Self Help

The Age of the Strongman How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World - Gideon Rachman

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Matheus Puppe

· 57 min read



Here is a summary of the praise for The Age of the Strongman:

The book provides illuminating and terrifying insights into strongman leaders dominating politics globally, according to Peter Frankopan. Gideon Rachman paints a vivid picture linking diverse leaders like Trump, Putin, Xi, and Modi through common authoritarian instincts and tactics, notes Anne Applebaum. The battle between autocracies and democracies is insightfully captured, says Catherine Belton. Strongman rule appeals amid failed economic growth and dashed aspirations, explains Daron Acemoglu. Ivan Krastev sees Rachman describing the rise of strongman politics in democracies and autocracies alike as constitutional liberalism recedes. Shruti Kapila praises the superb portrait of leaders upending the globalization consensus. Kirkus Reviews finds an illuminating blend of warnings about strongman rule with optimism it cannot prevail long-term. Overall, the praise highlights the book’s illuminating analysis of the global rise of strongman leaders, their common tactics in threatening democracy, and the high stakes in the battle of ideas between authoritarian and democratic forces.

  • The rise of strongman authoritarian leaders has been a defining feature of the past two decades, threatening democracy and liberal values globally.

  • Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump are some prominent examples of the strongman model of leadership.

  • Putin’s ascent in Russia in 1999 marked the start of the trend, which was cemented by Xi’s rise in China in 2012. Strongman politics then spread to other major powers like India, Turkey, the US, and even made inroads in the EU.

  • Trump’s election in 2016 further legitimized the strongman approach and inspired copycats worldwide. Figures like Mohammed bin Salman and Jair Bolsonaro embraced a similar style.

  • However, some leaders initially hailed as reformers, like Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia, later slid into authoritarianism. This reflects a pattern where strongmen are often mistaken for liberals at first.

  • The technology of the 21st century has aided the rise of strongmen by allowing them to communicate directly with the masses and monitor citizens.

  • Joe Biden faces the challenge of revitalizing liberal democracy in this Age of the Strongman. Even if he succeeds, strongman politics may persist, as the forces fueling it run deep.

  • Over the past two decades, Western commentators have often been overly optimistic about authoritarian leaders, predicting they would be reformers. Examples include predictions about Putin, Xi Jinping, Mohammed bin Salman, Erdogan, and Modi.

  • This reflects overconfidence in liberal values after the Cold War and wishful thinking. But the global tide has turned against liberalism.

  • Strongman politics is on the rise all over the world, from full autocracies like China to flawed democracies like India.

  • It is valid to compare democratically elected “strongmen” like Trump to unelected autocrats like Xi, as there is now a continuum between authoritarian and democratic systems.

  • Four key characteristics of the strongman style are cult of personality, contempt for the rule of law, populism claiming to represent the “real” people against elites, and politics driven by fear and nationalism.

  • Strongmen want to portray themselves as indispensable, the only one who can “fix” things. They undermine the distinction between state and leader.

  • While easier in dictatorships, strongman cult of personality also enters democratic systems like India under Modi.

  • Strongman leaders like Putin, Erdogan, Modi, Trump, and others have cultivated a cult of personality, portraying themselves as having a unique connection to ordinary people.

  • They have consolidated power by changing term limits, appointing loyalists, and attacking independent institutions like the courts and media.

  • They disdain the rule of law, using it as a weapon against opponents. Imprisoning critics is common.

  • They rely on populist appeals, claim to understand the common man, and promote simple solutions to complex problems.

  • They often rail against elites, expertise, and ‘political correctness.’

  • Their bases tend to be rural, less educated, traditionalist, and feel left behind by urban liberals and globalization.

  • Liberal democracy and free market economics dominated globally after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This consensus lasted less than 20 years before facing challenges.

  • The 2008 financial crisis undermined faith in free market economics. The Iraq war and China’s rise challenged Western geopolitical dominance. Widening social divisions in the West fueled a “culture war.”

