The odd thing about “strongman” leaders is that they are often quite weak in terms of their personal attributes and political ideas. Vladimir Putin, in power longer than most, comes across as an insecure, embittered little man, strangely marooned in a cultural time warp, whose vision of Russia’s future is propelled by a backward-looking, sentimental nostalgia for the Soviet era.
Donald Trump, by instinct a fellow authoritarian and avid Putin admirer, is notoriously thin-skinned, seemingly incapable of tolerating the slightest criticism and disproportionately vindictive towards those who challenge him. Xi Jinping, China’s ostensibly all-powerful president, exhibits similar chronic fear of dissent, as seen in his ruthless purges of the ruling Communist party and crackdowns on Hong Kong’spro-democracy activists.
Gideon Rachman’s accessible new book, The Age of the Strongman, examines these and other formidable, deeply flawed figures in a series of fluent, well-informed essays about the global rise of authoritarian, nationalist-populist leaders and its corrosive impact on the liberal democratic tradition. Rachman’s central thesis is that this is a modern phenomenon, roughly beginning with Putin’s rise to national power in 1999-2000.
Rachman, a columnist and experienced foreign correspondent, views Putin as “the archetype and model for the current generation of strongman leaders”. His trademark tactics – reining in independent sources of power, asserting the central authority of the state and using warfare to bolster his personal position – have been emulated around the world by other reactionaries hostile to globalisation, liberalism and the western-led, rules-based international order.
Lies, disinformation, institutional vandalism, the cult of personality, systemic corruption, ethno-nationalism, culture wars, historical revisionism and the ready use of violence at home and through external aggression – these are the ugly tools of Putinism. They’re now under close scrutiny following the invasion of Ukraine, but were plain to see for 20 years for those in Europe and the US who cared to look. Sadly, many did not.
It will be frustrating for some that the book contains no analysis of the impact of the invasion that began on 24 February. There would have been considerable appetite for discussion of the future world order, or of the latest theories about Putin’s mindset – that he is detached from reality, ill, deluded by his own propaganda, or has simply gone nuts. If he fails in Ukraine, the age of the strongman, for Putin anyway, may draw to an abrupt close.
Yet, as it is, Putin’s malign influence echoes through Rachman’s rogues’ gallery of autocrats. In China, Xi teeters towards megalomania. In Hungary, the newly re-elected Viktor Orbán resorts to antisemitism to sharpen ideas of national identity. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu acts the divisive saviour, forever fighting encircling foes. In the US, Trump plays the same old tunes, attacking minorities, migrants and media. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte plays god, condemning and killing on a whim.
Strongman leaders, Rachman suggests, tend to be pretty useless at leading. India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, styles himself a man of the masses, in touch with the “real India”. But his proposed farm reforms in 2020 sparked unprecedented grassroots protests by the very people he claimed to uniquely understand. Rattled, his government blamed mysterious foreign forces – and Greta Thunberg.
The aggressive behaviour of Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, reflects deep personal insecurity – greatly exacerbated by a coup attempt in 2016 when he came close to being shot by his own soldiers. Like an Ottoman sultan, Erdoğan has built himself a luxurious palace, safe on a hilltop overlooking Ankara, from where he irascibly surveys the chaos caused by his own economic illiteracy and political dysfunction.
Like many strongmen, Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, was initially feted as a reformer. Then he triggered a humanitarian disaster in Yemen. The murder in 2018 of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi critic, all but destroyed his reputation in the west. Likewise, Ethiopia’s disgraced prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, won a Nobel peace prize, only to let hubris get the better of him when he picked a fight he couldn’t finish in Tigray.
Yet the global trophy for sheer bloody incompetence must go to Brazil’s hard-right populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, the “Trump of South America”, whose lethally irresponsible mishandling of the pandemic stunned even his most ardent apologists.
The strongman paradox arguably arises from confusion over the difference between brute power and resilience. The former is all about personal dominance, essentially antisocial and crudely enforced, usually without regard for law or justice or the rights of others. Resilience is about inner strength, resourcefulness and adaptability, arising from principle, conviction and belief in the collective rather than individual will.
By this definition, a truly strong leader in today’s Russia might be Alexei Navalny, the courageous opposition activist whom Putin tried to poison and then jailed. In Turkey, Selahattin Demirtaş, the Kurdish opposition politician detained since 2016, comes to mind. In Iran, strong women such as the vilely persecuted human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh put hardline president Ebrahim Raisi to shame.
As Rachman notes, authoritarian rulers have helped to undermine democratic ideals and practices around the world since 2000, and with growing success following the financial crash of 2008. “The last 15 years have seen the most sustained decline in political freedom around the world since the 1930s,” Rachman writes. Shockingly, democracy’s great bastion, America, came close to falling, too.
“We have learned again that democracy is precious,” Joe Biden proclaimed at his inauguration, two weeks after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol and tried to overturn the 2020 election. “Democracy is fragile ... and democracy has prevailed.” But the fact it very nearly didn’t is Rachman’s whole argument. Most Republicans still believe Trump’s big lie. He, and they, may try again in two years’ time.
It’s easy to be pessimistic. Strongman leaders are a perennial blight. Before Putin, there was Stalin. Before Xi, Mao, before Erdoğan, Atatürk. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński was preceded in Warsaw Pact times by General Wojciech Jaruzelski. As Rachman concedes, history is often more cyclical than linear. “All efforts at historical periodisation are slightly artificial,” he writes.
All the same, to the many oppressed, brutalised and disenfranchised peoples of the world – and especially to those now living in Ukraine – today’s age of the strongman feels all too terrifyingly real.
• The Age of The Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World is published by Vintage (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.