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Angelic Dreams of American Caesarism

Film Review
Stilicho Americanus

Angelic Dreams of American Caesarism

There is an intractable internal contradiction that sits at the core of the Fifth American Republic. Now, before I describe that problem, let me first do some extensive genealogy. Much like the late, great Mencius Moldbug — a very different man from his COVID-doomer, Biden-is-clearpilled, we need “dark elves” alter-ego Curtis Yarvin — I believe that the United States has gone through multiple iterations of republican governance much like our oldest ally, France.

The First American Republic, which operated under the Articles of Confederation, conformed the closest to the libertarian, semi-radical ethos held by many of the men who fought and died during the American Revolution. Under this government, centralization was kept at bay by having a limited and small central government represented by the Congress of Confederation. The individual states retained their colonial-era sovereignty, even to the point where some printed their own money and conducted trade policies at odds with neighboring states. The limitations of the First Republic soon became evident. In 1786, aggrieved war veterans began assaulting courthouses and other public buildings in western Massachusetts. Here, impoverished farmers and yeoman lashed out against sheriffs and other public officials for not passing pro-debtor laws that would have seen more paper money in circulation. This paper money would have been used to pay off individual debts but given that the United States was struggling to pay off foreign loans at the time, most states buckled at the idea. When sheriffs showed up to foreclose on properties, the well-armed farmers struck back.

The rebellion found a leader in former Continental Army Captain Daniel Shays, and the conflagration spread. Other states with their own financial woes worried that their citizens would take up their muskets too. The rebellion came to a violent end in February 1787, with the Massachusetts State Militia being mobilized to stop the planned assault on the Springfield Armory. When the Second American Republic was born following the ratification of the Constitution, the memory of Shays’ Rebellion inspired the passage of several military-powers clauses that gave the federal government the ability to mobilize the army in case of civil disturbances. The hero of the Revolution, President George Washington, used these new powers when he called upon the regular army and several state militias to put down the Whisky Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.

The Third American Republic was born of war and rebellion, too. As president, Abraham Lincoln resorted to dictatorial powers and oppression to maintain the American Union during the Civil War. After the North’s victory in 1865, the Third Republic changed the balance of power by prioritizing the central government and its close relationship to industry over the more traditional practice of individual state sovereignty. In a similar manner, President Franklin D. Roosevelt utilized the emergency of the Great Depression to increase the size of the federal state. The fact that his administration was shot through with Soviet spies and communist sympathizers further added to the reality that the New Deal was an all-American and decidedly left-wing dictatorship that was only partially rolled back following Roosevelt’s death and the early excesses of the Fifth Republic, which was born in the mid-1960s with the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act and implementation of the Great Society.

Thus, despite what you have been told by talking heads and teachers, Caesarism has been in the American DNA from the very beginning. The appearance of Roman-style dictators, or those men who, in the ideology of Carl Schmitt, fused notions of power and sovereignty under a belief in democratic will, has been a part of American life ever since the moment when Washington had soldiers fire on those whisky-tax protestors in the 1790s. The expansion of mass democracy and concomitant explosion of new “rights” for citizens has only fueled further Caesarism in American life. Now, on the eve of the 2024 election, the Washington census is shrieking about a Trumpian dictatorship while offering nothing more than another type of dictatorship in the form of an oligarchy of federal bureaucrats.

Few films better capture the American thirst for Caesarism than Gregory La Cava’s propaganda piece Gabriel Over the White House (1933). Based on a science-fiction novel by British author and former soldier Thomas F. Tweed, Gabriel Over the White was released in the same month that Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in to serve the first of his record four terms in office. Few periods have been bleaker in American history. Record unemployment, long lines at soup kitchens, and still-seething rage from President Herbert Hoover’s mobilization of the U.S. Army to put down the Bonus Army the previous summer. The Bonus Army was nominally a collection of World War I veterans agitating for their promised bonuses, and much like the earlier Coxey’s Army, or Army of the Commonwealth in Christ, the newspapers described the marchers as hard-luck cases who were only seeking a fair shake. In truth, the Bonus Army was a radical and subversive movement led by Soviet agents in the form of the Communist Party USA. It was a red Jacobin revolt that failed, but nevertheless it was used as fodder by the Roosevelt campaign to highlight the supposed cruelties of the Hoover administration.

