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27 April 2022updated 29 Apr 2022 12:46am

The strange allure of the strongman leader

Authoritarians and autocrats continue to flourish despite a long parade of inadequacy. Can liberal democracy strike back?

By Jeremy Cliffe

Survey the strongman leaders who have come to define global politics in recent times and a pattern emerges. In the rich world there is Silvio Berlusconi, with his plastic face and gold-leaf orgies; Donald Trump, a tangerine ball of ignorance who encouraged Americans to drink bleach; and Boris Johnson, who is on the verge of becoming the first British prime minister to lose power having been “ambushed” by a birthday cake. Elsewhere, the late Hugo Chávez used to ramble on for hours on his vanity TV show, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has linked Covid vaccines with Aids and Narendra Modi has suggested that cloud cover might hide Indian jets from enemy radar. The common trait – to an almost uncanny degree – is just how unimpressive and even ridiculous these somehow world-shaping chancers all are.

The question is how they manage to be so influential. Little might appear to link, say, Johnson and his cavalier Toryism to Vladimir Putin on the genocidal right, or to Chávez on the catastrophically autocratic left. Yet they all stand as examples of populist politics: tribunes of a gutsy appeal to “the people” to act as one and cast off the yoke of internal traitors and external foes. The global tilt towards such leaders, rupturing the optimistic assumptions of the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has been the hallmark of the 2010s and the 2020s so far.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has just won a fourth consecutive term as prime minister. Marine Le Pen may just have lost the French presidential election to the technocratic centrist Emmanuel Macron, but her 41.5 per cent vote share was still a new high-water mark for the modern-day European far right. Putin’s violence and chaos in Ukraine is changing the face of Europe, but it does not appear to have pressured other strongmen (such as India’s Narendra Modi) into joining the international coalition opposing his war. Bolsonaro may yet win re-election in October. Meanwhile, the US election of 2024 is looming and with it the prospect of a second and yet more extreme term for Trump.

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Two international commentators have new books out trying to make sense of this strange era of buffoon-led calamity. Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs columnist of the Financial Times, divides events since 1945 into three cycles: the postwar boom years, the “neoliberal era” from the 1970s to the financial crash, and the post-2008 “age of the strongman”. His new book is devoted to and named after this third phase. Meanwhile Moisés Naím, an eminent Venezuelan thinker, has returned to his bestseller The End of Power with a sequel called The Revenge of Power. Where his 2013 book charted how old centres of control – from churches to political parties to newspapers – were losing their monopolies, his new work charts how centralised authority has fought back. Naím argues that “power, in a malignant new form” has regrouped thanks to the new authoritarians.

Rachman offers a series of portraits of strongman leadership, from Bolsonaro to Johnson, dipping into his travels and network of contacts for anecdotes and illustrations. Naím organises his argument thematically, around what he calls the “3P” traits of the new authoritarians: populism, polarisation and post-truth politics. Each author starts his tale in the 1990s and an ur-example of his subject: Rachman with Putin, Naím with Berlusconi. Rachman’s narrative has the edge, and not just because his opening with the Russian president is extremely apt in this, now the third month of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Histories of the present can risk being mere digests of recent events, and while neither book falls into that trap, Rachman’s portraits and eye for detail does the better job of avoiding it.

While past dictators used the tank and the jackboot – and some hard-line regimes, like that of Kim Jong Un in North Korea still do – the norm today is to concentrate power through stealth. Naím recounts how by either passing off autocracies as democracies, or seizing control of actual democracies from the inside, the new authoritarians are managing to “reconstitute absolute power in a moment that’s hostile to it”. Citing examples such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Orbán in Hungary, he shows how they manage to corrode the rule of law and liberal democratic institutions, corrupt flows of money and information and rig the system in their favour, all behind the façade of electoral democracy. (Even increasingly totalitarian Russia still holds elections.) In other words, they are harnessing precisely the trends that Naím described a decade ago – the fragmentation of old centres of authority – to find new ways to concentrate power. It is a story of adaptation and evolution.

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Both accounts shed light on the workings of this process. Though clear local and national differences exist, something like a typical framework for the new authoritarianism has emerged over the past two decades (at least) through a process of experimentation, and individual leaders learning from each other.

A British adviser to the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”) tells Rachman: “He was fascinated by [Putin]. He seemed to admire him. He liked what he did.” Other admirers of the Russian president range from Duterte to Rudy Giuliani, from Nigel Farage to Marine Le Pen. Putin is striking as an early example of a contemporary leader combining a cult of personality (witnessed elsewhere, for example in the slogan of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador: “The country of one man”) with rule-breaking, artificial civil-society institutions (what Naím calls “government organised non-government organisations” or “GONGOs”) and a co-opting of culture-war politics (as one Russian liberal puts it to Rachman: “Politics in Russia is a contest between the fridge [the economy] and the television [culture, identity and spectacle]”).

For his part, as a Venezuelan Naím is especially compelling on the ways that swaggering “Chavismo” in his native country foreshadowed Trumpism in America. “I watched the circus that engulfed US politics in 2016 with a horror suffused in déjà vu,” he writes. “The histrionics, the easy answers, the furious denunciations by a nebulous elite that woke up to the danger far too late. I had seen this movie before.”

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It is a damning indictment of such “nebulous elites” that preposterous characters such as Chávez or Trump can rise to power. Time and again, the stories of their ascent are also ones of ineptitude, self-defeating bombast and conspicuous failure to deliver the national revivals that they promise. Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu stands out in Rachman’s portrait for the sheer recklessness of his choice of allies – damaging his country’s international reputation and projecting rank hypocrisy by, for example, courting Orbán despite the Hungarian prime minister’s long record of deploying anti-Semitic tropes. MBS is similarly notable for self-sabotaging acts, such as the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his government’s bloody war in Yemen.

