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Gideon Rachman on Pathologies of Strongman Rule
Welcome back to Lucid. This Friday there will be no Q&A. We will resume our weekly chats on May 21, when I have returned from Rome. Instead, on Friday I will send you some photos from my trip and reflections on what I call "touchstones": places you return to throughout your life. Rome is one of mine.
Corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos's son, Bongbong Marcos, was just elected President of the Philippines, Putin continues his war of annihilation, Orban feels more empowered after his recent re-election (Republicans are going there to kiss his ring as he hosts the upcoming CPAC conference), and Trump is a probable 2024 candidate. So it's more important than ever to understand autocrats: what shapes them and why they remain so present in their countries even after they leave office --almost always against their will.
That's why I'm pleased to bring you this interview with Gideon Rachman, who writes a weekly column on international politics for the Financial Times. He is the author of the new book The Age of The Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy around the World. Rachman previously worked for The Economist. His prior books are Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century and Zero-Sum Future. Gideon received the 2016 Orwell Prize for journalism. Our conversation took place on April 20, 2022, and has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): It's nice to talk to somebody else who knows so much about strongmen. I like your portraits of their early lives, which reveal things that proved formative for them. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was imprisoned for reciting a Muslim poem and then went on to become of the world's biggest jailers. Did you find that many strongmen had some experience of perceived victimization? I ask because the cult of victimhood is central to this style of rule.
Gideon Rachmen (GR): Yes, that pitch about the victimized nation is very much common to all of them. They're not people who look at the world and say, isn't it marvelous. There are all these opportunities out there. They're saying, I have to protect the nation from a terrible people.
The thing about personal victimization hadn't occurred to me, and I'd have to go through my list, but certainly a lot of them have periods like that. Xi Jinping's family got caught up in the Cultural Revolution, and he was expelled to the countryside. But whereas some people who suffered in the Cultural Revolution turned against the system, Xi wanted to be embraced by it.
I think there are common psychological traits. There are some who pretend to have had some hardship, like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. And a lot of them had absent or very harsh fathers. I'm not a psychologist, but it struck me as quite an interesting pattern.
There's also the narcissism. There's a bit in your book where you wrote that Mussolini became obsessed with reading the papers for news about himself. It reminded me of Trump's obsession with the number of TIME magazine covers he's had.
RBG: Here's a question that I often get asked: Is there a manual that these guys follow? Do they learn from each other?
GR: Well, looking at the current batch of these leaders, they do learn from each other. For example, Trump introduces a vocabulary ("fake news") that is then picked up by people like Jair Bolsonaro and now everyone uses it.
I also think that Putin puts ideas into a lot of people's heads. He's a sort of anomalous figure, he emerges when American power is at its zenith, it's before 9/11. He's one of the first leaders to link strongman politics and anti-Americanism as a revolt against the liberal order and that becomes quite a common theme. I think there are other sort of common tropes, like the George Soros hatred. Soros is identified as a villain by a couple of them [like Orban] and then everybody decides that Soros is the person plotting against them.
There's also a common set of political problems that they encounter, like institutions that constrain you, and their responses are very similar. One way you can tell a strongman figure is they're not going to be people who say, well, I respect the court's verdict. That's not their style.
RBG: Based on your knowledge of Putin, where do you see his war on Ukraine going? We lost a lot of time with people thinking that he was actually going to negotiate in good faith. Which of course strongmen don't do unless they think they're really going down at home.
GR: I finished the book just before the invasion, but I wonder if I was being too hopeful in saying that in the end, this style of leadership will fail because it's got lots of inherent flaws in it. And one of them is that once you set up a system based around a single individual, that individual has to be appear irreplaceable. They can't really step down.
And it's not just him. It's the whole system around him. All the people who've supported him. All the money they've made over the last 20 years is at stake. Their personal freedom is at stake. So, you know, there's a sort of nationalist reason not to give up, which we can understand, but there's also a highly personalized reason.
And I think that one of the things that Putin has done, which is typical of these strong-willed figures, is conflate his own personal fortunes with the fortunes of the nation. So he's not going to just give up. While it's true that strongman leadership is inherently flawed and therefore liable to collapse and catastrophe, it's also very hard to get these people out.
And one can say, well, there might be an uprising in Russia, or a palace coup. Political scientists say that it's more likely that an authoritarian leader will fall to a palace coup than a street uprising. But organizing that is extremely difficult.
RBG: Why did you write the book?
GR: I was trying to make sense of the world, which I do on a weekly basis for my column, and this seemed like a very important theme. I also think that the appearance of Trump was a very important moment, because I really didn't think that could happen in an advanced democracy. And then seeing the way in which Trump interacted with other strongmen and clearly saw them as peers.
I also had the advantage or privilege in the kind of job I do, because I am in the unusual position to be able to make comparisons. I can also add to the general mix some knowledge of Asia, which I think is an incredibly important part of the story and makes it all the more interesting when you see the same patterns. Like the nostalgic nationalism thing, Xi's great rejuvenation of the Chinese people is so reminiscent of Trump's MAGA and Modi's Hindu nationalism.
As you know, I'm based in Britian, and I thought, God, if I put Boris Johnson in there, half of Britain's going to throw the book to one side and say, this is ridiculous. But I felt I had to stick to it because whenever I left Britain, people very much saw Johnson and Trump as a pair. I thought it was important to point that out to British readers: you may think he's this British clown, frightfully funny, but actually there's sinister stuff going on and sinister international patterns that you need to understand.
RBG: What's the best thing that a society can do to push back against the strongman?
GR: When these guys crop up in democracies, those democracies are in a better position to fight back, because institutions can constrain them. The opposite of strongman rule is an institution-based system. That means you should be vigilant about the courts, about the independent media. These may seem obvious ideas, but it's easy to be complacent.
As we saw in the US on Jan. 6, the system only just held, you could have had a different person in Georgia counting the votes. Just a few people saved it really, a few people with a bit of courage. But it could have easily gone the other way. And I think it could still, I'm afraid.