The Age of the Strongman (Gideon Rachman)


Dear Partners in Thought,

As I wrote about leadership-making in David Gergen’s recent book “Hearts Touched with Fire,” where leadership was deemed “good” in essence, I also stressed that some leaders were not always good in nature, often leading their countries and the world to a dangerous path. As such, I thought it would be good to do a Book Note on “The Age of the Strongman – How the Cult of the Leader threatens Democracy around the World” from the Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman. The very gifted journalist and author (one of the best columnists at the FT today) tells us about those leaders who are easily identified as strongmen—and there are many today. These men (there is no woman yet) are household names, and sadly represent a large segment of the world population, usually in the developing world or (in the case of China) as the aspiring world leader. Rachman tells us more about Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Xi Jinping, but also Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro and others like daringly, Boris Johnson for whom he makes a strong case for strongmen club membership—however mild he may be in comparison to the others. He reminds us of earlier times, when many of those leaders in the developing or actually rising world, showed a more Western-like democratic flavor in their governing style (and policies) when they fully played the global cooperative game—unlike today also, in the new cold war scenarios we see unfolding.

The picture we get is worrying at two levels: i) these leaders, often representing very large countries, seem to increasingly rule the world or have a great impact on its events and ii) the democratic West is not healthy today, due to a combination of the rise of the extremes, a loss of basic values that made it, and the initially-unplanned adverse impact of tech, via truth-distorting and opinion-shaping social media: all affecting how people, and then voters, think. These leaders at both macro (country) and micro (corporates, business and investments) levels also create never-seen post-Cold War geopolitical risks, this including in parts of the West, when leadership can at times slip into practical authoritarianism in style, and increasingly in substance—as seen on a few occasions in post-Brexit Britain and in Trump’s America, even if in a mild way given the democratic context.

Vladimir Putin is emblematic of the old-fashioned strongman as seen with the invasion of Ukraine but also in the way Russia was governed since 2000, and especially since “Georgia” in 2008—not that Russia ever was a beacon of freedom and peaceful foreign policy-making. Even if George W. Bush in post-9-11 shock was able to “get a sense of his soul” in 2001. Twenty-two years is a long time in politics, though strongmen tend to stay in power forever—as shown with Xi’s plans for life ruling, or Erdoğan’s tenure in Ankara, that mirrors Putin’s. While Putin is naturally the first strongman to be addressed by Rachman, there is a large number of them that he focuses on. Rather than going into the features of each of them, I thought it was better to list them and their short chapters (about 15 pages on average) so as to let readers discover their details, while focusing on interesting aspects of the world of strongmen. The main feeling, admittedly very worrisome, arising from reading Rachman’s book, is that the West is not the world, and that the world is not democratic—also at a time when Western democracy is in peril due to its own issues today.

Rachman’s strongmen list starts with i) Putin – aptly named the archetype (2000); followed by ii) Erdoğan– from liberal reformer to authoritarian strongman (2003); iii) Xi Jinping – China and the return of the cult of personality à la Mao (2012); iv) Modi – strongman politics in the world’s largest, still-called, democracy (2014); v) Orban, Kaczynski and the rise of illiberal Europe; vi) Boris Johnson and Brexit Britain (2016); vii) Donald Trump – American strongman (2016); viii) Rodrigo Duterte and the erosion of democracy in South East Asia; ix) the rise of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and the Netanyahu phenomenon (2017); x) far rightist Bolsonaro, in Brazil, radical leftist “Amlo” in Mexico and the return of the Latin American caudillo (2018); xi) Abiy Ahmed and democratic disillusionment in Africa (2019); xii) lonely Merkel, Macron and Europe’s struggle against the strongmen; xiii) George Soros, Steve Bannon and the battle of ideas. The book finishes with an epilogue on President Biden in the Age of the Strongman. It is worth noting that some strongmen like Lukashenko in Belarus, Hun Sen in Cambodia or Kim Jong-un in North Korea are not addressed, not as they are gentle ones, but as they do not play a key role (so far) in changing the climate of global politics (one could disagree with the erratic Kim, but selection is key when dealing with such a large population of leaders that would give political commentator and author David Gergen a strong headache).