In the UK, Johnson and his fellow travellers have repeatedly failed to reconcile the fantasies on which they built the case for Brexit with reality. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is presiding over an economic crisis predominantly caused by his own unforced errors. For all the swagger of his self-made-businessman shtick, Berlusconi deepened Italian economic stagnation and decline. Trump’s wall remains unbuilt, his America still elusively far from being “great again”.

The two most powerful strongmen of today’s world both provide vivid illustrations of the weaknesses of their style of leadership, and the price paid when institutional checks and balances are suppressed in favour of unchecked central control. “The coronavirus [pandemic] became a global crisis in the first place as a result of censorship,” Naím reminds us. “The Chinese government’s moves to silence Dr Li Wenliang and his colleagues in Wuhan, who first tried to raise the alarm over this strange disease in December 2019, squandered the critical early period when the first outbreak might have been contained locally.” Today the cracks in Xi Jinping’s China are starting to show: from the crisis in the country’s property sector to the breakdown of order in Shanghai as the country’s “zero Covid” strategy runs up against its limits.

As for Putin: could there be any better illustration of the perils of a man told for too long what he wants to hear than the incompetent invasion of Ukraine? Russia’s military planners expected to take Kyiv within a couple of days. Instead poor logistics, equipment, morale and discipline among their troops have combined with strong Ukrainian resolve to force Putin’s soldiers into a retreat from the capital region to more limited targets in Ukraine’s south and east.

So why is it, then, that the “nebulous elites” – or more widely those who favour liberal democracy, pluralistic institutions and strong rule of law – have struggled to turn the tide? Why is it that the Ukraine debacle is unlikely to end the age of Putin and the Putinites? That Le Pen just obtained the best election result for a far-right candidate in a major European election since the 1930s? That Trump may be on his way back?

Here Rachman’s and Naím’s books fulfil an intriguing second function: as portraits-in-reverse of the very societies and political establishments (national and international) that have allowed themselves to be upended by the new authoritarians. The tale of how these strongmen have risen is also one of how a liberal democratic order became so vulnerable to their “3P” methods; of the West’s complacency and hubris following the end of the Cold War; of debacles like the Iraq War that enabled men such as Putin to accuse the West of hypocrisy and double standards; of the decline of trust caused by failures and venality in the mainstream establishments even of well-rooted democracies; of the growing gap between economic and cultural elites and the rest.

Strongmen may deal in culture wars (the television, to co-opt the Russian saying) but economic divides (bare fridges for those at the bottom) also play a part in the story. Mortality rates among middle-aged, non-college-educated white Americans rose by 22 per cent between 1999 and 2014, notes Rachman, with the real incomes of non-college-educated Americans falling by 19 per cent over the same period. So-called deaths of despair have surged. As one Leave voter in the UK put it to him: “It can’t get any worse for me. Something has to change. And maybe this [Brexit] can be it.” Too often the response of political mainstreams has been to belittle such voters for their faith in such obviously illusory answers, rather than asking themselves what causes the sense of dislocation in the first place.

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Liberal democracy has been far too blithe about its own strengths and survival and has lacked a sense of self-preservation. Many of the new authoritarians were initially written off as harmless, or at the very least as being on the path to becoming “one of us”. In June 2000, shortly after Putin had presided over appalling abuses and war crimes during the Second Chechen War, Bill Clinton praised him for being “fully capable of building a prosperous, strong Russia while preserving freedom and pluralism and the rule of law”. In 2013 the New York Times columnist Nick Kristof wrote that Xi “would spur a resurgence of economic reform and probably some political easing as well”. His fellow columnist Thomas Friedman would later hail MBS as being “on a mission to transform how Saudi Arabia has been governed”. “Take Trump seriously, but not literally” was a popular reassuring refrain in 2016, before it turned out the incoming president could very much be taken literally on much of the nonsense he spouted.

From such naivety has flowed complacent policies that have helped the new authoritarians on their way: from the UK styling itself as the no-questions-asked banker and valet to the world’s kleptocrats and their cronies, via Germany’s spectacularly ill-judged self-subordination to Russian energy interests and Chinese state capitalism, via Macron’s unnecessarily arrogant and haughty style of leadership playing into Le Pen’s hands, to the Democratic establishment in the US blithely writing off Trump’s chances both of defeating Hilary Clinton and of subsequently governing in the lurid and chaotic style in which he had campaigned. “When someone tells you who they are, believe them” might be considered a better, more clear-eyed mantra for our age.

It is depressing indeed that such avoidable errors have helped contribute to international political forces that seem to be plunging the world into chaos and division. Yet if there is a silver lining for those of us who share Rachman’s and Naím’s dismay at the shifts of the past decades, it is that it really should not be difficult for liberal democrats in the next years to proceed with more savvy, realism and self-awareness than they have mustered previously. What is needed is humility, vigilance and, most of all, a balanced sense of the superiority, yet also vulnerability, of systems defined by fact not assertion, pluralism not mono-polarity, checks and balances rather than the supposedly infinite wisdom of one bloviating leader. Trump and Putin, Le Pen and Xi, Erdoğan and Bolsonaro – this tawdry lot ought to be beatable. That, or liberal democracy might as well pack up and go home.

The Age of the Strongman by Gideon Rachman
Bodley Head, 288pp, £20

The Revenge of Power by Moisés Naím
St Martin’s Press, 320pp, £22.99

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma