The Original Authoritarian

We appear to be living in an age of aspiring Caesars.

Consider Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and, of course, former U.S. President Donald Trump. All were democratically elected in political systems with varying degrees of freedom and fairness. All weaponized their newfound state control in attempts to preserve their respective grips on power. Though some were more successful than others at doing so, all of these leaders weakened the democratic regimes that facilitated their rise.

This plague of wannabe strongmen is the topic of Ferdinand Mount’s Big Caesars and Little Caesars. To use a Britishism, Mount is a classic “wet Tory” who mixes establishment values with more liberal politics. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church college at the University of Oxford. He holds a family baronetcy; that family includes his first cousin once removed, former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. Mount headed up then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit in the 1980s before losing faith in Thatcherite ideological zeal. He subsequently edited the Times Literary Supplement in the 1990s and has taken to writing for the Daily Telegraph and the London Review of Books in this century.

The first words of his text are these: “Caesars are back, big Caesars and little Caesars, in big countries and little countries, in advanced nations and backward nations.”

From that Seussian opening, Mount’s book explores the concept of Caesarism and Caesars in politics: what causes their rise, and what causes their downfall. In Mount’s telling, a Caesar is an aspiring dictator intent on destroying existing institutions and establishing themselves as the maker and breaker of laws. Big Caesars differ from little Caesars in their ambition and their success. For Mount, where big Caesars distinguish themselves is that “their violence, their law-breaking, their lying, are on a huge, often limitless scale,” whereas little Caesars “go only as far as they need to” in rigging the system to suit their ambitions.

The subtitle of Mount’s book is “How they rise and how they fall—from Julius Caesar to Boris Johnson.” This captures one possible problem with the book before it even begins: The text mixes analysis of dictators such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler with the likes of Johnson, the erstwhile British prime minister. The former are most definitely big Caesars, while it is hard to view Johnson as anything but a little Caesar. Fortunately, the book tackles this disparity well: As Mount explains, “the tricks and techniques [are] common to all Caesars, big and little. … They all operate along the same spectrum.”

Chapters exploring episodes such as the 1820 Cato Street Conspiracy—when a small group of radical activists plotted (and failed) to behead the entire British cabinet—or the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich—in which Hitler’s fledgling Nazi Party attempted to forcibly overthrow the Weimar Republic—demonstrate how close tin-pot dictators can become to the real thing. Caesarism that might be viewed as “little” in the West, such as Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency that lasted from 1975 to 1977, had serious repercussions. Gandhi’s moves had costs in the short term in the form of mass arrests and forced sterilizations designed by Gandhi’s son Sanjay to limit population growth. According to Mount, in the long-term, Gandhi’s actions provided an illiberal precedent for Modi to exploit.

In the case of Hitler, history repeats itself, first as farce and then as tragedy. His failed, illegal putsch paved the way for a trial that captured the public’s attention. After being pardoned from a prison sentence, Hitler pursued multiple tracks to power, combining electoral successes with street violence that intimidated opposing parties.

That history can rhyme this jarringly is worth remembering as Trump, the current front-runner for the 2024 Republican Party presidential nomination, seeks to return to the White House.


Donald Trump raises a fist in the foreground while a crowd of people attending a rally cheer in the background on a clear day. Many people in the crowd are dressed in shirts and hats promoting Trump, and several wave signs with campaign slogans.

Donald Trump raises a fist in the foreground while a crowd of people attending a rally cheer in the background on a clear day. Many people in the crowd are dressed in shirts and hats promoting Trump, and several wave signs with campaign slogans.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to hold a Make America Great Again rally during the 2020 presidential campaign cycle in Sanford, Florida, on Oct. 12, 2020. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

All wannabe Caesars rely heavily on the ability of propaganda to crowd out more factual history, Mount shows. Caesars conjure convenient narratives to sell to both their loyalists and to the key elites who they need to co-opt to acquire power. As Mount puts it, “time and propaganda sandpaper the rough edges, and the brutal and ruthless methods by which they seized power [are] explained away as unavoidable necessities.”

Sometimes the Caesars can do this with their own writing, as Napoleon did in his dispatches from the front, or as Hitler did with Mein Kampf. Even Caesars who lack wordsmithing capabilities can outsource the narrative to supportive publicists. Beside every aspiring Caesar is a malignant toady eager to write their “Flight 93 Election” essay, arguing that a political situation is so dire that extreme tactics, emergency measures, and unholy alliances are a justified route to acquiring power.

The best attribute of Big Caesars and Little Caesars is that more than half of the book focuses on Caesars’ downfalls. Mount posits that a combination of law enforcement, intelligence, eloquence, legality, and diligence by public officials will lead wannabe Caesars to their inevitable ruin. It is precisely because of the power of propaganda that an examination of Caesars’ decline and fall is necessary—otherwise, ordinary citizens might exaggerate these leaders’ political potency.

For example, Trump and his supporters like to present the so-called Make America Great Again movement as an unstoppable force. This spin elides some inconvenient facts. Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by nearly 3 million votes; he lost the 2020 popular vote by more than double that number. The two midterm elections that have occurred since Trump stormed the national stage led to serious setbacks for the Republican Party. Trump currently faces four criminal indictments, and many of his followers and subordinates are being prosecuted as well. Pointing out how aspiring Caesars exit the political stage is crucial to puncturing the fear that their enduring victory is inevitable.

