Seeking a Sovereign for the End of Democracy: Monarchism and the Far Right
“Well, I personally think we should scrap the constitution,” current congressional candidate Michael Sisco proclaimed in December 2020 during an episode of his podcast The Michael Sisco Show. During that same episode, titled “The Republic is a Deception,” Sisco mentioned that he favors a form of Byzantine symphonia “where the church has authority over the state,” going on to suggest that a monarchy is “the most efficient form of government.” In June of 2019, Sisco published an article on the far-right website American Sun where he asserted that monarchism “is exactly what America and the West needs to restore it to its former glory.” The article, no longer on the American Sun website, appears to be a call for, and simultaneously a radical departure from, deep American conservatism. The rise of far/alt-right politicians and public figures in the United States since the election of Trump in 2016, his defeat in 2020, and the Capitol siege in 2021 has often been linked to white Christian nationalism and populism. But it has also been spurred on by those seemingly aimed at deconstructing democracy by reshaping American politics through monarchic, almost theocratic, authoritarian, perhaps even fascist, means. The reimagining of our political system among many on the far right is not merely about gaining control, reclaiming seats of governmental power; rather, it is about moving away from our current model of governance and looking to other forms of ruling power to create a new American political future unfettered by democracy.
In April 2021, Sisco announced on Twitter that he was running as a candidate for the U.S. House in the state of West Virginia — in a district he moved to only months prior to the start of his campaign. Like many far-right, often QAnon leaning, candidates across the U.S., Sisco is running on an America First (AF) platform. However, unlike most of his political compatriots, running or elected, Sisco supports a potential American monarchy. His monarchic vision for America’s future illustrates the newest mutations of the far right and highlights how, for some, democracy is an aberration to be eliminated. I became interested in Sisco’s campaign because of his ties to West Virginia and his conversion to Orthodoxy. My forthcoming book explores the religio-political worldbuilding projects of converts to Russian Orthodoxy in Appalachia.
The convert community with whom I worked from 2017-2018 had a high number of monarchists among their ranks, folks who decried liberal democracy as not only secular but also as a political hellscape linked to the apocalyptic rise of the antichrist. In contrast, monarchy, they often argued, was part of God’s providential ordering of society, a way to imbue our social structure with the values of Christianity and the divine sanctity of the family from the top down. While this particular community nostalgically focused on the Bolshevik upending of tsarist Russia in 1917, seeing it as a portend of their potential persecution in the contemporary U.S. by liberal “Marxists,” Sisco seems more focused on defending the heteronormative family and fighting progressivism through the America First (AF) movement, often praising the ideas of his alt-right comrade Nicholas Fuentes on social media.
Sisco’s rhetoric emphasizes patriotism, closed borders, and the restoration of conservative social morality. His platform includes pushing for a ten-year moratorium on immigration, protecting gun rights in order to guard against “Marxist mobs in our streets,” and incentivizing “the nuclear family” through programs modeled off of those implemented in Poland and Hungary — two countries currently navigating authoritarian regimes. Certainly, Sisco’s platform resembles that of AF nationalism. At the same time, however, his social media activity stresses the importance of monarchic rule. During a 2019 interview with Lauren Witzke, QAnon follower and 2020 GOP senate candidate in Delaware for whom Sisco was a campaign manager, the two, along with an anonymous guest, discussed the idea of a Trump kingship. While Witzke seemed affirmative, as political watch groups have reported, it was in that same episode that Sisco reprised his views on America’s political system. “I don’t vote,” he said, “because to me voting is affirming democracy. I don’t really like democracy.”
It is accurate to say that I am a Monarchist. More accurately, I am a Byzantine idealist. I believe in symphonia between the Temporal State and the Orthodox Church. At the same time, I am not a subversive. As a Christian, I believe it’s my duty to pursue the common good within the system that we have, which is our American Republic. I have pursued that, and sacrificed much for it.
Despite the emphasis on not being a subversive, Sisco’s praise of symphonia and monarchy, combined with his seeming disdain for the Constitution and democracy, leads one to wonder what, if elected, he will do when he must take the oath of office and swear to “support and defend the Constitution.”
