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There’s More to Authoritarianism Than Cults of Personality

A study of strongmen misses deeper reasons for democratic collapse.

It’s remarkable: For more than a year, it’s been impossible to describe any world leader as a version of the sitting U.S. president. Run this thought experiment yourself: Who might be the “Joe Biden of South America”? Or “Central Europe’s Biden”? You draw a blank. What a contrast from the four years in which the world contained Hungary’s Trump, Brazil’s Trump, India’s Trump, Turkey’s Trump, the Philippines’ Trump, and so many more. The parallels between these leaders and Trump were chilling, but they were also a boon for the geopolitical commentariat: the sundry experts, analysts, specialists, and columnists who used them to give an intelligible shape to troubling developments in places far from the United States. The stakes were uncontestably high, and the conditions for analogy, the Swiss Army knife of such professions, had never been so ripe.

The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World by Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, is one of several new books that attempt to explain today’s authoritarians as a single phenomenon by slotting their rise and their “playbooks”—a favorite term of these analyses—into a unifying framework. See also: Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present by American historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, from November 2020, and The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century, published in February 2022 by Venezuelan commentator Moisés Naím.

The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World
by Gideon Rachman
Other Press, 288 pp., $27.99

In these books, strongmen heads of state are a stock character type with common strategies. They build their appeal around a standard checklist of issues, including inequality, migration, and crises of group and national identity. They share, in Rachman’s words, “a cult of personality” and “a politics driven by fear and nationalism.” Naím focuses on what he calls “3P autocrats,” who are initially elected, but then “dismantle the checks on executive power through populism, polarization, and post-truth.” Ben-Ghiat adds the dimension of “virility,” examining how the strongman’s “displays of machismo” and “kinship with other male leaders” help him menace women and LGBTQ+ populations, inform reckless foreign policy, and enable corruption. Above all, the emergence of these leaders is presented in these books as an assault on democracy itself. Ben-Ghiat calls their rise a “turn away from democracy,” Rachman heralds “the most sustained global assault on liberal democratic values since the 1930s,” and Naím warns that “at stake is not just whether democracy will thrive in the twenty-first century but whether it will even survive as the dominant system of government, the default setting in the global village.”

It’s a powerful theory: that one recognizable character type might explain the retreat of democracy in so many countries across the world, and that simply recognizing this type of leader, and the tools he wields, is the first step to dismantling his power. Yet these books’ personality-driven approach makes it difficult to examine the structures that elevated such leaders in the first place—including a sometimes naïve, sometimes willfully blind Western press. Do such leaders really have as much in common as these authors tend to suggest? And do their personalities tell us more than the political systems, economic structures, and distinct histories of their countries? Rachman’s book, with its clubby breakfasts and high-altitude interviews, is a particularly concentrated application of this method, and particularly revealing of its limitations.

Gideon Rachman got his start in journalism as a young BBC World Service reporter in the 1980s, during the final years of the Cold War and the seeming triumph of liberal democracy. As a foreign correspondent and editor, he took assignments in Washington, D.C. (where he was posted when the Berlin Wall fell), Bangkok (which he left during the year the Asian financial crisis started), and early 2000s Brussels (at the zenith of postwar EU proceduralism). He spent 15 years at The Economist, that genteel British voice of centrism and free markets, and 15 more at the FT, the salmon-pink British business broadsheet where he remains today. He started to notice cracks in the post–Cold War order with Putin’s autocratic turn, the 2008 financial crisis, and Xi Jinping’s ascendance in 2012. In this century, his remit as a columnist with the entire world as his beat led him to cover repressive rulers in Turkey, Hungary, India, and beyond. After the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump, he finally spotted a “global trend.”

