Big Caesars and Little Caesars: How They Rise and How They Fall — from Julius Caesar to Boris Johnson
- By Ferdinand Mount
- Bloomsbury Continuum
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by William Rice
- November 7, 2023
A veddy British view of the world’s current dictator problem.
The world is, sadly, full of Donald Trumps: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Britain’s Boris Johnson, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, India’s Narendra Modi, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and Turkey’s Recep Erdoǧan. To different degrees, all these self-regarding leaders have in recent years pushed their countries away from democracy and toward authoritarianism. All but Bolsonaro preceded Trump, yet I say each of them is a version of him — rather than vice versa — because of the unique significance of the United States and its president.
Ferdinand Mount, author of Big Caesars and Little Caesars, is a British writer who doesn’t seem to buy this American exceptionalism. Though he gives considerable space to our once and perhaps future chief executive, he bestows pride of place on his own nation’s troubling former prime minister, Johnson. I don’t think you have to be a blinkered American jingoist to believe Mount is misjudging the relative risks to liberal democracy.
It’s not surprising for a Brit (especially a political one — among Mount’s posts in the field was political editor of the Spectator) to concentrate on his homegrown strongman. But a cautionary tale about the emergence of modern-day Caesars should focus on the most dangerous one. By whatever measure — size of economy, lethality of nuclear arsenal, modern cultural influence — what happens in the U.S., including its crumbling of representative democracy, matters more.
Besides, at least to this American observer, Johnson’s transgressions seem considerably lesser than Trump’s. Mount certainly makes the case for Johnson as a narcissistic blowhard who tried to centralize authority in Downing Street contrary to the British tradition of distributed power. Yet Johnson resigned the premiership after it was discovered he’d attended in-person parties amidst the covid-19 lockdown. Even allowing for the differences in political systems, it’s clear from that exit — which notably excluded sending a mob to storm Parliament — that Boris Johnson has a more modest view of his status than does Donald Trump.
Putting aside this mistaken focus, Mount’s main point is an important one borne out by recent events: Authoritarianism, or what he calls “Caesarism,” does not represent political regression but is a constant threat in any age. In fact, Mount rejects the whole idea of predictable progress. Whether peddled by the 19th-century philosopher Hegel, his revolutionary student Marx, or the more contemporary Francis Fukuyama, the claim that history proceeds in an expected way fueled by conflict is one that Mount dismisses. He doesn’t believe we can know where things are going and certainly shouldn’t assume they’ll go well:
“The most comforting of all illusions about history is that the truth will out.”
Mount provides lively historical accounts ranging from the original Caesar seizing power in Rome to Hitler grabbing Germany. He also explains the five parts of an acronym, FIELD (Force, Intelligence, Eloquence, Lawfulness, Diligence), needed to quash coups organized by aspiring Caesars.
Despite these good points, I found the book rambling and unfocused. Mount anticipates that kind of complaint in his prologue, proclaiming he’ll “make no apology” for his story’s tendency to “jump about in a way that may disconcert some readers.” But it’s not the peripatetic quality of the narrative that bothers me; I don’t mind moving quickly between the misdeeds of Napoleon III and those of Trump I. The origin of my discontent may be cultural.
Nonfiction writing styles generally differ across the pond. To an American reader, at least this one, British prose often seems lazy and overly subjective — as if written at a single, inspired sitting with no subsequent review or editing. I get the feeling that, among British writers, being too careful with word choice or textual structure is considered bad form: If you’re a smart enough reader, a jumble of language will wind up forming a pleasing whole, much like the undisciplined plantings in an asymmetrical English garden. (For their part, I suspect British readers may find American writing fussy and technocratic.)
There are also long digressions here — such as a comparison of theories of who was really behind Britain’s 17th-century Gunpowder Plot — that do nothing to advance the book’s premise. And to me, variety of language is necessary to keep writing potent. Repetition drags. So, it was dispiriting to encounter “shaky,” “cloudy,” “hard-faced men,” and other adjectives and adjective phrases used in close succession throughout the text.
America and England are said to be two nations divided by a common language, and that division is on full display in this book. Reading it, I felt like a Yankee tourist freshly arrived in London tenuously following an overheard conversation two stools down at a pub. For instance, it’s full of unfamiliar words like “quango” (which is apparently a quasi-governmental authority) and “winkle” (used twice on the same page and evidently meaning “extract with difficulty”). And passages like this one had me reaching for Google Translate:
“[On] the other side of the road, the hacks and the pap pack awkwardly mustered and jostling for position. And the PM’s statement itself, all too obviously scrabbled together at the last minute by some sleep deprived spad…”
Mount brings a particularistic attitude to an urgent global cause. Defending democracy is too serious for such distractions.
William Rice is a writer for political and policy-advocacy organizations.