went to break, you said no one’s articulated the problem, and that is that we do not return to the states governing authority. If someone did that, and of course, the natural candidate to do that would be a governor, and it would be Walker or Christie or Kasich, Trump is not articulating that. I haven’t heard Graham articulate that. I haven’t heard anyone actually articulate this very well, yet. How would you have them phrase it? What would you have them appeal, without fear of favor to the people on?

PR: Well, I would have them look at things that have happened over the last six and a half years – the IRS business. I would have them point to ways in which the federal government has become unaccountable, and has become a political tool of a single party or a single partisan impulse. I would ask them the following. Should the manner in which colleges and universities all over the United States in localities deal with student misconduct, be dictated by the Department of Education in Washington? Or can’t they govern themselves? I would ask them why should the federal government in Washington dictate in fine detail our medical insurance? Can’t that be done locally? Wouldn’t it be better if it were done locally with an eye to local conditions, local peculiarities, and would it not be more consistent with self-government if it was done in the localities where we actually know the people who represent us?

HH: Now Dr. Rahe…

PR: We experience Washington as an alien force.

HH: But has it ever successfully been made to give back power, the centralizing government. And I’m talking about not Washington here, but in history.

PR: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

HH: Where?

PR: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did just that when they overcame John Adams and Alexander Hamilton in 1800.

HH: Oh, interesting.

PR: Yes, of course it…

HH: So within our own republic they made that argument that they were centralizing, and they had to give back.

PR: Oh, absolutely, and it was made, I don’t have the quotation ready to hand, but the analysis that I’m giving you was laid out in 1792 by James Madison in his criticism of the program advanced by Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. And the theme of it was everything gets concentrated in a government that is invisible and at a distance from the people, an alien government. And these things need to be left to the states. Now I happen to think, I’m actually with Hamilton on the particular issues at the time.

HH: So am I. I’m a big free trader and Bank of America and road builder, you bet. So…

PR: Yeah, no, I’m with him, but the argument that Madison articulated in the party press essays of 1792 applies to the world we live in the most remarkable way. In other words, the danger he saw was not really a danger from the Hamiltonian program, but it was a danger.

HH: But the exception is this. When they made their arguments, they made their arguments to a voting class that was intensely interested and well-read, and had attention spans. And I think it’s the attention span, actually, that is the big difference now. We, I’ve talked about this with Dr. Arnn in the Lincoln-Douglas debates lasting three hours.

PR: Yes.

HH: You know, this radio show is three hours. The average time spent listening, and I’m remarkable. I have like the longest TSL, time spent listening, of anybody. And it’s still under half an hour, because people get in their cars and they drive home, they get out of their cars, and they go back about their business. Twitter is 140 characters. How in the world can you make an argument like that?

PR: You know, I don’t know. I can tell you this. Radio, which you’re involved with, is suited to extended arguments. We’re having one right now, and people are listening to it.

HH: Sure.

PR: And they’re thinking about it. Television is not.

HH: Agreed.

PR: Television is about the visual. And the visual is about the emotional. Speech can appeal to the emotions, but it often appeals to reason as well. The visual can only appeal to the emotions. And so the world of spectacle is a world in which you cannot have long arguments articulated. Everything has to be in what’s called a soundbyte.

HH: Right. In fact, if you watch the…

PR: And it tells you everything you need to know.

HH: Did you watch the Trump press conference on Tuesday night?

PR: No. No, I don’t have a television.

HH: Well you see, you missed a spectacle.

PR: There’s liberation in that, if you have children.

HH: Yeah, you missed a spectacle, Donald Trump arguing with Jorge Ramos of Univision back and forth, not really talking with each other, but talking past each other. It was riveting television, right? I watched the whole thing a second time.

PR: Yes.

HH: …because it was intense, real drama between people in genuine conflict as opposed to rehearsed pretend stuff. But what you’re arguing is that’s emotional, not rational. And that’s certainly now how the federalists and the Jeffersonians went about their arguments.

PR: No, if they got on radio, it might be quite different, because I think radio forces you into articulating an argument. There’s only the words, that’s all you’ve got. You know, I’m going, tomorrow morning, I’m going to Stratford, Ontario to the Shakespeare Festival.

HH: Oh, good choice.

PR: All the difference in the world between seeing Hamlet on stage and seeing it in a movie, and the difference is on stage, it’s the words that count. It’s not the spectacle at all. They could have no costumes at all, and if they were good actors and they delivered the words in the proper way, the play would be mesmerizing. But if it’s done in a movie, it’s all got to be spectacle, and the words are subordinated to the visual.

HH: Oh, well put. What are you seeing at the Stratford Festival?

PR: We’re going to see Hamlet, we’re going to see Love’s Labour’s Lost, we’re going to see Pericles: Prince of Tyre, which I’ve never seen. And they have a festival theatre there which is huge, and has all this equipment and so forth, and then they do in something called the Tom Patterson, they do plays in a very small venue that might have been an automobile shop. I can’t quite tell. And it’s so much better.

HH: Enjoy your vacation. Professor Smith must be very, very jealous at Hillsdale. Paul Rahe, Dr. Paul Rahe, as always, thank you. What an edifying hour.