  • Strongman leaders have emerged worldwide in revolt against the liberal consensus, symptomizing a crisis in liberalism. This crisis has four main elements:

  1. Economic - Stagnating incomes and living standards for many has fueled populism and revolts against globalization.

  2. Social - Issues like immigration and crime have stoked fears about national identity and cultural change.

  3. Technological - New technologies have disrupted jobs and industries, creating economic losers.

  4. Geopolitical - The West’s dominance is waning as “the rise of the rest” shifts global power.

  • In the West, populism has thrived in declining industrial areas. But economics alone doesn’t explain strongmen in Asia.

  • Rapid change from globalization has been dislocating. Nostalgia for a more stable past appeals.

  • Corruption and weak states have also fueled demands for strongman leaders.

  • Linking economic grievances to issues like immigration and crime amplifies the appeal of strongmen. New barriers and walls symbolize the strongman era.

  • There is a global rise of nationalist populism and anti-Muslim sentiment among far-right leaders and strongmen in the West as well as in Asia. Figures like Trump, Orbán, Modi, Xi, and Bolsonaro portray Muslim minorities as threats to national culture and values.

  • Fears of being displaced or losing majority status also drive support for strongmen. Anxiety about demographic change and loss of power amongst white Americans helped fuel Trump’s rise.

  • Strongmen thrive on macho appeals and often disdain feminism, LGBTQ rights and ‘political correctness.’ Their nostalgic traditionalism attracts many men and some traditionalist women.

  • Social media has enabled direct communication between strongmen and followers, bypassing traditional media as fact-checkers. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter appeal to emotions over truth and have spread disinformation.

  • China combines authoritarian control and surveillance of the internet to monitor and punish dissidence. Its technological prowess could enable exporting its system of digital social control.

  • Geopolitically, China’s rise challenges American power. Strongmen take advantage of declining US leadership to consolidate domestic control and project influence abroad. The global order is shifting toward authoritarian powers.

  • Vladimir Putin is the archetypal strongman leader, setting the model for a new generation of authoritarian rulers. His background is in the KGB intelligence service of the Soviet Union.

  • Putin initially portrayed himself as a modern, democratic leader when he became President of Russia in 2000. But he quickly revealed his authoritarian tendencies by cracking down on independent media and consolidating state power.

  • Putin boosted his popularity through nationalist appeals and waging war in Chechnya. He also went after oligarchs who controlled independent media organizations.

  • Putin had a relatively lowly position in the KGB before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he experienced first-hand while posted in Dresden, Germany. This shaped his worldview.

  • Unlike many Russian leaders, Putin did not come from an elite background. He grew up modestly in Leningrad/St. Petersburg, marked by the wartime siege of the city.

  • Over two decades in power, Putin has shifted Russia away from liberal democracy and asserted the country needs no lessons from the West. He champions authoritarian leadership as a model for other countries.

  • Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). His father served in a commando battalion during the 900-day siege of Leningrad in World War II, in which hundreds of thousands died.

  • Putin displayed strong devotion to the Soviet system from a young age. He joined the KGB after graduating from law school in 1975.

  • Putin rose rapidly through the ranks in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, going from deputy mayor of St. Petersburg to prime minister and then acting president under Boris Yeltsin.

  • As president, Putin cultivated a strongman image, portraying himself through media images as virile and heroic.

  • Putin aimed to restore Russia’s status as a great power that could challenge Western dominance. In a 2007 Munich speech, he issued a direct challenge to the U.S.-led world order.

  • Putin’s critics see him as presiding over a corrupt spoils system, while using nationalism to divert attention from elites’ criminality. His supporters argue he is sincerely standing up to Western hypocrisy and aggression.

  • There are two main narratives about Putin - as an angry nationalist standing up to Western hypocrisy, and as a cynical manipulator protecting his power. Both have elements of truth.

