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FUSION

Understanding the Call of the Authoritarian

By Julian G. Waller


Across modern American history, our elites have shown a soft-spot for authoritarian leaders abroad. Some have even mused about such models bearing fruit closer to home. Although this pattern includes dictatorships representing all sorts of ideologies, Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of The National Interest has chosen the Right as his focus in America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators (W.W. Norton 2024). In it, we find a brisk survey of Right-leaning sympathizers for authoritarian rulers stretching from Imperial Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to the current bête noire of European liberalism, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

The motivations for such a study are driven by contemporary politics, and this book can be placed in the “authoritarian warning” literature alongside Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die or Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy. Heilbrunn takes an historical approach, running chronologically from the turn of the 20th century to the present. This framework is particularly rewarding for uncovering less well-known episodes of the “century-long romance,” especially with regard to the autocratic German regimes that dominated Western politics for much of the first half of the 1900s. But the narrative covers a wider spread of time and space, illustrating in quick succession various commentators on the American political Right intrigued by – and even supporting – European leaders such as Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco, Latin American dictators like Pinochet and the Argentinian junta, Middle Eastern figures such as Saddam Hussein, and Central European and Eurasian leaders like Orbán and Vladimir Putin.

In doing so, we are greeted with a mix of characters both familiar and foreign to the imaginary of the modern American Right. William F. Buckley is taken to task for his defense of the South African apartheid regime. Jeane Kirkpatrick is highlighted as the linchpin of US support for juntas in Latin America. Pat Buchanan is castigated as an inveterate supporter of dictators on the wrong side of American foreign policy, from Iraq to Serbia to Russia. But Heilbrunn is far more interesting than simply reiterating the views of that well-known set. He also sets his sights on an extensive group of admirers and supporters of Adolph Hitler, such as the Nietzschean elitist and journalistic wit H. L. Mencken, the mixed-race State Department diplomat Lawrence Dennis (termed “America’s No.1 intellectual fascist” by Ezra Pound), the Nazi agent George Sylvester Viereck, and the “religious zealot” and “female Führer” Elizabeth Dilling.

The book succeeds therefore at its primary effort, refreshing American memory about the long history of interest in foreign dictators on the Right. Heilbrunn is particularly knowledgeable about Germany, an interest that is borne out in fascinating chapters tracing a legacy from Wilhelmine Germany to the Third Reich. In many ways, these chapters are also a history of the forgotten influence of German-American civil society—once a political and cultural force to be reckoned with, although now almost entirely lost.

Where the book suffers is its lack of a thesis that explains the pattern as well as describing it. In social science terminology, Heilbrunn selects on the dependent variable. All of his cases are those in which figures on the American Right supported foreign, right-wing dictators abroad. But we don’t learn about those on the Right who opposed them, or at least kept their distance. In Mencken’s era, for example, one could juxtapose right-wing supporters of the Kaiser with those of liberal Great Britain, such as the aristocratic conservative Henry Adams. And while mainstream GOP politicians such as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan show up in the narrative, their quite varied stances complicate a simple account of romanticism about dictatorship.

We similarly don’t learn anything about those on the American Left with similar inclinations towards different regimes. Recent accounts of the FDR years from Sean McMeekin and other scholars have reconfirmed significant pro-Soviet and communist-idealist penetration of American institutions in the 1930s and 40s. Paul Hollander surveyed the vast cadre of leftist fellow-travelers and authoritarian utopians almost half a century ago. The presence of anti-capitalist, authoritarian sympathizers in Western academia and activist spheres is not simply a trope of conspiratorial thinking, but the lived experience of those on the receiving end of domestic terror in the 1960s and 70s.

Heilbrunn’s book is not about this considerably more diverse landscape of authoritarian sympathy in the American context. But it is therefore difficult to test what specific features of the Right create an affinity for foreign dictatorships. This is fine for an historical recovery, but it makes it hard to establish a causal case for why this sort of support has regularly manifested in American politics or what explains variation across time or among the diverse coterie of right-leaning elites.  

The book does suggest one such thesis – that commentators on the Right are inherently drawn to strongmen figures, based on a latent authoritarian inclination. This is likely true for the key motivating figure of the book, Donald Trump, who seems to have a preference for boss-like figures perceived to be in decisive control over their political domains (although Trump is perhaps less ideologically discriminatory than we sometimes remember, holding kind views about both Mexico’s leftist president AMLO and North Korea’s totalitarian communist leader). Yet as the chapters unfold in Heilbrunn’s fine prose, an affinity for strongmen does not really emerge as the core motivating driver for the majority of cases until the end of the Cold War. Rather, a distinct pattern seems quite evident: the clear and present fear of ideological communism.