In The Age of the Strongman, he profiles 14 world leaders, some elected and some not, who have changed the “climate of global politics over the last twenty years.” Together, he writes, they constitute a “revolt against the liberal consensus that reigned supreme after 1989.” As different as these leaders are, he believes their success has eroded the “prestige of the American liberal democratic model” in the twenty-first century. (He includes in his autocrat roster Boris Johnson, who has a brusque style and demagogic tone, but whose techniques remain a far cry from, say, directly jailing journalists or starting wars; despite Rachman’s justifications, his inclusion seems a little forced.) Rachman also excludes autocrats like Cambodia’s Hun Sen and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko for leading countries that are not large or influential enough to really shape global politics, though he admits they “have strongman traits.”

First in his catalog is Vladimir Putin, who took power in Russia on the very last day of the twentieth century. Rachman first met him at—of course—Davos. He admits that his initial view of Putin, circa 2000, was as a “relatively reassuring figure” who seemed outwardly enthusiastic about elections and a free press. Then comes a capsule Putin biography: the modest St. Petersburg flat, the KGB years, the meteoric rise through the post-Soviet Kremlin. Rachman writes that he began to pay attention to Putin’s anti-Western project in 2007, when Putin “denounced Western talk of freedom and democracy as a hypocritical front for power politics” at the Munich Security Conference. In the following decade, Putin emerged as a full-fledged autocrat with his invasion of Crimea, intervention in Syria, brazen imprisonment of activists and journalists, and more. The chapter concludes abruptly that, while Putin’s longevity has been unexpected, his regime’s days may nevertheless be numbered, because his Russia is an “international pariah” with a “shrinking and aging” population and a dependence on its oil and gas revenue, and his rule “rests not on success and popular consent but on force and repression.” Nothing in this account is controversial, but it’s not particularly illuminating either.

Rachman calls Putin “the archetype” from whom other strongmen take their cues. In the next chapters, he describes how Recep Tayyip Erdoğan implemented a brutal crackdown on civil liberties, ushered in sweeping anti-secular legislation, and maneuvered an unprecedented concentration of executive power in Turkey. He recounts Xi Jinping’s brutal “anti-corruption” drive to purge opposition in China, his ruthless press crackdown, the massive Uighur concentration camps, and the cold-blooded suppression of Hong Kong’s democracy protests. He writes of Narendra Modi’s dangerous Hindu nationalist spin on the world’s largest democracy (though his descriptions of Modi’s disastrous handling of Covid, his annexation of Kashmir, and attempts to strip Muslims’ citizenship in Assam are curiously muted). He presents Hungary’s Viktor Orbán as the paragon of a “new breed of populist right-wingers” in Europe who are enemies of “Brussels-style liberalism.” These leaders have all done monstrous things in their own right, but in such a dry litany, their track records blend together.

On rare occasions when the strongmen use their own words to discuss their rejection of liberal democracy, Rachman doesn’t spend much time on their arguments. Orbán in particular is the theorist among them, discussing his politics in the same terms as Western commentators. He has, for instance, directly “caricatured liberalism as an elitist ideology, favored by ‘globalists,’ intent on erasing national borders and cultures,” which would have been well worth a direct counterargument from Rachman. Other missed chances for Rachman to respond to autocrats’ own ideas include Putin’s long-running critique of NATO expansion and Erdoğan’s rejection of secularism as essential to a modern nation-state’s politics. Instead of examining those propositions, or the material grievances that created a vacuum for so many of them, Rachman sees each of these leaders, broadly, as a “symptom of the crisis in liberalism.”

The book’s insider approach is wanting even on its own terms. Despite Rachman’s direct access to some of the most powerful people in the world, he garners few genuine insights from his encounters with them—only a handful of colorful anecdotes. He has had an audience with Xi alongside Gordon Brown and Google’s Eric Schmidt, breakfasted with Emmanuel Macron, and met Boris Johnson at a country wedding, but such episodes are recounted in flat paraphrase. There are occasional memorable details: an aside in which he reveals that a hard-of-hearing George Soros makes his dinner guests speak into a microphone; a description of a mobile app, shown to him by a friend in China, that teaches “Xi Jinping Thought” and quizzes its more than 100 million users on what they’ve learned. Rachman also occasionally picks the perfect artifact to support his broader thesis, like 2020 campaign posters for Benjamin Netanyahu that include Modi, Trump, and Putin. More such details could have lent credence to the book’s proposition that today’s autocrats are worth studying in concert.