  • The nationalist narrative draws on grievances against NATO expansion, the Kosovo war, the Iraq war, and Western-backed “color revolutions.” Putin sees the West as threatening his power.

  • Putin has taken aggressive actions, including invading Georgia and Ukraine, to push back against Western influence. These actions boosted his popularity in Russia.

  • Critics argue Putin fabricates threats to justify authoritarianism and distract from domestic problems. They point to lies about things like the downing of MH17 and assassination attempts.

  • Putin has jailed or killed opponents like Khodorkovsky and Navalny. Navalny’s corruption exposés are seen as highly threatening to Putin’s power.

  • So while Putin promotes a nationalist narrative, critics say he is really a cynical, corrupt authoritarian fabricating external threats to retain domestic control. Elements of both narratives contain truth.

  • Vladimir Putin has cultivated an image as a strongman leader of Russia. He is admired by right-wing nationalists and populists globally for standing up to Western liberalism.

  • Putin came to power in 2000 after the chaotic 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He is seen as restoring stability and prosperity, at least partially.

  • However, Putin’s rule relies on repression and force rather than true popularity. Critics are imprisoned or killed. Corruption is rampant among his inner circle.

  • Economically, Russia remains heavily dependent on oil and gas exports. Its economy is only the size of Italy’s despite its vast territory.

  • While Putin has projected Russian power abroad, especially through military interventions, the country faces long-term decline. Its population is shrinking and aging.

  • Putin may stay in power until 2036 by changing the constitution. But his strongman leadership has made Russia an international pariah due to aggression and lawlessness.

Here is a summary of the key points about Erdogan’s growing megalomania:

  • Erdogan was initially seen by the West as a reformist, moderate Muslim leader who could reconcile Islam with democracy. But over a decade in power, he revealed ambitions to be more like an autocratic Ottoman sultan.

  • He took increasing control over the state and society, while also reasserting Turkey’s power internationally. He became an outspoken critic of the West and liberalism.

  • His early reforms were welcomed, but also helped Islamists strengthen their position. As time went on, his autocratic tendencies became more apparent through his treatment of the media, military, and dissenters.

  • The Gezi Park protests of 2013, prompted by Erdogan’s urban development plans, exploded into massive anti-government unrest. Erdogan cracked down harshly, revealing his intolerance of dissent.

  • He moved to consolidate power, changing the constitution to create a strong presidential system. After the 2016 coup attempt, he used the emergency to eliminate opponents and dissenting voices.

  • Parallels can be drawn between Erdogan’s trajectory and Putin’s - both turned increasingly authoritarian while reasserting their country’s power. Erdogan’s growing megalomania stripped away his image as a modest, democratic reformer.

  • Erdoğan initially gained support as a moderate, democratic reformer, but grew increasingly authoritarian over time. He accused opponents of being tools of foreign powers and cracked down on civil liberties, especially after a failed military coup attempt in 2016.

  • Erdoğan has purged the civil service, media, and judiciary of critics and opponents. He imprisoned opposition leaders like Selahattin Demirtas on dubious terrorism charges.

  • Erdoğan has rallied conservative religious supporters by positioning himself as a defender of Islam and Turkish nationalism. He reconverted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque in 2020.

  • Erdoğan has mismanaged the economy, leading to crisis. He has resorted to stirring up nationalism and conflicts abroad as distractions, much like other authoritarian strongmen.

  • Comparisons can be drawn between Erdoğan’s tactics and those of other authoritarian leaders like Trump, Putin, Modi, and Xi Jinping. They use division, religion, nationalism, and attacks on the media and judiciary to consolidate power.

Here is a summary of the key points about Xi Jinping and China from the passage:

  • Xi Jinping became leader of China in 2012, heralding a return to strongman rule after a period of consensus leadership.

  • Xi has consolidated power, established a cult of personality, and eliminated term limits on his rule. He is the most dominant Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

  • Under Xi, China has become more authoritarian, with increased censorship, surveillance, and repression of dissent. The Communist Party’s control over society has tightened.

