Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times claims that "since 2000 the rise of the strongman leader has become a central feature of global politics".
In support of that proposition, Rachman has collated pen portraits of an eclectic rogues' gallery. Predictably - and rightly - he leads off with Putin, the original of the strongman type, envied and emulated - fortunately, only in part - by many of the others. After him come Erdogan, Xi, Modi, Orban, Johnson, Trump, Duterte, Crown Prince Salman, Bolsonaro, Obrador, Kaczynski and Aily Ahmed (the last from Ethiopia). Three more positive appraisals round out the volume; they deal with Merkel, Soros and Biden.
A sceptical reader might query the absence of other strongmen, whether in Sri Lanka, Myanmar or North Korea. In addition, Rachman might have made room for some historical perspectives, on what used to be called "the man on horseback", caudillos or even General Charles de Gaulle.
Rachman defines a strongman by accumulating a list of descriptors. They are nationalists, cultural conservatives, purporting to stand up for the common man, encouraging a cult of personality, projecting a rhetoric of strength, fomenting fear, displaying contempt for the rule of law, maintaining hostility towards liberalism. None of those leadership tricks and tropes is new. Rachman argues that two "dangerous new tools" have emerged, in the form of new tools of social control and new means of communicating directly with the masses.
Moreover, the cult of the strongman can now afflict democracies. Some democratic states might pine for a leader with a modicum more strength; France, Italy, Japan and Germany (post-Merkel) would fit into that category. Others, though, have succumbed to the strongman syndrome, if only for four inordinately long years of Trump. All up, Rachman warns that we find ourselves "in the midst of the most sustained global assault on liberal democratic values since the 1930s".
A rebuttal might resort first to Shakespeare. "The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves." We the people possess many weapons to defend against autocrats. Elections are one. Protests, national institutions, the law, public opinion, the media, opposition parties are others.
Over the past few decades the people have recorded some remarkable wins, in Prague and Pretoria, Manila and Berlin. Those victories should be cherished. Popular fatigue, cynicism, defeatism and prejudice are surely supplementary weapons in the strongman armoury.
Nonetheless, the people would do well to address some of the factors which encourage resort to a strongman. Ignoring or disparaging groups of people, while letting their wages stagnate and their standard of living decline, is a gift to strongman populists. Elites should not kid themselves, as did their German counterparts in backing Hitler, that strongmen can easily be handled or guided. Leaders should be actively discouraged from identifying themselves with the nation or the state.
Turning to the biographical sketches, Rachman's writing is consistently judicious, informed and considered. Few secrets, scoops or surprises enliven his narrative. In an ideal world, Rachman may have interviewed each of the strongmen, then attempted to deduce their motives and intentions. In this world, he is often one of a media group listening attentively to a controlled and choregraphed news conference. In his defence, Rachman would argue that the book reflects "20 years of conversations with people all over the world". The diverse, competing views of voters, advisers and commentators abound.
This book lacks the access, and also the pizzazz, of private diaries by Rachman's former boss, Lionel Barber's The Powerful and the Damned (2021). Rachman is, however, considerably more thoughtful than Anne Applebaum in her plaintive, pessimistic appraisal, Twilight of Democracy (2020). Rachman's blend of biographies with summaries of recent events is well-balanced and well-judged. Whether dealing with Brazil or Ethiopia, Hungary or the Philippines, he has examined and studied his subjects most thoroughly.
He contends, conventionally enough, that Putin was moulded by his work for the KGB, "in his character, his mystique and his behaviour in office". More attention might be paid to Rachman's explanation of Erdogan's evolution from a liberal reformer to an autocrat with a palace larger than the Kremlin or Versailles. Rachman usefully reminds us that Xi was permitted to join the Communist Party only on his seventh attempt. Duterte's "grotesque showmanship" is dissected as forensically as Johnson's "jolly man-of-the-people" act and Trump's "autocrat envy".
If we dismiss strongman politics as a passing phase, Rachman's book comprises a wake-up call.
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