The number of Americans who flocked to London this past weekend to watch the coronation of King Charles III was so high that they were predicted to outspend Brits on hotel rooms. “In America, we don’t have things like this,” one American who camped out on the street the night before to attend the royal procession told NBC News. But, we all agree that having a coronation for an American king would be a bad idea … right?
Only 12% of Americans believe that instating a monarchy in the US would be “a good thing.” An astonishing 40%, however, disclosed in a 2022 survey that “having a strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy.” How many answered this way after succumbing to the quiet power of authoritarian aesthetics?
It is a time-honored tradition for authoritarian leaders to use enchanting theatrical designs to lure people into believing they are legitimate rulers. Those attempting to disrupt this aesthetic were dealt swift “justice” this weekend when over 50 peaceful protestors were arrested in London ahead of the coronation. Meanwhile, the man who appeared bored while donning golden robes and riding away in a golden chariot inherited control of assets worth at least $46 billion. But because his late mother, Queen Elizabeth II, kept offshore accounts, the full sum of the family’s incredible wealth is unknown by the public. Their billions did not pay for the coronation — the British public footed the bill for a “slimmed down” celebration that still cost over $100 million. And the cost of merchandise to inaugurate the new king is ongoing: over $400 million are estimated to be spent on printing stamps and coins with his face. Meanwhile, the country is diving deeper into a cost of living crisis that has left millions food-insecure.
Columnist Polly Toynbee highlighted many of the UK’s alarming “lapses” by not having an elected president and “handing all royal prerogative to the prime minister with no check or balance.” Writer and activist Tariq Ali spelled it out plainly in a TikTok for Verso Books, saying that the monarchy is “used largely as a charade and a show, though it isn’t. It’s kept there because to change it would mean a written constitution and a more democratic Britain.”
So why do 58% of the British people reportedly support a monarchy that drains them of economic and political power?
The answer might actually be pretty simple: it’s really, very pretty.
I can completely understand why many are taken with the pageantry that has been crafted over millennia to inspire the greatest possible amount of national pride. It’s a strange and stirring performance, with just the right amount of both familiarity and mystery. There’s a parade of glittering items for the king to touch, including golden spurs symbolizing honor and courage, the “bracelets of sincerity and wisdom,” and a 12th-century coronation spoon used to anoint the king behind a stunningly embroidered screen. And who can forget about the Stone of Destiny?
The monarchy derives its credibility from aesthetics. Much more than her son, Queen Elizabeth was a master at wielding imagery as a shield. Donning her trademark neon-monochrome outfits, the queen famously said that if she wore beige, no one would know who she was. Take away the crowns, thrones, and oodles of pomp and what would the monarchy have left? Unbalanced power, left naked for all to see.
The alluring royal aesthetic is so dazzling that it outshines the harsh reality of its increasingly authoritarian system. “Monarchy is a feudalism of the imagination, that stamps approval on inheritance, inequality and privilege, all growing rampantly right now,” wrote Toynbee.
While the number of Americans who share a favorable view of King Charles is almost equal to those who do not (39% versus 40% respectively), many are still swept up in the expert storytelling and dramatization of the royals. Some who traveled to London for the event told Town and Country that they simply “love the pomp and pageantry of it all,” and that the performance elicited “tears of joy.” Perhaps this is fueled by growing up in a Disney-infused empire, where the manufacturing of fairy tale endings elicits a multi-billion dollar industry. I couldn’t help but notice that some attendees’ headpieces looked a bit like Mickey Mouse’s ears.
But this is bigger than Disney adults. Maximalist, ornamental, and Eurocentric aesthetics have seen a resurgence over the last year. The #RoyalCore hashtag alone now has over 500 million views on TikTok. This is aided by the gargantuan phenomenon of royal-inspired TV shows such as Netflix’s Bridgerton and The Crown. More “cores” abound in the nebulous world of internet #aesthetics, where all things vaguely “old world” and “ornamental” meld together: gothic, Gilded Age, and even Catholic cores are rearing their bedazzled heads, pushing to dethrone the worn-out minimalist aesthetics that dominated the 2010s. The Kardashians seemed to catch on, presenting a bizarre Thanksgiving table in 2022 that included portraits of each of them as royals themselves.
After singing in an Episcopal church choir, avidly visiting Gothic buildings, and watching every new Disney release myself, I get the appeal. It’s designed to make us believe in magic. But the danger lies in just exactly what kind of fairytale we allow ourselves to indulge in.
The popularity of the monarchy aesthetics can easily slide into a romanticized notion of what it means to submit to an all-powerful ruler. The aforementioned survey that revealed 40% of Americans prefer a “strong leader” to a democracy also reported 41.2% agreed that “in America, native-born White people are being replaced by immigrants.” This is just one study among a handful of reports that point to a growing percentage of the American population who dream of a right-wing, authoritarian rule.
The monarchy is only as compelling as its main character, and Charles is much less popular than his mother on both sides of the Atlantic. Around 11 million Americans watched his coronation. Across the pond, 20 million Brits tuned in whereas 29 million watched the Queen’s funeral. Charles’ lack of popularity may already be leading to a more realistic impression of the monarchy’s inequities. Maybe it’s the perfect time to overthrow a king.