In response to the social upheavals of the 1960s, Hollywood produced a series of highly popular “angry man” crime dramas in the 1970s. These are the stories of vigilantes and renegade cops, played by the likes of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, who push past weak-willed bureaucrats, corrupt politicos and political correctness to restore justice in violent times. These are men who never let law undermine order.
The U.S. is now emerging from another period of sweeping social change, economic anxiety, urban crime and pointless wars, which again has stoked demand for a tough-talking vigilante to pay weak-minded liberals a lesson. But this time, he isn’t a creation of Hollywood. He lives in the White House, and he’s playing his role with gusto.
This trend is not confined to the U.S. In every region of the world, changing times have boosted public demand for more muscular, assertive leadership. These tough-talking populists promise to protect “us” from “them.” Depending on who’s talking, “them” can mean the corrupt elite or the grasping poor; foreigners or members of racial, ethnic or religious minorities. Or disloyal politicians, bureaucrats, bankers or judges. Or lying reporters. Out of this divide, a new archetype of leader has emerged. We’re now in the strongman era.
Perhaps the most prominent of these can be found in Russia. After the fall of the Soviet Union fed fears of economic chaos and political impotence, Vladimir Putin answered the call for a restoration of the Russia that had been the center of an empire for three centuries. He has promised to wave away Western vultures that would pick Russia clean by making trouble in neighboring states like Ukraine. Putin, a 65-year-old man in a country with a male life expectancy of 64, embodies an image of Russian virility and swagger.
Strongmen can also be seen across Asia. In China, memories of Tiananmen traumas and the horror of the Soviet collapse have pushed the Communist Party to keep a tight hold on dissent. In power since 2012, Xi Jinping has used an anticorruption campaign to sideline potential rivals while consolidating power on a historic scale. He has announced the dawn of a “new era” for China, or a golden age of expansion that will bring his country to the global center stage. And recently, he erased presidential term limits. The era of rule by party consensus is finished, at least for now. There can be no doubt about who’s in charge.
In the Philippines, a rising tide of violent street crime helped elect Rodrigo Duterte, a former mayor who talked more like a Mob boss than a President, on his promises to wipe out the drug trade with his own brand of justice.
Extreme political dysfunction in Thailand allowed the army to seize power in 2014 with little public resistance, and despite repeated promises to hold new elections, General Prayuth Chan-ocha remains in charge.
In Latin America, the specter of the caudillo, or military leader, has made a comeback. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has stifled dissent and scrapped term limits. In economically stricken Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro has detained opposition figures and violently stamped out protests. The trend may yet be infectious; a poll conducted by Vanderbilt University found that nearly 40% of Brazilians, exhausted by crime and corruption, would support a military coup in their country.
Then there’s the Middle East, where some imagined that the Arab Spring might usher in democracy. In Egypt, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the general whose forces violently quashed protests over the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, was elected President the following year. Like Putin, he won another landslide victory this spring over handpicked opponents.
In Saudi Arabia, the Arab Spring gave the royal family a look over the precipice, and a sharp drop in oil prices made clear that painful economic reforms could not be avoided. The man leading those is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is replacing elite consensus with a new level of control. That was never more obvious than when he ordered the detention late last year of at least 17 Saudi princes and some of the kingdom’s wealthiest and well-connected men.
In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, in power since 2003, have won a passionate following among socially conservative Turks by challenging the dominance of secular elites. Now he is manipulating Turkey’s political system to remain in control. A failed military coup in 2016 emboldened Erdogan to suspend the rule of law to target his opponents. He has identified his own set of “deep state” enemies and has jailed an extraordinary number of journalists.
The character of strongman is also making a comeback in the heart of Europe. Following a migrant crisis that aroused fear and indignation in Eastern Europe, Hungary’s Viktor Orban has just won another term as Prime Minister while embracing “illiberal democracy”–a political system with free elections but scant regard for civil liberties. For Orban, the threat comes from Muslim migrants and advocates of liberal Western democracy–like Hungarian-born George Soros–who threaten the country’s “national values.”
Which brings us back to Donald Trump. Voters who say lost manufacturing jobs, immigration and urban crime have created a crisis for the American working class have a personalized loyalty to Trump that extends well beyond allegiance to party. An August 2017 poll published in the Washington Post found that 52% of Republican voters would support postponing the 2020 election if Trump said the delay was needed to ensure that only eligible American citizens could vote.
