To my regret, I don’t remember much of the philosophy classes I mostly daydreamed through in college. Alas, plenty of ancient wisdom floated by me back when I was too young to absorb it. Yet a quote from the ethicist Bernard Williams has resurfaced in recent years and has started to haunt me. I’m paraphrasing, but Williams pointedly asks in one of his essays just what is the philosopher supposed to do if the thugs break into his classroom, start ripping up his books, and break his glasses? In other words, what can mere thinking do in the face of brute force?
Given the widely discussed worldwide trend towards authoritarianism, otherwise known as strongmen, who literally and symbolically tend to do what Williams warned about, the question is urgent. In his new book The Age of the Strongmen, Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, provides pithy, informed, and lucid capsule histories of the rise to power of some of today’s key strongmen. These include Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, India’s Narendra Modi, China’s Xi Jinping, and our own Donald J. Trump, among a disturbing number of others from all over the world, from India to Israel to Saudi Arabia and the U.K.
These strongmen, Rachman argues, are “part of a continuum. At one end, there are unchallenged autocrats such as the leaders of China and Saudi Arabia. Then there are figures in the middle like Putin and Erdogan… subject to some of the constraints of a democracy, such as elections and limited press freedom; but they are also able to imprison opponents and to rule for decades. Then there are politicians who operate in democracies but who display contempt for democratic norms and who seem intent on eroding them: Trump, Orban, Modi, and Bolsonaro.” Even if there are some nominal guardrails to their agenda, it’s by no means guaranteed that they will work without being actively reinforced.
Fortunately, you can spot the tell-tale signs of the strongman if you know what to look for. Rachman suggests there are “four cross-cutting characteristics that are common to the strongmen style: the creation of a cult of personality; contempt for the rule of law; the claim to represent the real people against the elites… and a politics driven by fear and nationalism.” Unsurprisingly, strongmen aren’t too fond of a free and independent press, nor do they tend to believe in the legitimacy of elections that they don’t win, or have much tolerance for ethnic Others, boosting instead their partisan version of a “true” patriotic citizen.
It’s a little dispiriting to see how the authoritarian playbook is full of predictable variations on age-old themes. Strongmen usually pound the table over the key words recently promoted for the millionth time by the newly elected (and strongman-admiring) Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni: God, Country, Family.
Which begs the question: whose God, exactly? Mine, yours, theirs? Of course, the answer is always the True One, who just so happens to like you and your people best. Apparently, the deity asks little in the way of personal sacrifice other than to bring everyone else under said deity’s laws, which magically tend to match up quite well with your party’s policy goals.
Rachman perceptively notes the “recurrent pattern” of the strongman’s typical climb within the political structure. “A charismatic new leader emerges somewhere in the world. He is portrayed in the Western media as a liberal reformer. Western politicians and institutions weigh in with encouraging comments and offers of assistance. Then, as time passes, awkward facts emerge. The liberal reformer becomes increasingly authoritarian. Disillusionment sets in.”
Which overlaps neatly with how they profit from fetishizing national greatness, where one’s country is either already the Greatest or would be if it weren’t for those pesky wimps and brainiacs who refuse to get with the program. It is interesting that a lot of these strongmen rise in countries who either were empires once (Turkey, Britain, Russia) or who crave being bigger players on the world stage, like Israel and Brazil. Rather than try to build up the resources that might actually make a country great, the strongman wants to push ahead to the front of the line.
History shows that it’s a very short jump from a demoralized citizen’s desire to feel newly empowered to their proudly riding shotgun on the nationalist bandwagon. Maybe it would be best to encourage people not to tie their identity so strongly to their country. The personal really doesn’t always have to be political.
And of course, family is important and wonderful in many ways, but when used as an autocratic tool for emotional appeal it conceals a more insidious agenda. One guess who the strongman types proudly assume should be at the head of said family. And if, as some philosophers have claimed, the family is the miniature model of society, then we can be pretty sure that the strongmen running the country can reliably count on the support of the newly legitimized alpha males at the dinner table.
Even if you’ve gotten wise to the strongman’s ways and means, trying to answer Williams’ question is still agonizingly difficult. Violence only begets more violence, and strongman types usually aren’t hesitant about using it. So it’s best not to play on their terms. Protest is good, but it’s not always enough to sway public opinion on its own, especially with a partisan media that will shamelessly ignore or distort facts. Honest journalism and accurate scholarship certainly help, but they can easily go unheard, or worse, be silenced.
Maybe the most effective way to pry yourself out of the strongmen’s grip is through increased democratic pressure. If there is still the possibility that a strongman can be deposed through an election, then it falls on the citizenry to do so by keeping those institutions independent and exercising them properly. The point must be made as publicly and definitively as possible that the rule of the strongman has been deemed unacceptable by a majority of the population. It should come from the ground up, which is to say from education, debate, and group participation of everyday people. It sure seems that pretty much anything is possible in politics, either for good or ill, as long as you rally enough people behind it.
The Daily Beast reached out to Rachman to talk about the current state of global politics, Putin’s bare-chested photo op, the role of economics in the rise of strongmen, and what is to be done to resist.
What made you want to write this book?
