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American conservatives know things are bad. Our Constitution is stretched to the breaking point. Contested elections, failures to pass a federal budget, impeachments, talk of packing the Supreme Court, emerging fights between states about extradition, politicized persecution of dissidents, and many other such strains all reveal the U.S. to be a schizophrenic state, divided by incompatible visions of justice and the good life. Our circumstances augur the return of history: The constitutional and cultural tensions echo our Civil War and a number of others. 

The right knows all of this and yet remains complacent. Far too concerned with manners, we defend the status quo, pursuing short-term benefits while ignoring meaningful tail risk.  

Such complacency is the opposite of filial piety. America’s founders understood the rare and fragile nature of the regime they established. Having read the classical political philosophers, they knew that human nature does not magically transform, that America would be subject to regime cycles much like any other nation. Faction, said George Washington in his Farewell Address, has “its roots in the strongest passions of the human mind.” It exists “under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness.” The factional spirit is uniquely perilous for the republic because its tendency is to produce a strongman. “One method of assault,” warned Washington, “may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations, which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown.”

Or consider John Adams, who in his later years said Polybius’s theory of regime cycles “has been the Creed of my whole Life.” His 1787 Defense of the Constitutions exhibited a careful study of a host of regimes across history, articulating how the federal Constitution had carefully blended the three forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy, and republic) to mitigate the perennial pitfalls of various regime types. Adams and the other founders had a dim view of pure democracy (against which they distinguished their republican Constitution) and believed it tended to break down into anarchy, making the coming of a strongman inevitable. To the extent that our regime now purports to be a pure democracy (to say nothing of the corrupted aristocracy that is the administrative state), most of our founders would not recognize it as a continuation of their own project. 

Struck by the similarities of our current situation to 1930s Spain, I mused on Twitter some months back: “Basically, America is going to need a Protestant Franco.” By this I meant that unless something changes, our anarchic trajectory will soon require a person like Franco to reestablish order, and that this muscular leader would most naturally be Protestant. I didn’t expect the prediction to be controversial. The Spanish Civil War haunts savvy observers of modern politics because we see in it a warning for our own democracy. Stanley Payne recently examined the unsettling parallels for First Things. Or read Nathan Pinkoski, writing in the Claremont Review of Books: “the most unsettling relevance of the Spanish case is its demonstration that modern liberal democracies are not immune to revolution. They can succumb to internal revolutionary processes. Liberal democracies are not guaranteed happy endings.”

But my simple descriptive quip caused significant ire. Hayes Brown cited my statement as proof that “Conservatives keep calling for an American dictator.” Conservative commentators critiqued Protestant Franco as well. Mark Tooley argued that liberalism is the politics of Protestantism, making a “Protestant Franco” not only misguided and un-American, but also impossible. Nonetheless, “Protestant Franco” has become a meme and Rorschach test in the intervening months.

Is there any point to the dissident right’s speculations about Red Caesar, Protestant Franco, and Baptist Pinochet? Is it all just puerile escapism? No. It is basic realism that any thinking man should countenance. If the current trajectory holds, it is certainly possible that conditions will deteriorate until something like a Protestant Franco becomes inevitable. If that happens, the utopian grading rubric for our politics will vanish. When civil strife starts, you give up the more noble aims of politics and rush to the person who is least likely to kill your friends and family. Is this prospect still remote? Hopefully. But it is possible, and over a long enough time horizon, it is certain.

More fundamentally, the possibility of Protestant Franco should change our political behavior. Politics always, everywhere, has a threat of violence and the strongman lurking behind it. The historic norm is that the threat of violence in politics is very explicit, but our original constitutional republic subordinated threats of violence under reasoned deliberation and rule of law, with reciprocal respect for the results of the process. For my money, republicanism is still the best form of government for that rare people who possess the civic virtue requisite for self-governance. And it is America’s true civic tradition. But circumstances have changed in a way that makes a blind faith in the continued binding power of the old constitutional order not only misguided, but risky. Given the facts of mass immigration and the collapse of the family and civic society, to what extent does it even make sense to discuss America’s old civic tradition as if it said something authoritative about our future? The old American order is an aspirational goal for the right-wing, but it is far from operative under the current regime. Reciprocal participation in the republican process has broken down, imperiling the government’s ability to secure basic goods such as order and security. Any regime that fails to provide such basic goods has a limited shelf life.

My critics are correct that no one should be gleeful about the prospect of a Franco, but they should not attack me or anyone else for predicting the weather. Speculating about regime cycles is as American as apple pie, and a component of our founders’ genius. It has utility today, too. Perhaps contemplating the prospect of Bolsheviks and Francos and all the rest of the horribles who will return with history will give right-wing political leaders the will to do what needs to be done now. 

Our venerable founders revolted under conditions that now appear quaint. Today, red state political leaders refuse to do what is necessary because they are worried about trivialities such as negative press, corporate blowback, or loss of federal funding. They generally ask for permission rather than forgiveness to deal with existential threats, such as anarchy at our southern border. That’s the kind of behavior that makes Protestant Franco all but inevitable. If in their cowardice right-wing political leaders allow infections to fester, someday amputation will become necessary. 

Josh Abbotoy is Managing Director at New Founding.

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Image by Kutxa Fototeka licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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