When it comes to sources, moving almost exclusively among elites has its limits. The range of people who help Rachman form his worldview, both as a columnist and an author, is narrow. The sources he quotes in the book include “a European head of state,” “friends of mine working in the media in Hungary,” “political analysts,” “a leading German intellectual,” “a Prince­ton professor and expert on populism,” “a heavily bearded intellectual and billionaire,” “one prominent Beijing academic,” “one internationally respected scholar,” and “one CEO.” Instead of vivifying details, we get one too many anonymized quotes stating the obvious: “As one prominent Beijing academic complained to me,” he recounts, “‘We are increasingly living in a totalitarian state.’” And facile comparisons such as: “As one senior British official put it to me, ‘My question is whether [Mohammed bin Salman] is more like Lee Kuan Yew or Saddam Hussein.’”

The rare critique with bite in these pages comes from, of all places, Boris Johnson’s Eton housemaster. “Boris seems affronted when confronted with what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility,” he writes to the Johnson parents. “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else.”

Trump’s election in 2016 provides the book’s turning point: In some ways, writes Rachman, Trump’s win was “just part of an established global trend.” Yet “the unique economic and cultural power of the US meant that Trump’s ascent changed the atmosphere of global politics, strengthening and legitimizing the strongman style, and giving rise to a wave of emulators.” In the book’s post-Trump half, autocrats are presented with increasingly Trump-like features, or as planets orbiting his authoritarian sun. Rodrigo Duterte peddles “fake news” in the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a princeling just like Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner: “extremely rich men in their thirties, who owed their position in life to their families.” Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, like Trump, was spurned by intellectuals but beloved by “small-town and rural” parts of his country, and, also like Trump, “had built a huge personal following through social media and used shocking rhetoric to make himself stand out.”

Trump was indeed reported to have unusually good rapport with other strongmen: He was the type of world leader who called Duterte to praise his murderous war on drugs, and who admiringly referred to Erdoğan “the Sultan.” But at some point, the endless comparisons drag. Not only are all strongmen presented as fundamentally alike, but they also start to look and sound fundamentally like Trump. “As with Trump’s various false claims about immigration, such as that immigrants are disproportionately responsible for crime, Duterte’s purported drug epidemic became a focus for more general anxieties and insecurities,” writes Rachman, which does not reveal much more than that one political leader stoked fear and another political leader also stoked fear. “Like Trump, Bolsonaro was a compulsive Tweeter,” but unlike Trump, Bolsonaro had never “built and led a major business.” Nothing is a coincidence after 2016: The anti-Brexit Remainers get Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament overturned on the “very day that the House of Representatives in Washington DC announced impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump…. suggesting that there was a rule-of-law crisis building on both sides of the Atlantic.”

I know from experience that it’s hard not to recount all foreign news in an American accent. Much of my own career as a foreign correspondent took place in the Trump era. My first and last stories from Indonesia, in 2016 and 2020, were both about Trump’s shady business there. I also wrote about “fake news” in Southeast Asia, and read more into Steve Bannon’s European exploits than I probably should have. Those were also the main types of stories editors would buy, and the ones American readers would click on the most. That’s to say, the real-time incentives to keep one’s Trump blinders on were steep.

Writing at last in the post-Trump era, Rachman is self-aware enough to note that Trump’s election was unique in many ways: that Trump faced more checks and balances than his analogues, thanks to the “institutions and political conventions that had developed over centuries of democratic politics” in the United States. Still, the book’s very structure, cleaved in half by the 2016 U.S. election, makes every leader appear as either a forerunner or an analogue to Trump. The effect can be especially absurd for leaders who were not elected by grievance-ridden citizenries of their own. Consider Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS: He rose to power in his thirties by charting a Machiavellian warpath through his own large family, which included locking up his rival—a diabetic cousin—in a room without insulin, during Ramadan, until he gave up his claim to the crown. This bears no similarity to the Electoral College head-scratcher that gave us Trump. Moreover, MBS will never be subject to a vote and will probably reign for decades, whereas Trump was voted out after just one term. For MBS, being a strongman is less about decrying “fake news” than about jailing Wahhabi clerics, and his rise to power was simply not a referendum on populism, migration, or the post–Cold War consensus. Rachman’s chapter on him amounts to announcing: Here’s yet another autocrat. Such parts dilute the analytical power of the whole.