A Bonus Army stand-in shows up in Gabriel Over the White House. This army is led by the charismatic labor leader John Ronson (played by David Landau). This army of the unemployed is mixed-race and marches to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” a lament for the murderous abolitionist that was popular with the Union Army.  At first, these work-hungry men are rebuffed by the new president, Judd Hammond (played by Walter Huston). Hammond is a playboy and pure party man. He is depicted as a glad hander. He smiles and asks to be called “Major.” He reads pulp detective magazines, and his relationship with his secretary, Pendie Molloy (played by Karen Morely) drips with sexual innuendo. When pressed about the army of the unemployed by an openly radical reporter (played by Mischa Auer), President Hammond says that he’ll do whatever his party wants. This essentially means that the plan is to call out the army as soon as Ronson’s men reach Baltimore.

Then there’s the accident.

While joyriding with the press and his Secret Service escorts, President Hammond blows a tire and winds up hospitalized. Much like President Woodrow Wilson, who spent the last year or so of his presidency incapacitated by a stroke, and much like FDR, whose inability to walk was guarded by a pliant press corps, Hammond is kept as a secret invalid. However, upon waking up, Hammond proves that his mind is sharp and determined. The President Hammond that returns to office is a different man. He is stern and serious. He is an idealist who informs his flummoxed cabinet that rather than bayonets, Ronson’s army will be met with food and aid. President Hammond even addresses the unemployed rabble after Ronson is assassinated by the foreign-born bootlegger Nick Diamond. Hammond characterizes Ronson as a martyr who sought “to arouse the stupid, lazy people of the United States to force their government to do something before everybody slowly starves to death.” After being serenaded by a chorus of “We Want Work,” Hammond states his intention to create an Army of Construction to give every unemployed American a chance to earn government money as a farmhand or laborer. The real Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, program saw implementation in 1933, and had a vision similar to the fictional Army of Construction.

Annoyed by his radical program and utter disdain for party politics, the Senate seeks to impeach President Hammond. The Caesar that confronts them openly assumes full control of the government. Martial law is declared to combat starvation, unemployment, and racketeering. The Senate calls him a dictator, to which President Hammond states: “I believe in democracy, as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln believed in democracy!” However, President Hammond willingly accepts the label of dictator, and says that his dictatorship will be based on the Jeffersonian definition of democracy as “a government of the greatest good for the greatest number.” President Hammond kills the republic with one speech, and the act is met with applause. His extreme measures are for the common good and the common man, after all.

The new populist dictator ends his presidency by not only demonstrating America’s new naval air superiority to an assembled group of foreign dignitaries (all of whom are delinquent in paying back their war loans to Washington), but by also using the brand-new Federal Police to arrest Nick Diamond and his gang following a shootout between their Thompson submachine guns and the government’s armored trucks. President Hammond eventually suffers a stroke, and right before death, he returns to his old self as if the entirety of dictatorship was the product of possession.

And it was. As the film’s title makes clear, President Hammond’s policies are driven by God in the form of the Archangel Gabriel. Gabriel’s trumpet sounds as Hammond awakens from his coma, when he reads his ghostwritten speech before addressing the Senate, and right before he passes away. Hammond’s politics are both radical and divine. He is God’s vessel and does His will. Modern viewers would call such messaging “Christian nationalism,” and they would be correct, but only in spirit. Hammond does nothing overtly Christian in the film, but the idea that he is driven by Providence affirms the desire for a “Christian prince” that many Christian nationalists possess.