While the stories of these strongmen make for fascinating reading in terms of how they got to power and managed their often evolving “leaderships,” Rachman makes very useful points as to the nature of these types of leaders and their times, as follows:

• The general backdrop is clear. Over the last 20 years, liberal values like freedom of speech, independent courts, and minority rights have been under assault all over the world and especially as strongmen developed their autocratic style and/or rule.

• The West and its elites, especially political and mediatic, mistook many future strongmen like Putin, Erdoğan, Modi, Orban, and even Xi as reformers who could take their countries on a Western liberal path, that was deemed the universal way post-Cold war. These future strongmen, some who changed very quickly like MBS, also showed unusual liberal and reformist “tendencies” as they started leading their countries when compared with past leadership, this for a short time as the “Riyadh hotel jail” episode showed. The West did not see what was coming.

• The strongmen are different in nature from the unchallenged autocrats (Xi in China, MBS in Saudi Arabia) to those in the middle (Putin in Russia—this arguably— , Erdoğan in Turkey) who are subject to some increasingly-vanishing forms of democratic constraints like elections, and limited press freedom—to those who operate in democracies, but show contempt for its norms, and keep eroding them (Orbán in Hungary, clearly Trump in the US, and even Johnson in Britain, who showed perhaps the mildest, but a real strongman-case on many occasions).

• The strongman model was furthered even among clear authoritarian regimes like China or Saudi Arabia, where the likes of Xi and MBS gradually concentrated power around them, and away from a more collective leadership, either from the Communist Party or the Saudi Royal family. Today Xi is becoming a new Mao with no term limits.

• The two emerging powers of the 21st century, China and India, have both gradually adopted strongman politics, while representing an immense part of the world population that, so far, seem to accept such a political modus operandi that projects nationalism, strength, and a strong hostility to weak (Western) liberalism.

• The strongmen are not all the same, but they are similar through four cross-cutting common features: i) the creation of a cult of personality; ii) contempt for the rule of law; iii) the claim to represent the real people against the elite a.k.a. populism, well shown with Donald Trump even today and; iv) a politics driven by fear and nationalism.

• Strongmen sell themselves as indispensable and the only ones to save the nation, making little or no distinction between the state and the leader. They stress their nationalism, cultural conservatism, little tolerance for minorities, and dissent for the interests of foreigners, however fair and valid.

• Very often, strongmen rule as a family, with Erdoğan having appointed his son-in-law as finance minister and Trump his own son-in-law to take a key role in foreign and domestic politics. Bolsonaro appointed his three sons to key official positions, including one as Ambassador to the US. Duterte’s candidate to succeed him in Manila was his daughter (but then a young Marcos also came in). Even Boris Johnson appointed his brother Jo to the cabinet and then the House of Lords, as an aside (my comment), not the most democratic or meritocratic of institutions.

• Strongmen, unlike the dictators of the 1930s, operate in a challenged but still globalized world, where international law theoretically prevails, though take advantage of the technologies of the 21st century, allowing them to connect directly with the masses and, in many ways, shape their views and/or control them. These developments can take different forms, with two extremes in motion: in the West, actual and aspiring populist strongmen rely on social media and the likes to shape and control the minds of voters, while in true autocracies like China, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube (the latter used by Alexei Navalny in Russia in earlier days to post online videos of the corruption of Putin and his inner circle) are blocked, and the internet is under strict online social control.

• Long periods of power allow strongmen to appoint loyalists in key positions, including in the courts, that have an impact on the daily life of their citizens. Duterte “restructured” the Filipino Supreme Court to his liking, while 4,000 judges were purged in Turkey during a state of post-coup emergency in 2016. Although not in the same environment, Trump (admittedly due to his timing in office and following a legal process) ensured the US Supreme Court became very conservative for some time, resulting in decisions (or no decisions) not reflecting the views of a vast majority of Americans today.