One reason for all these ongoing, irresistible comparisons to Trump may be that comparing Trump to foreign tyrants was the best way the global pundit class could think of to condemn and warn against the former. And this book’s central concern, despite its conceit, is not so much the fate of democracy across the world as it is American democracy and its unique importance to the rest of the world. One of the biggest problems caused by Trump, in Rachman’s account, was that the United States could no longer serve as a model to other nations. Rachman asks plaintively: “How can America lead a pushback against strongman authoritarianism, when its own democracy is so gravely wounded?”

Rachman still believes that the “American-led order” is the antidote to the age of strongmen. His epilogue is largely about President Biden, who he believes must not only help save America’s own democracy, but focus on “supporting political liberty elsewhere in the world.” There is, he writes, “no plausible alternative to America that could play that role.” These statements come to us preserved in amber from a time before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Though strongman books urge the public to recognize the features of authoritarian rule, “Western opinion-formers,” as Rachman dubs his own class of writers, have often failed at this task, mistaking autocrats for friends and tyrants for reformers. Not just Putin but also several other villains of this book once received rather favorable coverage in the Western media, including from the author himself. “Looking back at this catalogue of naive predictions and dashed hopes, it is interesting to ask why Western commentators kept getting it wrong,” Rachman writes in the introduction, surveying a decade’s worth of his industry embracing early iterations of leaders like Modi, Xi, Erdoğan, and MBS. In his chapter on Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed, Rachman notes that “the Age of the Strongman has involved a recurrent pattern. 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.... Disillusionment sets in.”

Since Rachman has written about, and in many cases met, the leaders in this book, he could have examined his own analytical errors more closely, alongside those of his peers. The potential of that far more interesting book, focusing on media discourse about this century’s autocrats rather than the men themselves, haunts this one. When Rachman does reference his past work, his reflections are slight. Recalling a 2014 column in which he called Modi “thrilling,” he simply notes, “Today, having witnessed Modi’s cavalier attitude to civil rights, I would choose a different word.” As for a 2011 column titled “DON’T BE BLIND TO ERDOĞAN’S FLAWS,” about the Turkish leader’s crackdown on dissent, he notes in parentheses that the headline was “admittedly timid.” He doesn’t go further into the judgment errors of Western journalists at the time; there’s no genuine postmortem, for instance, of the way they underrated the violent extensions of religious nationalism (as with Modi) or let themselves be blinded by a leader’s superficial embrace of technology (as with MBS).

Even if we did somehow, through induction, get better at spotting autocrats based on the case studies here, it’s unclear what we’re supposed to do once we accurately label some leader a strongman. Rachman does not offer any clear direction for reinvigorating democracy. As the historian David Bell has written, if Trump did not succeed in doing more damage to American democracy, it was not because he failed to properly implement the authoritarian “playbook”: “It was also because of deeply rooted democratic structures and habits. And it was also because of powerful social forces that achieve their ends very well within the parameters of our current political system.” In its focus on the selection of good or bad leaders, Rachman’s book overlooks that democracy is grounded in the people and in political structures that provide possibilities for participation.

Absent real guiding questions or answers, this book ends in a hopeless place. The solutions presented in The Age of the Strongman can be summed up as: Wait. Wait for elderly leaders to finally step down or lose (as Netanyahu did, after 12 years), or for an economy to collapse (as Russia’s might, under the weight of sanctions and a turn away from its fossil fuels), or until the United States somehow saves the day. What else, indeed, can the subjects of increasingly fragile liberal democracy do against such enormous tides?