Sisco, a self-proclaimed traditionalist and Christian nationalist, is committed to a political vision of the U.S. that takes back the nation for God. However, unlike other nationalist candidates and politicians, Sisco’s ideologies are not populist. Rather, his Orthodox “trad” political philosophy is steeped in his particular hierarchical and patriarchal version of Christian history, one that emphasizes the imperial politics of the Church through the historical glorification of symphonia and the pursuit of it in our contemporary moment. Historically, monarchists have had very little political traction in American politics. The Revolutionary War was not just about lack of representation in British parliament; it was, after all, a rebellion against monarchic rule in order to gain the freedom of political choice, rights, and liberties. Certainly there have been those throughout American history who have aligned themselves with monarchic or perhaps theocratic ideals, but the most forceful and engaged moments for those types of politics were largely contained in the waning years of the 1700s.
In the contemporary period, most American monarchist social organizations have been aimed more at imbuing the public consciousness with philosophical principles of monarchism rather than overthrowing the government. Yet within the past decade, the authoritarian desire for strongman politicians in mainstream American far-right circles has helped to pull monarchic ideologues from the shadows and to reinvigorate organizational support for contemporary sovereigns. While some monarchists are seeking historical solutions to their contemporary social fears, others, such as Charles Coulombe, are enamored with divine kingship and its assumed potential to spread traditionalism. At the same time, there are those who blatantly propose the restoration of monarchic governance in the U.S., such as computer scientist Curtis Yarvin, known more widely by the pen name of Mencius Moldbug. When Yarvin, a politically connected far-right blogger praised early on by the NRx movement, was recently interviewed by former Trump official Michael Anton for the Claremont Institute podcast, Yarvin suggested that America needs a new Caesar. Sisco often sings Moldbug’s praises; however, while Yarvin is looking for a new Caesar, Sisco seems focused on a Christian sovereign ensconced in the symphonia model. Like other intellectuals on the far right, Sisco looks to the past, in his case and others Byzantium, to reimagine the future of American democracy — a future that is anything but conservative or democratic.
Christian nationalism, tied to patriotism, persecution panic, and the moralizing of the American public sphere, has been embedded into the social logics of the Religious Right for much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, monarchism in the U.S. has existed on the edges of radical political theory as little more than philosophical imaginings. Yet if the last five years have taught us anything, it is that the implosion of American politics means that the edges are folding in, casting conspiratorial shadows on the democratic spine to which our nation’s political system is bound. The Capitol siege brought those living on the philosophical edges, tweeting radical political marginalia, as it were, to the center, united as partisans for whom the free and fair electoral process, so central to democracy, was not enough. January 6th, 2021 was not an epilogue to four years of democratic decay. It was the prologue to our post-truth present and future in which civic discourse, political respect, and social bipartisanship are eschewed by far-right ideologues for whom the institutional forms of conservatism are not enough. Galvanized by social media pundits and conspiracists tweeting and YouTubing from the comfort of their couches, mobilized by digital communitas, moral outrage, and assumed persecution, and weaponized through their disenchantment with democracy, far-right American citizens are quickly turning to political formations other than the one in which they reside, and to which they have pledge their allegiance.
Sisco’s monarchic conservatism does not align with that of the GOP, although he is running as a Republican candidate. Rather, his conservatism is based in political and religious values far removed from the current democratic system of U.S. governance. In 2019, Sisco wrote that eventually, the United States will need to find a “peaceful and legal transition out of our current governing structure,” suggesting that democracy is not ideal for the preservation of conservative values in the public sphere, and that it is now necessary for dissidents on the right to “develop a more systematic and subversive methodology.” Perhaps that is why Sisco hosted anonymous eyewitnesses on his podcast who were present at the January 6th siege to talk about their experiences and why they have become, in their own words, “radicalized to the point . . . where we will not back down.” As one guest proclaimed, “we should have just stayed there [the Capitol] and fought harder than we did.” Much could and perhaps should be written about Sisco as a far-right media personality and his connections to other “trad” Christians, including E. Michael Jones, whom the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center have labeled as antisemitic, and whom Sisco secured as the keynote speaker for his Trad Forum event in June 2021. However, I am more interested in what Sisco’s monarchic tendencies tell us about the authoritarian ideologies emerging in far/alt-right discourse and what that emergence means for our democracy.