  • In foreign policy, Xi has asserted China’s interests more forcefully, adopting a more aggressive stance, especially in maritime disputes.

  • Xi talks about the “China Dream” of national rejuvenation and presents China as a model for developing countries. He wants China to be the dominant power in Asia.

  • Xi’s strongman leadership is reversing the trend towards collective rule that had developed after Mao’s death. It carries risks of over-centralization of power and bad decision-making.

  • But Xi’s authority also allows him to push through bold reforms and policies. His dominance makes China a more formidable competitor to the West.

Here is a summary of the key points about Xi Jinping from the passage:

  • Xi Jinping initially made a very positive impression on Western visitors, coming across as calm, confident, and moderate. Some even compared him optimistically to reformist leaders like Gorbachev.

  • However, Xi has actually turned out to be more reminiscent of Mao Zedong in consolidating personal power, establishing a cult of personality, and asserting Party control.

  • Xi has amassed extensive personal power, including abolishing presidential term limits to pave the way for lifelong rule. A pervasive “Xi Jinping Thought” personality cult has also developed.

  • Xi presents himself as carrying on the legacy of Mao rather than representing a break with Mao like Deng Xiaoping did. This is disputed by critics based on China’s transformation under Deng.

  • Xi had a complex relationship with Mao’s legacy, given his own family’s suffering during the Cultural Revolution when his father was purged. Xi was exiled to rural labor as a youth.

  • His critics suggest the trauma of Xi’s lost education in his teens may have shaped his authoritarian tendencies today. Xi instead portrays his rural exile as character-building.

  • Xi Jinping had a difficult early life, with his father purged and his family falling from grace during Mao’s rule. Despite this, Xi remained devoted to the Communist Party, desperately trying to rejoin it multiple times.

  • Xi built his career slowly, serving as a party bureaucrat in the provinces for many years. This was a traditional path for rising officials.

  • Xi married a famous singer, Peng Liyuan, during his time in the provinces. This set him apart from other colorless bureaucrats.

  • Xi was seen as more nationalistic and ‘red’ compared to other leaders. He sent his daughter to be educated in the US, suggesting some open-mindedness.

  • As leader, Xi launched a major anti-corruption drive, jailing over a million officials. This consolidated his power but also spread fear.

  • Xi is haunted by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he blames on ideological confusion and loss of party control. He sees preventing this in China as his key mission.

  • Xi Jinping has overseen a crackdown on dissent and liberal voices in China since coming to power in 2012. Ideas like “constitutionalism”, “civil society”, and press freedom are seen as dangerous Western imports.

  • Intellectuals, activists, and lawyers calling for more democracy and rights have been arrested and imprisoned under Xi. Public debate on political reform has been shut down.

  • Xi’s authoritarian approach was an important factor behind the Hong Kong protests in 2019. Protesters feared loss of autonomy and rights as Beijing tightened control.

  • Xi strived to distance himself from blame for China’s initial mishandling of Covid-19. After bringing the outbreak under control, he claimed it showed the superiority of China’s system.

  • But Xi’s image abroad has suffered due to the pandemic, as well as the crackdown in Hong Kong and detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Majorities in Europe, North America, and Asia see Xi negatively.

  • Xi Jinping has taken a hardline approach to dissent and demands for democracy in China, as seen in the crackdown on Hong Kong protesters and the mass internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. There are allegations of cultural genocide against Uighurs.

  • Xi has promoted China’s authoritarian system as a model for other countries, asserting it can provide stability and prosperity. China has expanded influence abroad through investment projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.

  • On Taiwan, Xi has taken a more aggressive stance, with increased military pressure and threats. Conquering Taiwan could cement Xi’s place in history alongside Mao and Deng Xiaoping. But invasion would be risky and could lead to war with the US.