Mount’s efforts at persuasion are hampered by several flaws in his book’s presentation. The most obvious is his barely concealed desire to intellectually murder Johnson just to watch him die. Johnson’s role in campaigning for and then completing Brexit is a source of considerable ire for Mount, as are Johnson’s myriad other official peccadilloes.


Britain's then-Prime Minister and conservative party leader Boris Johnson is seen from below with his hand outstretched as he waves, surrounded by people clapping, as he arrives at a rally.

Britain’s then-Prime Minister and conservative party leader Boris Johnson is seen from below with his hand outstretched as he waves, surrounded by people clapping, as he arrives at a rally.

Britain’s then-Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson arrives at a campaign rally near Gloucester, England, on Dec. 9, 2019.Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

It could be argued that Johnson won both the United Kingdom’s 2016 Brexit referendum and 2019 general election, democratically earning the right to make catastrophic policy mistakes. Mount will have none of this. He argues that the pro-Brexit campaign was an unholy mix of nationalism and what he calls “cakeism”—Johnson promising Britons that they could have their cake and eat it, too. As for Johnson’s 2019 electoral win, Mount asks derisively but fairly: “Had it really been such a brilliant triumph to wallop a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn?”

Despite some valid points, the book suffers from its excessive focus on the little Caesar with the bad hair. Mount goes to far as to claim that “[t]here has been no more humiliating exit in British political history” than when Johnson exited No. 10 Downing St. in September 2022, mired in scandal.

Johnson’s exit was far from graceful, but that claim is risible. Johnson was replaced by Liz Truss, a policy and political trainwreck whose time as prime minister was limited to 49 chaotic days, the shortest premiership in British history. (Mount acknowledges this fact just one page after claiming Johnson’s exit was the most humiliating, raising questions about his—or his editor’s—short-term memory.)

A larger problem is that readers outside of the United Kingdom will feel a bit left out in the sections devoted to Johnson. Between that and a few other chapters devoted to Caesarism elsewhere in the world, half the book is about narrow corners of British history.

Unfortunately, when Mount crosses the pond to train his eye on the United States’ little Caesar, Trump, other flaws emerge. Like many English writers, Mount presents an air of political savvy about U.S. politics—but the moment that Big Caesars and Little Caesars tries to get specific about the United States, his grasp fades.

He writes, “In the United States, voter suppression is widespread and of long standing – sufficiently so to be referred to simply as VS.” I have taught political science for more than a quarter-century, and I have never once heard that acronym used for that purpose; my Americanist friends were also baffled.

Mount also claims that Trump’s first travel ban applied to “immigrants from most Muslim nations.” That executive order, while bigoted and counterproductive, was limited to seven countries; the Organization of Islamic Cooperation counts 57 member states. Mount concludes that what made Trump’s presidency unique was his nonstop campaigning and chaotic governing style, betraying his ignorance of Andrew Jackson’s 19th-century rise to the presidency.

Mount’s saddest error is when he dismisses Trump’s current campaign pledge to fire many executive branch bureaucrats because “no conceivable U.S. Congress would pass such a law.” That may be true, but it is also irrelevant; as president, Trump’s ability to run roughshod over the civil service was viable enough to prompt considerable discussion inside the Beltway about its implications. The threat now is big enough that the Biden administration has taken actions to make it more difficult for presidential successors to do what Trump wants to do.


A Syrian refugee carries a plastic bag as he walks past a poster of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that covers an entire wall of a building on an otherwise empty street. Mountains and fields are visible beyond the block of buildings.

A Syrian refugee carries a plastic bag as he walks past a poster of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that covers an entire wall of a building on an otherwise empty street. Mountains and fields are visible beyond the block of buildings.

A Syrian refugee walks past a poster of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a refugee camp in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, on Sept. 19, 2019.Burak Kara/Getty Images

Mount’s grasp on the global Caesar phenomenon is equally unsteady. He claims that Johnson and Trump were unique Caesars in focusing their ire on immigration, but that elides how Hungary’s Orban and Turkey’s Erdogan exploited fears of refugee flows to consolidate their holds on public office. More generally, Mount claims that “modern Caesarism has remained a strangely neglected subject” by scholars, which betrays an ignorance about recent and not-so-recent turns in political science scholarship. Over the past decade, social scientists have increased their focus on the role of individual leaders in world politics. The surge of research into populist nationalism has similarly exploded since the emergence of Trump and Brexit.

There is no entry for “populism” in Mount’s index, which might explain why he thinks no one has been paying attention to modern Caesars. Mount is interested in the leaders of these movements and how they rise to power; political scientists are more interested in the movements themselves, as well as their underlying causes. They are analyzing the same phenomenon, but from somewhat different angles. Mount writes that “Caesars become popular above all by raising national morale rather than by improving living standards” and that the “incoming Caesar loses no time in setting up an opposition between Us and Them.” These are both Populism 101 lessons.

Still, focusing on the Caesars themselves has some value; there is no denying that populist leaders often display peculiar psychologies. Those interested in how someone such as Boris Johnson could have been responsible for what was possibly the greatest foreign-policy own-goal in Great Britain’s history would do well to read Mount’s book.

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