The far right’s increasing religio-political interest in monarchism belies something far more sinister: the hybridization of fascism. This type of fascism unites religion and politics in an attempt to moralize the social sphere through religiously-inclined authoritarian means. Politically, the draw to monarchic governance seems intimately tied to the authoritarian bent evident in the philosophical ideals of right-wing movements that include America First, Christian Nationalists, Proud Boys, and QAnon. However, there are also far-right monarchists, such as Sisco, who embrace the moralizing of the social sphere through kingship, through hierarchical rule because it aligns with their theological worldview. Their emphasis on hierarchical rule, on kingship as a means of uniting religious ideology and moralizing state governance, seems to be a form of religio-fascism. Through theopolitical means, this hybrid form of fascism promotes the authoritarian organization of society, with a particular set of social moral values as the guiding principles for the regime’s inhabitants. The negation of human rights, the policing of the body, the erasure of difference, the cult of masculinity, the praise of patriarchy, and the subjugation of those unwilling to align with certain social moral values are all part of this religio-political amalgamation. These values, often based in the politics of sameness and difference, typically focus on emic (white) insularity, heteronormativity, anti-science and anti-intellectualism rhetoric, and the zealous revival of the so-called Christian nation. Contemporary monarchism (along with the AF movement) enacts that fascist worldbuilding, using fear of the other to engender panic over the decline of White Christianity and the nuclear family, while suggesting that a return to hierarchy and tradition will give “others” something “to conform and assimilate to.” These ideas are not founded democratic principles but rather authoritarian, fascist reimaginings of the U.S. This is what makes the far-right monarchic trend dangerous to democracy.
While it might seem as if Sisco is a political outlier, his current bid for office offers us an opportunity to think about the evolution of the far/alt-right in the U.S. and its broader intentions towards democracy. Monarchists are most assuredly a minority movement in the states. However, most discrete far-right groups are micro social communities, or what the media often refer pejoratively to as “fringe” movements. But the overlapping ontological and social anxieties found in these micro groups often draw them together in solidarity — something that was astoundingly evident in the political difference and unity displayed by participants in the Capitol siege. American monarchists bring new challenges and questions to bear in the study of the far right. Are they dissidents of democracy? What does American support for kingship tell us about our current political moment? The embrace of monarchy on the far right offers us another angle in the shifting ideological frames of American conservatism, while at the same time reminding us that democracy is a living practice — one that has the potential to be annihilated by those seeking more constrictive forms of governance. ♦
This essay was supported by my participation as Senior Fellow in the “Orthodoxy and Human Rights” project, sponsored by Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and Leadership 100. This project has also received support from the Luce-funded “Recovering Truth: Religion, Journalism, and Democracy in a Post-Truth Era project” at Arizona State University, New York University, the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, the Louisville Institute, a Charlotte W. Newcombe Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Humanities in partnership with Fordham University, and a Religion, Spirituality, and Democratic Renewal fellowship from the Social Science Research Council in partnership with the Fetzer Institute.
Sarah Riccardi-Swartz is a postdoctoral fellow in the Luce-Funded Recovering Truth: Religion, Journalism, and Democracy in a Post-Truth Era project in the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University. An anthropologist, scholar of American religion, and trained documentary filmmaker, she specializes in social politics, media, and Orthodox Christianity. She is the author of Between Heaven and Russia: Religious Conversion and Political Apostasy in Appalachia.
Riccardi-Swartz, Sarah. “Seeking a Sovereign for the End of Democracy: Monarchism and the Far Right.” Canopy Forum, August 10, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/08/10/seeking-a-sovereign-for-the-end-of-democracy-monarchism-and-the-far-right/