  • China has become more assertive in territorial disputes, seen in clashes with India in the Himalayas in 2020. This pits the authoritarian China against the democratic India, although India has also moved towards a strongman model under Modi.

  • Xi’s assertive foreign policy has led to greater international scrutiny of China’s human rights record and its ambitions as an emerging superpower. This contradicts China’s previous stance of non-interference in other nations’ affairs.

Here is a summary of the key points about Modi and strongman politics in this section:

  • Modi brought a strongman style of leadership to India when he was elected prime minister in 2014, just two years after Xi Jinping took power in China. This meant the two emerging superpowers with 40% of the world’s population had strongman leaders.

  • Like other strongmen, Modi cultivates a direct connection with the people, promises to take on elite corruption, and portrays himself as a tough, ascetic figure devoted to the nation. His image is carefully managed.

  • Modi champions Hindu nationalism and the ideology of Hindutva. He taps into a sense of historical grievance among Hindus, portraying them as an oppressed group for 1200 years, including under British colonial rule and the post-independence Congress Party.

  • Modi has longstanding ties to the Hindu nationalist organization RSS, which was inspired by European fascists. An RSS member assassinated Gandhi for advocating Hindu-Muslim unity. Modi’s RSS links provide an ideological underpinning for his strongman populism.

  • Narendra Modi worked his way up from humble, provincial origins to become Prime Minister of India. He was born into a low-ranking caste and helped his father run a tea shop as a teenager. His humble origins as a tea seller contrast with the Gandhi political dynasty.

  • Modi rose through the ranks of the Hindu nationalist RSS organization and the BJP political party. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, he presided over strong economic growth which boosted his reputation as a pragmatic, business-friendly leader.

  • Modi was accused of tacitly encouraging anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, in which around 1,000 people died. He was banned from entering the US until becoming Prime Minister.

  • Initially hailed as an energetic economic reformer, Modi’s early years as PM did not see major communal violence. But his second term has seen a coarsening of rhetoric and rise in violence against minorities by BJP supporters.

  • Modi’s popularity rests on delivering economic growth and reforms, and taking a strong nationalist stance against Pakistan. But he has increasingly adopted an autocratic style, with dramatic policy gestures.

  • In response to India’s airstrike in Pakistan in 2019, the Indian media reacted ecstatically. Modi used the strike to boost his image as a ‘strongman’ ahead of elections. He won a landslide victory.

  • After the election, Modi’s government pursued more aggressive Hindu nationalist policies, including abolishing Kashmir’s special status, constructing detention camps, and introducing citizenship laws seen as discriminatory against Muslims.

  • Critics argued Modi was threatening India’s secular democracy and institutions like the judiciary, press, and NGOs. Intellectuals and journalists felt increasing pressure to self-censor.

  • Modi and Trump bonded over shared authoritarian populist tendencies and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Their joint rallies in the US and India highlighted the global rise of ethno-nationalism.

  • While liberals accused Modi of fascism, he thrived on the polarization created by his policies. Deadly Hindu-Muslim clashes occurred during Trump’s 2020 India visit, underscoring the tensions.

Here is a summary of the key points about Orbán, Kaczynski, and the rise of illiberalism in Europe:

  • In 2015, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, jokingly greeted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as “Hello, dictator” at an EU summit, reflecting tensions over Hungary’s turn towards authoritarianism.

  • Orbán has consolidated power by eroding Hungary’s independent institutions and bringing them under the control of his party Fidesz. He has also cracked down on NGOs and rewarded cronies.

  • Orbán has explicitly advocated for “illiberalism” as an ideology, portraying liberalism as elitist and intolerant and conservative nationalism as the true democratic will of the people.

  • Poland has also slid towards authoritarianism under the conservative nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) led by Jarosław Kaczyński. PiS has asserted political control over Poland’s institutions.

  • The rise of illiberalism in Hungary and Poland poses a crisis for the EU, which requires members to uphold liberal democracy and rule of law. But Orbán and Kaczyński portray the EU’s efforts to rein them in as undemocratic interference.