The realization that the dominant theme of global politics since 2000 is the emergence of strongman rulers—a trend that operates in autocracies and democracies alike. I think the moment that this became truly a global trend was when Trump was elected in 2016. At that point, you had the world’s two largest economies in the world—the U.S. and China—run by strongman rulers. You also had Modi in India; Putin in Russia; Erdogan in Turkey. And Bolsonaro was soon to follow in Brazil. So it become obvious to me that this was a global trend that needed explaining.
Throughout the book, you tend to use the term “strongman” rather than a term like “autocrat” or “dictator.” Why is that?
A lot of these leaders are would-be dictators, rather than actual dictators. I think leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi—who operate within democratic systems—could easily become dictators in a different context but are still subject to some democratic constraints.
I could certainly have used the term autocrat—the German translation is called “Welt der Autokraten.” But I think strongman is better because it captures the idea that this is not just about a system of governance—but also a style.
These leaders often actually like to emphasize their supposed physical strength, or macho style, as part of their political appeal. So you have the famous photos of Putin posing bare-chested; Trump’s constant refrain that you “gotta be strong;” Modi’s campaign boasting about his “56-inch chest.” The claim to physical strength is a very literal way of getting across the idea that these are tough guys—the kind of people who will make your country respected.
Do you think the desire to follow a strongman type is innate in human beings? Or is it that people turn to them during times of trouble or anxiety?
I think there are certain people who are always attracted to this type of leader—what Adorno referred to as the “authoritarian personality.” But the demand for a strongman definitely goes up in troubled times. And almost all the leaders I profile in the book depend on the rhetoric of crisis. They claim that the country is facing an emergency and that it needs a strongman to rescue it.
The nature of that crisis can vary. Trump talked about “American carnage.” Bolsonaro emphasized corruption. Duterte focused on crime. Putin claimed that the West was out to destroy Mother Russia. Orban that migrants would overwhelm Hungary. But there always has to be a crisis.
Is the rise of strongmen cyclical? Do you think that there’s a useful historical parallel that will help us to better understand what we’re seeing right now?
Yes, to the extent that this is a style of leadership we’ve seen throughout history. It seemed to be going out of favor, in the “end of history” period after 1989, when liberal democracy was on the rise. But it’s made a big comeback in the 21st century.
As for historical parallels—the obvious one is with the 1930s. That’s not very encouraging because it culminated in a devastating war. On the plus side, the 1930s revealed that strongman leaders almost inevitably make catastrophic errors of judgment. This is just not a good model of governance.
One thing I’ve noticed is that one of the similarities a lot of these figures share is an exaggerated sense of machismo, of trying to appear ultra-masculine, putting down wimpy types, restricting women’s rights, supporting gun ownership, etc. Do you think this is an essential aspect of the strongman’s appeal?
Yes, I think it’s pretty central. It’s not just the literal appeal to violence and strength. It’s also that they promote a very traditional view of society—women at home, gays invisible, and absolutely no trans-people. And big families. Xi has even banned the portrayal of effeminate men on Chinese television.
So it is quite hard for a woman to espouse this style of leadership, but perhaps not impossible. Giorgia Meloni, the new leader of Italy, is from the far right and is an admirer of Orban. It will be interesting to see how her time in power develops.
To what extent is all this authoritarianism about spectacle? Is it just a savvy politician figuring out the most effective ways of giving people what they already want, or is it more about putting ideas into people’s heads and then getting them riled up?
I think it’s about all those things. It’s also about smashing taboos and claiming to represent the people against the elites. Before Trump came along, who thought that a president could attempt to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.?
That kind of radical gesture doesn’t usually work as policy; but it works politically—signaling to your followers that you really are different and that you are willing to outrage the elite to get things done. Duterte’s promise to unleash death squads on drug dealers—which he carried out—is another example.
You talk about this a little bit in the book, but I’d like to hear more about whether or not you think neoliberalism is partially responsible for the widespread phenomena of the strongman. In other words, did the free market oriented economic mentality that prevailed in the ’90s fail to deliver people’s material security and comfort, which then caused them to want someone whom they think will get the trains running on time?
I think it was important in some contexts—particularly in the U.S. and western Europe. Trump’s rhetoric about “American carnage” worked in areas—where $48 an hour steel jobs had been replaced by $14 an hour service jobs. Putin often stresses the economic dislocation of Russia in the 1990s. But strongmen have also come to power in countries where living standards have been rising, such as Turkey, India, and China. So there can obviously be other grievances.
In those three cases, the strongman leader makes a promise to restore national greatness and take revenge for past historical humiliations, such as the collapse of the Ottoman empire or British rule of India, or China’s century of humiliation.
What can be done about strongmen? I think one problem is that if one side is willing to be amoral and to break the rules of decorum and laws and so forth, it’s kind of hard to use the rules to try to defeat them. Of course, the temptation is to also go low, but that inevitably presents a ton of problems in and of itself. Not the least of which is that if you do that then you’re playing the other guy’s game. So, is democracy the best answer, the only answer, or is democracy problematic because after all, history teaches us that even strongman types can actually be elected?
That’s a tough one. First of all, vigilance: protect things like independent courts, free media etc. Second, attack the strongmen but do not insult their followers. Hillary Clinton’s referring to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” was a mistake.
Finally, be aware that this is also an international fight. These leaders often support each other and imitate each other. Putin was widely admired by other strongmen, including Xi and Trump. Defeat Putin and one of the symbols of the strongman age will have been discredited—and that could have wider international ramifications.