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A golden era for strong men

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

What does the personality of authoritarian state leaders tell us about the narrowing of democracy, freedom, and human rights?

This article is also published in Norwegian by Agenda magasin

The arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice. This optimistic description of the course of history is attributed to abolitionist Theodore Parker and popularized by Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Right now, the arc looks more bent towards the increasing power of strong men.

Critics have pointed out that the arc's trajectory is not predetermined but the result of political action. And political action requires knowledge of the prerequisites and mechanisms for governance and the exercise of power. In the book The Age of the Strongman (The Bodley Head, 2022), Financial Times commentator Gideon Rachman points to the personal ambitions of power-hungry leaders as an important driving force towards more autocracy.

Rachman's perspective is useful, but so are warnings against overly putting the blame for the erosion of civil society and political institutions on "crazy leaders", for example Trump in the USA and Bolsonaro in Brazil. Or claimimg that Putin's deranged mind is the main reason for Russia's war on Ukraine.

At the same time, there can be no doubt that strong men's accumulation of power is based on manipulation, projection of their own charisma and abuse of the state power apparatus. To get that far, you need to be equipped with a cynicism far beyond "normal" realpolitik dirty tricks, exemplified by the likes of Saudi Arabia's Muhammad bin Salman.

Strong men's accumulation of power is based on manipulation, projection of their own charisma and abuse of the state power apparatus

Rachman is an award-winning international journalist and has met with many actors at the political top level. The portraits he draws of today's advanced authoritarian leaders appear credible. So does his analysis of their paths to power.

The ideological impulses that unite the autocrats are well illustrated in the book, as is the mutual admiration some of them have for each other, despite their ideological and geopolitical contradictory views. The influence from advocates of dark right-wing forces makes for interesting reading, with Steve Bannon as the prime poster boy.

Rachman dates the start of the rise of strongmen to around the year 2000. That is debatable, as we have seen the ravages of big and small dictators long before that. But it is an indisputable fact that such leaders currently hold a firm grip on nations that collectively number several billion inhabitants.

Like Trump, India's Modi, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, and Ethiopia's Abry Ahmed came to power democratically. The same applies to Orbán in Hungary, Kaczynski in Poland; Duerte in the Philippines and Netanyahu in Israel. To the extent that Boris Johnsen exhibited strongman qualities, he too was an elected prime minister.

A similar procedure, but without referendums supporting it, has given Xi Jinping the platform he needed to launch his own personality cult, intensified nationalism and, like other autocratic leaders, a mandate to stay indefinitely as head of state as soon as the opportunity arises.

Personification of the state and of state power is a common denominator for both pure-blooded dictators and those autocrats who are kept in check by, albeit faltering, democratic institutions. According to Rachman, this is the case with Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Mexico's Andrés Miguel Lòpez Obrador. He also sees authoritarian tendencies in the world's fourth most populous nation, Indonesia, a nation characterized by corruption, oligarchs, simmering religious and ethnic antagonisms, and social unrest caused by economic liberalization.

It is tempting to compare today's strongmen with the dictators of the thirties. But as Rachman and others point out, the world is a different place today, even as nationalism, conspiracy theories and cultural conflicts are on the rise once more, alongside falling real wages, inflation and failing social safety nets. Globalization has created completely new and different patterns for trade and international communication, and technology has changed the way we all communicate.

Precisely this new technology and new platforms have created opportunities for the strong leaders, facilitating new and old propaganda, untruths, and distorted truths. It is easy to plant messages benefiting those in power in social media, which offer fertile ground for incendiary narratives, distorted facts, pseudo-facts and lies. Creating confusion and uncertainty is often as effective as promoting one's own message.

New technology and new platforms have created opportunities for the strong leaders

Today's powerful men master the art of of loud rhetoric in packed stadiums as well as restrained performances in regime-friendly talk shows. They make alluring promises of stability and welfare, and they speak in flattering terms about the uniqueness of their followers and the greatness of the nation. Invocation of external and internal enemies is also part of the package.

New technologies also enable continuous monitoring and censorship on a scale the world hasn’t seen before. If we add good old police violence, arbitrary imprisonment and gagging of the legal apparatus, the walk to total power is made easier with every step. Another recent book, Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century (Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, Princeton University Press, 2022) delves into how authoritarian leaders and their lackeys manipulate information.

Western Europe is also feeling the contagion from an authoritarian right made up of anti-democrats, anti-abortionists, nationalists, gay-bashers, climate skeptics, as well as racists, politely called opponents of multicultural societies. The current situation with the energy crisis, galloping costs of living and declining trust in politicians is as if made for the far right. This has dramatic results, most recently demonstrated by the landslide election results of Sweden Democrats and Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy.

If we are to mobilize against the power grabs of the strong men, we need to investigate their ways and methods, as Rachman does. Dune author Frank Herbert's has a twist on the saying about the corrupting power of absolute power: Absolute power does not corrupt absolutely; absolute power attracts the corruptible.


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