  • The EU has struggled to respond effectively due to the difficulty of imposing sanctions on members. Other European far-right leaders inspired by Orbán have created deeper tensions within the bloc.

  • Viktor Orbán is the prime minister of Hungary and a leading proponent of “illiberal” nationalist ideology that is hostile to immigration and aims to protect national culture and sovereignty.

  • Orbán rose to prominence by capitalizing politically on the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, taking a hardline anti-immigration stance and portraying Hungary as under threat.

  • He has presented himself as defending Hungary and Christian values against liberalism and multiculturalism promoted by “globalist” EU elites.

  • Orbán’s ideology has been echoed by right-wing populist leaders like Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski. They aim to consolidate power over national institutions to enact lasting cultural change.

  • Orbán relished the chance to lecture Western states about the future of politics amidst the refugee crisis. His global prominence as a populist leader is ironic given Hungary’s history under Communism.

  • Overall, Orbán exemplifies a nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-liberal ideology that rejects open borders and multiculturalism in favor of protecting national culture and sovereignty. He rose to prominence by exploiting fears around the refugee crisis.

Here is a summary of the key points about Viktor Orbán:

  • Orbán came from a working-class, rural background but was a bright student who went to university. As a young man, he was a dynamic liberal activist who gave a famous speech in 1989 calling for democracy in Hungary.

  • He became leader of the Fidesz party in 1993, shifting it from liberalism to nationalism after electoral disappointments. Orbán served as Prime Minister 1998-2002.

  • He returned to power in 2010 with a large majority, which he used to erode democracy and the rule of law in Hungary, taking control of the media, courts, and civil society institutions.

  • Orbán promoted an ‘illiberal democracy’, attacking liberal values and minorities like immigrants and George Soros. He demonized Soros in anti-Semitic terms.

  • Orbán curtailed media freedom, corrupted the courts, and enriched his cronies through state contracts. He forced the Central European University to leave Budapest.

  • Seen as a model by other nationalist strongmen, Orbán claimed he would remain in power for 20 more years. His longevity was enabled by tacit EU acceptance, especially from Germany, which found him a useful political ally.

Here are the key points from the passage:

  • Viktor Orbán has been the prime minister of Hungary since 2010. He has worked to consolidate power, curb media freedom, and promote an ultra-nationalist agenda.

  • Orbán was able to erode Hungarian democracy while facing little opposition from the EU. The center-right European People’s Party shielded Orbán to preserve their parliamentary majority.

  • In Poland, the right-wing Law and Justice party also moved to undermine democratic institutions after winning elections in 2015. They refused to approve judicial appointments and asserted that “the good of the nation is above the law.”

  • Law and Justice promoted conspiracy theories, including that the 2010 plane crash that killed the Polish president was a Russian plot rather than an accident.

  • The rise of illiberal populists like Orbán and Law and Justice in EU countries foreshadowed the success of Donald Trump and other right-wing nationalist movements. Their tactics and rhetoric provided a model that was soon replicated.

Here is a summary of the key points about Boris Johnson and Brexit Britain in 2016:

  • Boris Johnson was a major figure in British politics and media who led the successful Brexit campaign for Britain to leave the EU in 2016. This dealt a major blow to the EU project.

  • Johnson’s role in Brexit linked him to the populist revolt and figures like Donald Trump who swept to power that year.

  • Critics see Johnson as an elite populist who exploited anti-immigration sentiment, stoking fears about Turkey joining the EU, to win the Brexit vote, despite his more liberal views as London mayor.

  • The Leave campaign focused on identity and immigration while Remain focused on economics. This helped mobilize new anti-immigration voters.

  • Johnson was willing to use controversial tactics to win, overriding his own concerns. His aim was personal power, not principle.

  • There are clear similarities between Johnson’s and Trump’s populist, anti-elite and anti-immigration themes and methods. But Johnson lacks Trump’s strength and decisiveness.

