Not long before the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin met with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, in Beijing. In a classic example of vice paying tribute to virtue, their post-summit communiqué spoke eloquently of the importance of democracy. They also insisted that individual states must find a form of democracy appropriate to their needs; in their case, one compatible with eliminating opponents and controlling the judiciary and the media to ensure they can stay in power for the indefinite future.
All this is far removed from the Western ideal of a liberal democracy, in which contrary views are expressed openly, governments are challenged and voters decide in free elections whether leaders stay in office. Alarmingly it is the Putin-Xi model that appears to be on the rise. Xi inherited an authoritarian system and made it more so, but Putin took a country apparently becoming more liberal and turned it into an autocracy.
In Hungary, another former Communist state, Viktor Orbán has become an ideologist for “illiberal democracy”. In the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte promised a “war on drugs” if elected, urging people to kill addicts and dealers. In the first six months of his government, 7,000 people were killed, while in Brazil in 2018 Jair Bolsonaro swept to power using crude and violent language. India lays claim to being the world’s largest democracy, yet Narendra Modi has consolidated his position through virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric and bearing down on all independent institutions.
These characters figure prominently in this timely and somewhat bleak book by Gideon Rachman. He has assembled a rogues’ gallery of contemporary political leaders who delight in their personality cults and challenges to liberal norms and the rule of law.
Previously with The Economist and now chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, Rachman has been well placed to observe their rise and has often interviewed them or their close associates. He has a journalist’s eye for the telling quote combined with a sharp analysis of the factors that enabled them to achieve power and hold on to it.
In a series of brief but pithy pen portraits he outlines the shared characteristics of these rogues. They energize their popular base by drawing on nationalist themes, mocking global elites, condemning liberalism as decadent and priding themselves on saying what ordinary people are supposedly thinking.
It is especially depressing to note how many of these characters were cast early in their careers as moderates and modernizers. Orbán was a student activist during the dying days of the Communist regime. Turkey’s president, Recep Erdogan, was hailed as the man to pioneer a moderate, reforming Islam. Xi was eagerly expected to open up the Chinese system and Putin would bring order to Russia after the chaos of the Yeltsin years, while staying close to Western states.
A rogues’ gallery of contemporary political leaders who delight in their personality cults and challenges to liberal norms and the rule of law.
In some cases, for example Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well as Xi, there was no democracy to subvert. Power was gained by challenging the established systems of power in the royal family and the Communist Party. For most strongmen, however, the challenge has been to find some way of holding on to power while retaining a degree of constitutional legitimacy. Rigged elections combined with media manipulation is the most favored method.
But not all succeed. In Israel Benjamin Netanyahu used every trick in the book until in the end the system caught up with him, and an uneasy coalition came together to replace him.
Another failed strongman is Donald Trump. He ticked all the boxes in his indifference to the truth, uninhibited use of populist themes, pronounced authoritarian tendencies and disregard of liberal norms. He never hid his admiration for autocrats and the impunity they enjoyed. He was not really joking when he said he envied Xi’s ability to declare himself president for life. After losing the 2020 election he tried desperately to stay in power.
Then there is Boris Johnson. Rachman justifies his inclusion because he has “elements of the strongman”: he has campaigned on nationalist themes, resisted judicial constraints, and has an uneasy relationship with the truth, but he is hardly in an unassailable position.
A failed strongman is Donald Trump. He ticked all the boxes in his indifference to the truth, uninhibited use of populist themes, pronounced authoritarian tendencies and disregard of liberal norms.
Rachman also considers those opposed to strongmen — the former German chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up under Communism, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who faces a challenge from the far right in his bid for re-election. Also included are encounters with the financier George Soros, elevated in rightist conspiracy theories as the supreme commander of the global liberal elite, and Steve Bannon, a member of another sort of global elite, traveling the world promoting culture wars.
The strongmen may learn from each other, but their nationalism means they are not natural allies. Rachman’s book was written before Putin launched his war on Ukraine, a sinister reminder of why autocrats, surrounded by sycophants, often perpetrate the greatest follies. Putin’s fellow strongmen have not rallied round. Despite being lined up to provide vital support, Xi has equivocated, as has Modi. Orbán grudgingly decided to stick to the EU consensus.
Opposing Putin is Volodymyr Zelensky, a liberal comedian who found inner reserves of strength when the situation demanded. Meanwhile, Putin has seemed anything but strong — isolated, scared of human contact and prey to his paranoid delusions. The thing about strongmen, as Rachman reminds us, is that whatever ways they hold on to supreme power, they can’t avoid getting old.