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Doing Justice to the Classics

“Praetorian Guard” protecting the Freedom to Undermine Democracy

The “1st Amendment Praetorians” are a group that describes itself as “protect[ing] the Republic and anyone who is willing to stand up on her behalf to voice their opinion or bring attention to something they’ve found, like voter fraud.” This reference to a persistent and racist lie about the 2020 election signals the this group’s commitment to conspiracy theories, and indeed, The Daily Beast recently reported that the “Praetorians” provided “security” for a gathering of QAnon Conspiracy theorists. It all sounds like a joke except that one of the people who they were defending, former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn, all but called for a military coup in the United States. Meanwhile the group has currently attracted donations approaching $1,000 per month on Patreon. And there’s nothing funny about their use of the name of a Roman military force to legitimize their activities.

A screenshot of the 1st Amendment Praetorian website, which prominently features a number of stylized Greek helmets. Text on the page reads "1ST AMENDMENT PRAETORIAN: There are groups today who use violence and intimidation to suppress people’s 1st Amendment rights and their desire [sic] to stand up for what they believe in. We stand in their way and ensure the American people are proteced to say and defend what they believe in."
The “1st Amendment Praetorian” webpage with logo intended to represent a Roman Legionary helmet

In ancient Rome the Praetorian Guard from which this group takes their name came into existence under the Roman Republic; according to the lexicon of Festus, Scipio Africanus (died 183 BCE) was the first commander to collect a group of elite troops to protect his “tent” (praetorium). But the Praetorians are much better known from the period when Rome was ruled by autocratic dictators (usually referred to as “emperors”) who, like most tyrants, needed a group of mercenary bodyguards to suppress political unrest and protect them from the Roman people and their rivals for power.

Almost from the beginning of the Principate the Praetorians were associated with the violent maintenance of tyrannical power: the praetorian prefect Sejanus employed the Praetorians first to consolidate Tiberius‘ power, and later to isolate him while enacting a series of show-trials and executions of senators and other Roman citizens. Over time they played a role in several violent revolutions, murdering the emperors Caligula and Pertinax and participating in other conspiracies. After Caligula’s murder emperors had to pay off the Praetorians to maintain power. It’s possible that this modern group that claims to “protect the Republic” has the example of Scipio Africanus’ Praetorians in mind but even if they do their use of this term can’t avoid associating them with the much more well-known and well-documented mercenary forces of the Roman emperors.

The reference to Greco-Roman antiquity serves to clarify their commitment to a violent and totalitarian agenda

So it’s jarring to find a group like this using a name associated with totalitarian politics and extra-legal violence claiming to defend the democratic right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the first amendment to the United States Constitution. But this apparent contradiction evaporates when one recalls that the notion of “freedom of speech” has become one of the arguments that white supremacists use to defend their supposed right to undermine democratic institutions, and promote violence. The QAnon conspiracy theory that the “First Amendment Praetorians” defend is fundamentally a repackaging of timeworn white supremacist ideas that has attracted its share of contemporary antisemites; the leader of the the “First Amendment Praetorians” has tweeted that the common xenophobic lie that “mass immigration…turn[ed] Sweden into the rape capital of the world.”

This group’s claim to defend the First Amendment gives credence to legal scholars who argue, to mention several recognized by the American Bar Association as contributing “Critical Challenges” to traditional understandings of First Amendment protections, that “the First Amendment is a racial project [that] results in predictable racialized outcomes that redistribute resources along racial lines,” that “the protection granted to race hate speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution” requires ignoring “Congress’ responsibility to uphold its obligations under the Thirteenth Amendment,” which abolished enslavement in the United States, and that First Amendment protections, as currently interpreted, “arm conscious and unconscious racists—Nazis and liberals alike—with a constitutional right to be racist.” This is the aspect of the First Amendment that these “Praetorians” seek to defend.

Often Greco-Roman antiquity seems to function as a respectable veneer over hateful ideologies. However, in the case of the “First Amendment Praetorians” the link to ancient Rome actually serves to clarify the group’s commitment, despite their claims to defend democracy, to a violent and totalitarian agenda. And their juxtaposition of “Praetorians” with the first amendment provides an opportunity to reflect on how a right that has so often been considered a cornerstone of the modern democratic project, when interpreted as the “1st Amendment Praetorians” do, can be used to legitimate white supremacist and anti-Democratic politics.

The American Bar Association has summarized major treatments of the issue of the First Amendment as it relates to race and racism. Our discussion above draws on the works listed in the “Critical Challenges” sections of this summary.

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