  • Boris Johnson had a complicated relationship with the EU. His father worked for the EU and he attended the European School in Brussels as a child. But he led the Leave campaign to victory in the Brexit referendum, mobilizing discontent in non-metropolitan Britain.

  • At elite institutions like Eton and Oxford, Johnson cultivated his reputation as a charismatic and popular figure. He used humor and charm to portray himself as an anti-politician and man of the people, despite his privileged upbringing.

  • Johnson was often able to survive political embarrassments and scandals that would have ended other politicians’ careers. His popular appeal allowed him to reframe scandals as amusing rather than damaging.

  • Johnson was undecided on Brexit until late in the referendum campaign. He likely backed Leave as a calculated gamble, hoping the Brexit side would lose narrowly but he would be on the “patriotic” side.

  • After the surprise Leave victory, Johnson was poised to succeed David Cameron as prime minister. But he lost out to Theresa May when Michael Gove turned on him.

  • As foreign secretary under May, Johnson was seen as ineffective. Discontent with May’s Brexit negotiations led to Johnson emerging as the champion of disgruntled Conservative Brexiteers.

  • Boris Johnson had long harbored ambitions to be prime minister of the UK. He positioned himself as a champion of pro-Brexit conservatives.

  • In 2016, he was a leading figure in the successful Vote Leave campaign for Brexit. This further raised his profile.

  • After Theresa May became PM, Johnson served as her foreign secretary but resigned in 2018 to position himself as the true champion of Brexit against May’s compromises.

  • In 2019, Johnson succeeded May as Conservative party leader and prime minister. Along with adviser Dominic Cummings, he took a strongman approach, controversially proroguing parliament.

  • Johnson called a snap election in late 2019 and won a large majority on a “Get Brexit Done” platform against a weak Labour opposition. This allowed him to push through his version of Brexit.

  • However, Johnson’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was criticized as too slow and casual initially. This may have contributed to the UK’s high death toll.

  • In early 2020, Johnson himself contracted a serious case of Covid-19 and spent time in intensive care, sparking an outpouring of support from ardent followers.

  • Donald Trump’s chances were dismissed by the US establishment, who believed American exceptionalism made the country immune to the rise of strongman politics seen elsewhere.

  • Factors fueling Trump’s rise - loss of faith in elites, economic insecurity, backlash against immigration - were evident but ignored.

  • Arrogance about American exceptionalism blinded many to the parallels with political forces in other countries.

  • Economic dislocation increased appetite for a ‘strongman’ who could ‘make America great again’, reminiscent of Russia in the 1990s.

  • A rise in ‘deaths of despair’ in the US went unnoticed by elites, as did stagnating incomes for many and a hollowing out of manufacturing jobs.

  • Trump positioned himself as an anti-establishment populist who sided with ‘real’ Americans against coastal elites.

  • He was underestimated due to being an entertainer, but successfully tapped into grievances over immigration, unfair trade, and elites’ neglect of ‘left behind’ regions.

  • Trump’s victory marked the rise of a strongman in the world’s most powerful democracy, with implications for the Western-led liberal order.

  • In the years before Trump’s election, death rates were rising sharply among white working-class Americans, likely due to ‘deaths of despair’ from substance abuse and suicide. This group turned out heavily for Trump in 2016.

  • Fears of demographic and cultural change were central to Trump’s appeal. Supporters responded to his anti-immigration rhetoric and promises to reverse perceived losses of white status and power.

  • Republicans increasingly believed discrimination against whites was becoming as big a problem as discrimination against minorities. Trump positioned himself as a champion of whites who felt under threat.

  • Many Republicans came to accept the need for a ‘strongman’ leader who would bend rules to get things done and preserve traditional American culture, which they associated with a white majority. Trump fit this authoritarian model.