With the Lord’s work done, Hammond slips off the mortal coil and leaves behind a new America — an America with a strong central government that has nationalized liquor sales, federalized law enforcement, expanded the Navy, and guaranteed financial stability to every citizen. For the film’s producer, the newspaper grandee William Randolph Hearst, the whole point was for the new President Roosevelt to see the film, like it, and make it a reality.

Gabriel Over the White House is by no means a good film. It has the subtlety of a jackhammer, and all of the actors save for Huston play cardboard cutouts of actual human beings. Hearst and fellow producer Walter Wanger, the latter of whom worked as a propagandist for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the Great War, wanted to arouse in cinemagoers a sense of urgency. A stronger, more aggressive federal government was needed to defeat the Great Depression, they reckoned. Because of this, critics at the time panned the film as a plea for fascism.

“Fascism” was not such a dirty word in 1933. The world’s first fascist, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, had millions of supporters in the United States. The book The Machine Has Soul by Dr. Katy Hull makes it abundantly clear that American liberals and conservatives saw Mussolini’s government as an exciting alternative to the increasingly bland options of either laissez-faire capitalism or shopworn progressivism. Roosevelt himself saw Mussolini as something of an inspiration, and the New Deal programs, which glorified what Wilhelm Röpke called the “cult of the colossal,” were appreciated by Il Duce.

There was another element at play in 1933. Soviet communism was also a model for many New Dealers, a fair number of whom entered the administration after years of on-campus agitation as democratic socialists or outright communists. Many of these administrators used authoritarian means for liberal ends, to paraphrase scholar Roger Shaw. Or, to put it another way, they wanted to use the mechanics of fascism to defeat the “spirit” of fascism. Roosevelt’s men may have flirted with and admired fascism, but the administration still used the “threat” of a right-wing coup to legitimize itself. The Business Plot, also known as the Wall Street Putsch, was a highly secretive conspiracy involving the military and wealthy businessmen to remove Roosevelt from power. The plot was exposed in 1934 when General Smedley Butler testified before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities. Although the House agreed that serious discussions had been held, no one was prosecuted. Gabriel Over the White House showcases something akin to a coup when the Senate and President Hammond’s party plot to oust him. Everyone knew that Roosevelt was a radical; the only difference was whether or not one supported such radicalism. Gabriel Over the White House makes its answer to that question quite clear.

Gabriel Over the White House accurately depicts not just the ever-present thirst for authoritarianism, but also the confusing nature of American Caesarism. For a film that has been lambasted as fascist since its premiere, Gabriel Over the White House can just as easily be characterized as a paean to communism. This simultaneously confirms the horseshoe theory while also showing the political myopia of movie critics. The film is a cry for something, anything to be done about the Great Depression. The fact that it offers authoritarian solutions was not even novel in 1933. However, what makes this simple-minded propaganda film so fascinating is that it exposes the intractable internal contradiction of American politics: a civilization founded on notions of liberty and individual rights nevertheless frequently uses totalitarian measures to thwart nebulous authoritarian threats. This is Moldbug’s “brown scare.” The American state is by its very nature “anti-fascist,” and yet resorts to naked displays of public-private cooperation to squash political dissent. The American state simultaneously wants to stop a President Hammond from ever achieving power, and yet the chief executives most like President Hammond are the ones most adored by liberal-progressive historians. It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world.

The future envisioned by Gabriel Over the White House is our contemporary reality, albeit with some major alterations. There is no strongman dictator in the White House, but rather rule-by-bureaucrat. To counter this oligarchy, many on the American right support Caesarism and champion Donald Trump as the man most befitting of the democratic dictator role. The future war between red Caesarism and blue Caesarism seems inevitable the further down the ladder of civilizational decline the United States goes, and Gabriel Over the White House offers a reminder that such clashes are built into mass democracy. Gabriel Over the White House also provides a serious warning: blue Caesarism, or totalitarian methods for liberal-progressive ends, is more likely to come true in the future because it has already held power in the past. Those clamoring for red Caesarism should heed this warning.

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