These leaders have won followers by targeting “them,” including the familiar U.S. and European sources of power and influence. But they have succeeded because they know something about “us,” or the people they’re speaking to. They understand the sense of threat–and they’re willing to exploit it.
The Cold War’s end appeared to open an era of ascendant liberal values, one in which democracy, rule of law and open markets would carry the day forever after. Yet consider the current political woes of those who still sing from this prayer book. Germany’s Angela Merkel is at the lowest point in her 10 years in power, with the far-right Alternative for Germany party the main opposition to her weakened coalition. France’s Emmanuel Macron faces angry protests at home by students and public-sector workers, and recent polls show waning public support. Japan’s scandal-plagued Shinzo Abe is even more unpopular, while Britain’s Theresa May continues to fight for her political life.
These are leaders who face choices about whether to tack to extremes to protect their vote share or stand on principle in response to populist pressure. Strongmen don’t have this problem. They’re usually the ones exerting that pressure, and their systems allow them to protect their advantages by changing the rules of the political game as needed. And nothing has made it easier for them to do so than advances in technology.
A decade ago, it appeared that a revolution in information and communication technologies would empower the individual at the expense of the state. Western leaders believed social networks would create “people power,” enabling political upheavals like the Arab Spring. But the world’s autocrats drew a different lesson. They saw an opportunity for government to try to become the dominant player in how information is shared and how the state can use data to tighten political control.
In many countries, these efforts have proved successful. In Iran, where Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei remains firmly in charge, the government has long wanted to create a “halal” Internet, where authorities can control content and every user is identified. Reporters Without Borders described it as an “Intranet that can be completely disconnected from the World Wide Web when the authorities so decide.” In August 2016, Iran announced the opening of the National Information Network, while shutting down press agencies and news sites–and arresting at least 100 Internet users.
In Russia, the state keeps its citizens in the dark by banning web pages and content it deems controversial. When antigovernment protests broke out across the country in March 2017, many Russians were unaware–Yandex News, the country’s largest news aggregator, pushes stories from publishers that are more likely to meet the state’s approval. Foreign media, meanwhile, are required to register as “foreign agents.”
China’s leaders have famously safeguarded “cyber sovereignty” with the “Great Firewall,” which blocks access to tens of thousands of websites. The “Golden Shield” is an online surveillance system that uses keywords and other tools to shut down attempts to access politically sensitive content. China also now uses a “Great Cannon,” which can alter content accessed online and target websites the state considers dangerous to China’s security with “dedicated denial of service” attacks designed to overwhelm servers.
The communications revolution has also had an impact in wholly democratic countries. On social media and on cable news, success depends on the ability of information providers to maximize engagement, or the amount of time users spend participating or viewing as well as the amount of data they share. Information providers target particular ideological, political and demographic segments of the media market, which receive different sets of content about the world. The gap between “us” and “them” is widened, and the strongmen are in position to reap the rewards.
What is Trump’s place in all this? The U.S. President has expressed sincere admiration for the likes of Putin, Xi, al-Sisi and Duterte. Like many such leaders, he knows well what his supporters want to hear. He has pointed at many forms of “them” and pledged to build a “big beautiful wall.”
But the U.S. political system has demonstrated its own set of strengths. Trump may complain about judges, but he can’t avoid their rulings. He thrills audiences with attacks on the press, but public fascination with his every utterance replenishes media financial reserves. His party may not control Congress after November. His approval rating is unlikely to ever reach 50%. He might be impeached.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about. The impact this President has had on U.S. politics–including the very fact that he was able to get elected–has exposed holes in the systemic makeup of what was once the West’s beacon of democracy. Right now, some Americans think the U.S. is more urgently in need of structural political reform than China. That’s a win for the strongmen.
And the shifting, mercurial demands of voters–or “us”–have made it very hard for political leaders and parties in democratic nations to stay in place long enough to set an example or forge long-term strategies. In countries like China and Russia, leaders have years ahead of them to pursue far deeper strategic goals, such as Xi’s One Belt One Road infrastructure plan or Putin’s war of attrition on the norms and values of his Western rivals.
Perhaps the most worrying element of the strongman’s rise is the message it sends. The systems that powered the Cold War’s winners now look much less appealing than they did a generation ago. Why emulate the U.S. or European political systems, with all the checks and balances that prevent even the most determined leaders from taking on chronic problems, when one determined leader can offer a credible shortcut to greater security and national pride? As long as that rings true, the greatest threat may be the strongmen yet to come.
Bremmer is the author of Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, out now
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