• Strongmen disdain institutions but love “the people”—this being associated with populism as still seen in 2022 with Trump and his die-hard base. Simple solutions for complex issues are put forward also, as they can be understood by the largest number, many of whom are not troubled with analytical processes. Simple messages like “Get Brexit Done” and “Build that Wall” were famously heard in recent years with great results for the strongmen.

• Legal and state institutions are often portrayed by strongmen as obfuscation tools used by the elites and a “Deep State” to protect themselves, and need to be broken when the ends justify the means. Similarly, shadowy foreigners are often portrayed by strongmen as plotting against the interests of the people, George Soros having been a case in point in Orbán’s Hungary.

• In most cases, strongmen fight for the people living in small towns and the countryside against the urban elites, often splitting the vote—when there is one—like in the US in 2016 and 2020—on educational lines. Trump lost heavily among college graduates, but gained 80% of the vote of non-college educated white men in both presidential elections. In the UK, 73% of school leavers without any qualifications voted Leave while 75% of voters with post-graduate degrees voted Remain.

• Nostalgic nationalism works also for the strongmen, hence the famous “Making America Great Again”, as they attract those poorly educated voters who have not benefitted the most, if at all, from globalization and experienced standards of living declines in recent decades. Bringing back the good times also works well in America or Britain, whatever the precise message. Similar messages are heard in Turkey, Hungary or Russia, with the Peter the Great approach about regaining territories, therefore past grandeur. Even Global Britain, that drove Brexit is linked to some nostalgia for an era when Britain was ruling the global waves, a sentiment not lost on the oldest voters even if they should remember the dreadful seventies better than a Victorian era they only read about.

To look at this week’s world, the already-disputed election of William Ruto in Kenya, a self-styled “hustler” and former chicken street farmer, also known as an African Bolsonaro, is a potential additional sign of a slide into authoritarianism and strongman ethos in Africa—even if resulting from an official democratic process. The news that former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison took over “discreetly” five ministries during the peak of the Covid era, this whatever the rationale for doing so, is another (admittedly mild as Western-flavored) example—very unusual for Australia—of the rising strongman era, even in the democratic West.

The Age of the Strongman brings three additional remarks: i) there were many strongmen in history in recent centuries like Louis XIV or Napoléon Bonaparte. If anything, strongmen always ruled “their” world; ii) the current era may make us realize that democracy, as we used to know it even in its more natural incarnation and fullest form in the West, is a very short and thus fragile experience in world history. There were only 12 democracies in the world in 1945; and iii) while being nationalist first, strongmen can work together especially against the West and its positions, as seen with their effective support or lack of condemnation of Russia, also for tactical reasons, in the context of the Ukraine invasion. In a rather low-key though telling development, China will send troops to a Russia-led military exercise in the Russian Far East where India, Mongolia and Tajikistan will also take part.

Liberal democracy was only ascendant for 20 years following the end of the Cold War, also reflecting a unipolar US world that non-Western strongmen started to attack as they built their power at home. The financial crisis of 2008, the ill-fated Iraq war, and rapid rise of China stopped taken-for-granted Western world dominance, even if the US stayed the leading world player. The rise of the strongmen and the fragility of Western style-democracy is also why it is imperative for liberal democrats not to be weak, and defend democracy with the utmost vigor. This fight is implying a renewed Western focus on education in order to best fight against the domestic dangers of social media-driven populism and its vote-grabbing and skill-less politicians of our times.

Gideon Rachman’s book is very dense, going through all the key strongmen of the moment and their main themes, like migration, which became a central tactical focus of the far-right parties in Europe since 2015. The Age of the Strongman is a book that needs to be read thoroughly and in a focused way, so rich are its contents and consequential its essence—all the more for the West, as we would like it to be, and how it should react to stop the authoritarian tide.

Warmest regards,