Indeed, the evidence that Heilbrunn musters in America Last recalls the German historian Ernst Nolte. Nolte argued in his magisterial work, The European Civil War, that it was above all the fear of communism that drove ideological fascism, reactionary authoritarianism, and the widespread collapse of democracy across the continent between 1914 and the Cold War. It is plausible that American elites on the political Right were originally motivated by similar fears and then extended them through the 1980s. And if Nolte’s own right-wing sympathies are a turn-off, the Italian leftist Enzo Traverso has made much the same argument more recently.

A book on the American successors to Europe’s ideological civil war would be a fascinating work of comparative political theory. It would also flesh out the unspoken half of the story that includes Cold War liberals who happily or reluctantly supported authoritarian regimes as part of containment doctrine (South Korea, Taiwan, South Vietnam, and Indonesia), as the price for sustaining democratic Europe economically (the oil-producing Gulf monarchies), or as bulwarks against agitated populations targeted by Soviet foreign policy (Pakistan, Egypt, and elsewhere in the formerly named ‘Third World’). One prominent example was the political scientist Samuel Huntington, a liberal-conservative and Democratic Party loyalist whose comparative theoretical work argued persuasively about both the importance of democracy to the United States’ unique civic culture, while also presenting authoritarian rule as key form of political order in other parts of the world. Huntington would even advise the Brazilian military regime in the 1970s while insisting on the superiority of American democracy for Americans.

Heilbrunn’s book is a great introduction to a specific cohort of American foreign support for dictatorship, but this is only one component of a more diverse history of U.S. accommodation with authoritarianism. The argument can be made that the much of that support was instrumental, especially if we bracket out the ideological attachments of the American Left. Which again leads us back to asking why foreign regimes found support in these specific quarters of the American Right. It also allows us to ask why only at certain times – the Interwar Era and increasingly today – do some American right-wingers think about foreign authoritarianism with an eye to our own politics, while in others it has been more firmly set in an outward-facing view.

An ‘ideological civil war’ account would also shed light on the substantive reasons why the political Right has so often been willing or even eager to look kindly on dictators. Many of the characters in Heilbrunn’s narrative were Catholic. The reader might be excused for suggesting that they were motivated by legible concerns about anti-clerical, atheist regimes.  And you didn’t have to be Catholic to object to the mass killings and forced relocations that nearly everywhere followed in the establishment of actually-existing socialism. Similarly, Kirkpatrick’s thesis that supporting right-wing authoritarians was a superior policy to comforting left-wing totalitarians seems to have worked out more successfully than not. Right-wing juntas gave up power peacefully across Latin America in the 1980s and transformed into democracies through so-called “pacted transitions.” Communist regimes, by contrast, either fell apart suddenly, descended into civil war, or never fell at all.

Heilbrunn’s most interesting sections center American interest in Germany, and to a lesser extent Italy, in the Interwar Era. Here we get the juiciest indictments of home-grown American fascists and fascist-sympathizers, who longed for an American Caesar. Irving Babbit, for example, wrote that “we may esteem ourselves fortunate if we get the American equivalent of a Mussolini; he may be needed to save us from the American equivalent of a Lenin.” A better case to think ideologically about authoritarian support could not be made. As a Caesarist solution has gained significant traction among certain right-wing commentators today, Heilbrunn’s excavation of similar veins of thought from the 1920s to the 1940s is well worth a review.

Yet an ideological framing only goes so far. For example, Heilbrunn provides an interesting account of Pat Buchanan, who kept picking the wrong dictatorial horse, including Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milošević, and Vladimir Putin. Buchanan may be the clearest precursor to Trump’s comfort with strongmen as a matter of personal preference. But this is a tradition of thought fairly removed from the democratic collapses of the interwar period or the strident anti-communism of the Cold War.

The lure of authoritarian rule has reemerged as a topic of active interest in both intellectual and ‘influencer’ circles within the American right today. Questions about whether this is a single unbroken thread, about what constitutes its truly core features, and about how one can approach the issue with nuance are all shifting components of a considerable research agenda – especially given the incentive to indulge in glib fascism-baiting and reductio ad Hitlerum. In service to this laudable goal, Heilbrunn has offered us a valuable recapture of an old history. If we are lucky this groundwork will allow for a new era of comprehensive study on American authoritarianism – one which will surely be welcome in the coming years.


Julian G. Waller is a Professorial Lecturer in Political Science at George Washington University and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Illiberalism Studies Program. All opinions are his own and do not reflect his employers’ or affiliated organizations. 

 

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