Many on the Left and Right are unhappy with the state of democracy in America today. Critiques are often far-reaching, castigating political institutions as sclerotic and obstructionist, cultural trends as damaging and extremist, and the rise of zero-sum “us-them” mentalities as clashing with the pluralism and mutual tolerance required by our Republic. Yet very few of the discontented are willing to ditch democracy itself. This is starting to change, if only on the margins.
At present, the most prominent rejections come from an amorphous collective of thinkers sometimes termed the “dissident Right.” Moving beyond cultural criticism and disenchantment with the political status quo, a small set of internet-based intellectual entrepreneurs have begun publicly to make the case for the end of democracy and the establishment of an authoritarian regime in the United States. These positions, although still marginal, are no longer taboo in online discourse.
As part of a broader research project on authoritarianism and illiberalism in the modern West, I have developed a working paper that assesses this new generation of political thinkers. I term these select few “authoritarian theorists.” In order to truly qualify as an authoritarian theorist, he or she must 1) have an explicit ideational agenda against electoral democracy as a regime type; and 2) proffer an explicit alternative political regime.
These theorized authoritarian alternatives go far beyond the concerns more commonly expressed by close observers of the American polity today, which rather conceive of authoritarian threats as a function of gradual democratic backsliding. The political figures most often associated with this framing, however, do not actually propose authoritarian regimes as a solution to the political problems of the United States. Yet a few thinkers on the dissident Right have crossed this ideational Rubicon, and their influence is being felt in unexpected places.
The most prominent modern authoritarian theorist is the former programmer and internet blogger Curtis Yarvin, previously known by his internet pen name, Mencius Moldbug. Yarvin’s intellectual project dates from the late 2000s at the height of the heterodox blogging era, and has found renewed interest of late. In just the last year, he has been profiled in mainstream magazines such as Vanity Fair and Tablet, as well as in the New York Times. He has placed substantial articles espousing his own tech-inflected theory of monarchical rule in Unherd, Tablet, and Compact, and he has appeared on Tucker Carlson Today along with many podcasts and YouTube channels popular among the discontented right-wing discursive ecosystem.
Yarvin’s intellectual lodestars are diverse, from the nineteenth-century British authoritarian theorist Thomas Carlyle to the authoritarian-libertarian thinker Hans Hermann Hoppe, and even the Aristotelian political-regime theory tradition of the classical era. Yarvin writes at a widely read Substack platform, Gray Mirror, and his cutting sociopolitical critique of the modern West operating as “the Cathedral”—a distributed liberal oligarchy expressed by a hidden, spontaneous political order generated by mainstream media, academia, and the party system—has become particularly influential. He coined the “red pill” to describe the process of becoming aware of this reality, which has now become a standard term online.
Yarvin’s key claim is that the polity of the future, rather than relying on a failed and self-deluded democratic system, would be better expressed as a form of authoritarian monarchy. This sort of new-model monarchy would be structurally similar to an autocratic CEO model and undergirded by a passive shareholder apparatus relying on blockchain technology, although the details have varied across the two decades of Yarvin’s theoretical writing output. Some versions of his vision of techno-utopian monarchy also require the splintering of political rule into autonomous, monarchical city-states—clearly inspired in part by the success of authoritarian city-states such as Singapore or Hong Kong.
If Yarvin is the most influential of the modern online authoritarian theorists, he is no longer the only one whose ideas have found circulation in dissident Right circles. A second writer, the former industrialist Charles Haywood, has also gained recognition in recent years. Haywood, beyond his professional career as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer and owner of a shampoo and skincare manufacturer, first found his feet as a book reviewer in online platforms whose countercultural approach provided him a growing readership. He now engages in an increasingly radical idea generation project on his website, The Worthy House, which has led him to the conclusion that not only is a Caesarist overthrow of the current American regime a necessity—it is an inevitability.
Haywood’s Caesarism is significantly less esoteric than Yarvin’s tech-oriented approach, and in this manner his ideas are more approachable—as they at least partially align with the historical record of many authoritarian regimes of the modern era. In many ways, he is distinguished by his resigned assessment of the situation, which is distinct from Yarvin, who is less confident that the Cathedral-regime can be easily destroyed. This argument of inevitability makes for some surprising assertions for Haywood. For example, while he holds to standard conservative support for the Second Amendment, he does not believe that the Caesar that is sure to emerge would in any way allow such a liberty to stand unimpeded.
Although writing for a smaller audience, and with more limited reach than Yarvin, Haywood has nevertheless found traction on YouTube shows and certain right-wing media. He is also an infrequent guest of Michael Anton’s podcasts hosted by the Claremont Institute. Since he does not bring along tech-utopian baggage, Haywood is in some ways an easier intellectual interlocutor. He appears more comfortable with cultural normalcy, in alignment with authoritarian national-conservative movements of prior eras, whose ideas he parallels in many respects.
There are other authoritarian theorists that can be identified in the broad ecumene of the dissident Right. The provocateur and performance artist Bronze Age Pervert represents a particularly unsystematic but popular thinker that (barely) fits the mold. He was a central figure in the dynamic illiberal movement of the mid-2010s sometimes called the “alt-right,” evolving from there into an explicit advocate for an authoritarian future. Several other online commentators get close to this stance as well, though they don’t necessarily sketch the actual contours of their proposed authoritarian solutions.
These sorts of thinkers are clearly “first movers” as authoritarian theorists of twenty-first-century America. So long as there remains widespread discontent and the sense that the structural elements of the political system are the primary source of failure, we should expect that even more such thinkers will emerge. The ground is shifting in ways familiar to prior eras, yet unknown in our time. This is not the first time that serious thought has been given to what political regime should replace democracy. Many are unhappy with the state of democracy in America today, and it behooves us to pay attention.
Entrepreneurial thinkers rarely make or break regimes themselves, but their work—if framed well and fitting to current moods—can open the eyes of aspiring politicians, motivated idealists, and the directionless discontented to opportunities and visions beyond present realities. This is certainly happening today. It is far too late to suppress these ideas, nor would it be my contention that one should. But for those who wish to defend and sustain our Republic as it exists today, knowing that positive visions of authoritarian futures now percolate across different, increasingly-read corners of the online world and have migrated even to the reading lists of some aspiring elites is the bare minimum required to understand our own era and the depths of political dissatisfaction that rumble beneath the surface.
Julian G. Waller is a professorial lecturer in political science at George Washington University, a visiting scholar at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, and a non-resident fellow at the Illiberalism Studies Program. All views are his own and do not represent his employers or affiliated organizations.
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