When the Leader Leaves Office, but the Leader Cult Lives On

Lessons from the World of Personalist Rule

The Conservative Political Action Conference always delivers over-the-top political theater, but its latest edition, which ended on July 11, felt surreal. It staged the rituals of Donald Trump’s authoritarian leader cult, as though the former president had not left the White House six months earlier. That’s because Trump remains the real president for many who embrace the idea that Joe Biden stole the election - a falsehood that eases Trump’s path to becoming the 2024 nominee. Unsurprisingly, a CPAC straw poll revealed that 70% of attendees would support his candidacy.

To understand Trump’s presidency and its afterlife, the concept of “personalist rule” is key. More commonly associated with autocracies, personalist rule can emerge as a force to degrade democracies, as also happened in Italy under Silvio Berlusconi. It organizes government institutions around the self-preservation of a leader whose private interests prevail over national ones. Personality cults sustain the idea of the leader’s competence and probity, even as he converts public office into a vehicle for self-enrichment. They also make him into an infallible semi-deity - the better to convince people to embrace an alternate reality that benefits him.

Personalist rulers can be long-lasting, but they have specific vulnerabilities that can illuminate how to push back against authoritarian models of politics more generally. Of course, the outcome of opposition depends on how far autocracy has advanced. Getting personalist rulers out promptly is key. Brazilians can still mobilize towards the impeachment or electoral defeat of Jair Bolsonaro (in office since 2019), but Hungary’s Viktor Orbán (in office since 2010) now rules by decree.

Yet a few things hold true. First, what motivates these heads of state is not public welfare or good governance, but rather accumulating wealth and preserving their position (often to maintain immunity from prosecution). This means that they often mismanage crises, as with the coronavirus pandemic, causing widespread hostility among the populace. The time-tested tools of resistance - encouraging defections of elites who enable strongmen, mass nonviolent protest, and applying pressure through foreign institutions - can acquire momentum at such critical junctures.

A woman calls for President Jair Bolsonaro’s impeachment, accusing him of causing a genocide in Brazil with his negligent response to coronavirus, Brasilia, January 2021. Andre Borges/Getty Images.

Second, personalist leaders can be particularly vulnerable to anti-corruption campaigns. They may be expert at maintaining plausible deniability for their misdeeds, but they alone sit atop the power verticals they build. And while the “authoritarian bargains” they strike with elites can prove enduring, the smaller the power-and-profit-sharing circles are, the more malaise there will be among the have-nots, which may include many influential upper-middle-class citizens.

This holds a lesson for leaders in the finance and business worlds who have often enabled strongmen, only to be later cast aside or targeted for financial or other persecution.

Putin’s Russia is a good example. The richest 3% of Russians held almost 90% of the country’s assets as of 2018, but more than 100,000 other entrepreneurs have faced jail or criminal proceedings as part of state predation of their companies. This is not a viable long-term strategy for growth or popularity. It is one reason among many Putin amended the Russian constitution to protect himself from removal from power.  

Democracies and international organizations can use existing anti-corruption mechanisms effectively against personalist rulers and their cronies, such as the Magnitsky laws that impose sanctions against foreign individuals involved in corruption. The European Union can do far better in this regard. It helps autocracy, not democracy, when it persists in funding Orbán, who is accused of using EU monies to finance his patronage network.

If they fear that the world they have constructed around themselves is threatened, personalist rulers may engage in desperate acts, such as continuing an unsuccessful war or starting a new armed conflict. More than 80% of personalist leaders who left office in autocracies between 1946 and 2010 did so only under duress.

The Jan. 6 storming of America’s Capitol, Trump’s last-ditch attempt to stay in power, is in this tradition. The acting defense secretary, Christopher Miller, summed up the volatility of personalist rulers in such situations when he reportedly said that he had three goals for the last weeks of Trump’s presidency: no major war, no military coup, no troops fighting citizens on the streets.

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The leader cults and patronage networks personalist rulers build can prove enduring even if they are forced to leave office. If they maintain control over their parties and retain their bond with followers, they can return to office, as Berlusconi did in 2008 and Trump may do in 2024.

This is why it’s essential to prosecute the strongman who leaves office in order to restore a culture of accountability. In the short term, his supporters may see such legal actions as confirmation that their beloved leader really is the subject of a “witch hunt." Yet holding such leaders responsible so the public sees that there are consequences for committing crimes is essential for longer-term democratic health. 

Trump’s influence will not dissipate until democratic institutions formally confirm misconduct, for example with a court conviction. In the meantime, the Republican Party is continuing his antidemocratic agenda at the state level and upholding his personality cult. History shows that such a course of action rarely ends well. Strongmen leaders, and personalist rulers in particular, have left a trail of devastated parties and institutions behind them. The GOP will likely eventually meet a similar fate. It is up to us to ensure that it does not drag our democracy down with it.

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