Trump, Putin, Xi and the cult of the strongman leader

The rise of such personalised autocracy will lead to international instability

by: Gideon Rachman


From Moscow to Manila, Beijing to Budapest, Ankara to Delhi, the nationalist “strongman” leader is back in fashion. If the US elects Donald Trump next week, it would be following an international trend, not leading it.

The fascination with strongmen spans autocracies and democracies. China last week took a further dangerous step down the road to personalised autocracy when it announced that President Xi Jinping now represents the “core leadership” of the Communist party, a title with Maoist overtones. President Xi has just played host to Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, who came to power through an election but whose swaggering style and scant respect for the law is typical of the new breed of autocrats. The patron saint of the world’s strongman leaders is Vladimir Putin of Russia, whose personalised rule still retains some of the outward trappings of democracy.

The same mixture of democratic forms with autocratic reality is displayed by other strongman leaders, such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary. And then there are the strongmen who still operate within genuinely democratic systems, such as Narendra Modi in India and Shinzo Abe in Japan, but whose political appeal is based around the idea of decisive leadership, with a distinct dash of nationalism.
Alarmingly, Mr Trump’s political style has most in common with some of the most autocratic strongmen, such as Presidents Putin and Erdogan.

The Russian and Turkish leaders portray the outside world as full of hostile forces, conspiring against their nations. They point to “enemies within”, often allegedly working with outside enemies. Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan, like Mr Xi, also promise to lead national revivals that will avenge previous humiliations at the hands of foreigners.

Mr Trump has adopted a strikingly similar political narrative — containing the same elements of nationalism, self-pity, conspiracy theory and promises of national rejuvenation. He claims that the world is laughing at the US and that his domestic opponents are in league with foreign lobbyists — but that he will “make America great again”.

The Republican candidate for the presidency insists that the entire American system is corrupt and promises to “drain the swamp”. This (often cynical) promise to control corrupt elites is a common trait of the new strongmen. Mr Putin has staged theatrical clashes with Russian oligarchs. Mr Xi has unleashed a ferocious anti-corruption drive.

To different degrees, all of these strongmen have encouraged personality cults. In recent years, popular songs in praise of President Xi have been churned out in China. The Russian media have presented Mr Putin in a range of macho poses.

Mr Trump has yet to risk posing bare-chested. But when I attended one of his rallies in Florida last week there was little doubt that a leader cult was in full swing. The expectant crowd at Sanford airport were treated to the sight of their leader’s jet — with “Trump” emblazoned on the side — landing, then taxiing towards them. Thumping, dramatic music played for several minutes until finally the aircraft door opened and the leader emerged to tumultuous cheers.
The parallel with the 1930s is, unfortunately, all too obvious. Then, the economic shock of the Great Depression radicalised politics all over the world. Something similar may have happened following the financial crisis of 2008. A sense that the threat of international conflict is rising in Europe, the Middle East and Asia may have fuelled a demand for strong leaders.
 
Strongmen bring a distinct style to international diplomacy. They tend to want to sort things out man-to-man, rather than relying on institutions or international law. Mr Trump has promised an early summit with President Putin.

Mr Abe, the Japanese prime minister, is planning a personal approach to the Russian leader.

He has invited him to a summit in Japan next month in the probably vain hope that the Russian leader will agree to hand back some islands that Russia has occupied since 1945. The two men are expected to continue their discussions in a traditional hot spring in Mr Abe’s home town.

As one of the Japanese leader’s aides puts it: “It will be two naked middle-aged guys, in a hot spring, trying to sort things out.”

This kind of highly personalised diplomacy is doubtless exciting. But it is also intrinsically unstable.

Bargains struck between strongman leaders have a tendency to fly apart. The most obvious example is the collapse of the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. More recently, President Erdogan has shown a tendency to form close bonds with other leaders that deteriorate into bitter antagonism when he feels slighted. The colossal ego of Mr Trump might also lead to a highly unstable style of personalised diplomacy.

Intriguingly, the rise of macho strongman leaders has coincided with a counter-fashion for powerful female politicians whose style is much more low-key and consensual. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the most obvious example. Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, fits this mould.

Hillary Clinton, if she makes it to the White House, would also strike a blow against the strongman cult. That is one more reason to pray for a Clinton victory next week.

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