“Say what you want about Benito Mussolini, at least he made the trains run on time.” Two years ago, you would only have seen that sentiment in a UK newspaper as a joke. Today – I paraphrase only slightly – it’s in the Times, in an op-ed by David Cameron’s former speechwriter, Clare Foges.
The following is a direct quote: “Strongmen may be tyrannical and unpleasant, yet on the credit side of the ledger they truly believe they can transform their nations.”
The mistake here is in thinking that tyranny is one side of a ledger that can be outweighed by anything else – and in deciding that arguing for universal values is someone else’s job.
Here’s another line: “President Trump may be derided as an uncouth bully, but he has a habit of staying true to his word.”
He has a habit of what? He is, with respect, probably the man most associated with lying, in the world. Even on its own terms this is nonsense. Where is the wall, when are the Mexicans paying for it, how’s the repeal of Obamacare going?
He has a reputation for being an uncouth bully because he is an uncouth bully. People think he is a liar because he lies a lot.
Then we move on to President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Yes, that’s right, the extrajudicial killings guy. Then Vladimir Putin, although the list we’re given of his grand projects doesn’t stretch to the invading of sovereign nations, international assassination attempts or the downing of international civilian passenger jets. Say what you like about his homophobia and thuggery – he gets things done.
The rest of the piece… well, it’s nonsense. And by the way, Mussolini didn’t make the trains run on time. Oh yes, and he was responsible for the deaths of thousands upon thousands of innocent people. You might say, so what? Ludicrous arguments appear in the comment pages all the time. That’s true, but this stuff matters.
It used to go without saying that any favourable reference to fascism, to the Nazis or to historic authoritarians meant that we could ignore the person making it. Not anymore. Not when serious commentators are making the case for a bit of strongman leadership. If you were writing a script for the death of liberal democracy, articles like this would be in it.
Liberal democracy must be defended. We all know the Winston Churchill line that democracy is the least worst form of government. It’s so often quoted because it is absolutely right. There is no question that we live in dangerous times.
The United States used to be the shining city on the hill, now it is the country of Muslim bans, child separation and a president who boasts about sexual assault.
Europe is undergoing the biggest threat to our shared values since the end of the Cold War with the rise of genuine fascists across the continent. Here in Britain, we have worrying signs that Ukip, looking for a purpose after achieving its goal of winning the Brexit referendum, may become an openly racist and Islamophobic party – a gap in the political market that would be better left unfilled.
On the left, we have the rise of hipster communism, where the dictatorship of the proletariat can be anything you want it to be. We’re trapped between commentators on the right celebrating strongmen on the grounds that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and celebrity leftists disregarding the inconvenient fact that the ideology on their t-shirt killed more people in the 20th century than fascism and terrorism combined. What links them both is a willingness to turn a blind eye to evil, for the sake of saying something that gets attention.
Globalisation, multiculturalism, and liberal democracy have been good for Britain and good for the world – but we must neither abandon them nor take them for granted.
“I think we live in a very interesting, exciting, and crucial time, when things are changing in the global order,” Angela Merkel said last week. “When the generation that survived the war is no longer here, we’ll find out whether or not we learned from history.”
One of the most terrifying elements of the current resurgence of authoritarianism is the sense that the ghosts of the past may not have been laid to rest. That perhaps, as memory fades we are doomed to fall into the same old traps. That the disease of authoritarianism and strongman politics can never be truly vanquished.
Those of us who believe in a more liberal, more open, more tolerant world need to keep arguing and keep fighting for what we believe in. The dark and worrying times we live in are not a reason to despair and shut the curtains but force us to remain vigilant and keep fighting for the best form of ordering society the world has ever seen.
Strongmen get things done, but those things tend to be abhorrent. Anybody who thinks we should be learning from them should take a good long look in the mirror.
Pete Starkings is director of Global Future