Authoritarianism Isn't Just About Personality CultsHistorians in the News
tags: democracy, authoritarianism, Political theory
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.
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.