There’s More to Authoritarianism Than Cults of Personality
Krithika Varagur in The New Republic: 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.”