  • Trump had long expressed authoritarian views, praising strength and disparaging weakness in leaders. As early as 1990 he criticized Gorbachev as weak for liberalizing the Soviet Union, and praised the Chinese crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

Here are the key potential political strengths summarized:

  • Trump demonstrated an intuitive grasp of “what sells” and “what people want” in 2016, making controversial statements that outraged the establishment but strengthened his support among disaffected voters longing for a strongman leader.

  • Trump built a personality cult around himself as the only one who could “fix” America’s problems. The Republican party fell in line behind his agenda.

  • Trump valued personal loyalty over adherence to law from his appointees. Those who did not demonstrate sufficient loyalty were fired.

  • Lying and spreading conspiracy theories was fundamental to Trump’s political strategy, creating alternative narratives to obscure inconvenient truths. This appealed to supporters’ “motivated reasoning.”

  • Trump envied the power of autocratic leaders abroad, forging collegial relationships with the likes of Xi, Putin and Erdogan. He wished to bend America’s institutions to his will but was ultimately constrained by the resilience of its democratic checks and balances.

  • Donald Trump expressed admiration for authoritarian leaders like Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Rodrigo Duterte. He praised their “strength” and envied their ability to consolidate power.

  • Trump was indulgent towards these leaders, unwilling to criticize their repressive policies and human rights abuses. He actively encouraged Xi’s construction of concentration camps targeting Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

  • Trump desired the arbitrary powers and lifelong rule enjoyed by figures like Xi and Putin. He joked about abolishing presidential term limits in the U.S. to stay in power indefinitely.

  • Trump employed strongman rhetoric, promoting conspiracy theories, questioning election results, and inciting grievances. This authoritarian style has endured in Trumpism.

  • Rodrigo Duterte unleashed death squads targeting suspected drug dealers and users after becoming president of the Philippines in 2016. Over 7,000 were killed in the first 6 months.

  • Trump congratulated Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job” on the drug problem, condoning his brutal methods. This boosted authoritarian trends in Southeast Asia.

  • The rise of figures like Trump and Duterte has damaged democracy worldwide. America’s internal crisis hampers its ability to lead a pushback against authoritarianism globally.

  • Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines in 2016 on a platform of waging a brutal “war on drugs.” He encouraged extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users, with thousands murdered by police and vigilantes.

  • Duterte pioneered populist techniques like attacking elites, utilizing social media, and persistent lying that were later adopted by other strongman leaders like Trump.

  • After gaining power, Duterte consolidated authority by building a cult of personality, intimidating opponents, and undermining independent institutions. This erosion of democracy has parallels in countries like Russia, Hungary, and India.

  • The Philippines has historically played an important role in the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy in Southeast Asia. But under Duterte, the country is regressing towards autocracy again.

  • Duterte gained popularity through outrageous statements, false claims like the country becoming a “narco state,” and exploiting distrust of the political establishment. He won the presidency with only a plurality of votes.

  • Duterte represents a warning about the global rise of strongman leaders through divisive populist politics and the erosion of democratic norms and institutions.

  • Rodrigo Duterte won the Philippine presidency in 2016 by positioning himself as an anti-establishment outsider. He cultivated a crass, vulgar persona that contrasted with the decorous political elite.

  • Duterte comes from a political family but built his reputation as the long-serving mayor of Davao City. As mayor, he oversaw the brutal vigilante killings of drug dealers and users by the Davao Death Squad.

  • During his presidential campaign, Duterte exploited social media and spread fake news with the help of an army of trolls and bots. This provided a model that was copied in other countries.

  • As president, Duterte has continued his brutal drug war, leading to thousands of extrajudicial killings. He has also cracked down on dissent, jailing critics like Senator Leila de Lima on dubious charges.

  • He has gone after media outlets like Rappler and ABS-CBN that are critical of him. He has also attacked the judiciary and moved to concentrate power in the presidency.

  • Duterte exhibits the classic strongman behavior of attacking democratic institutions, suppressing dissent, and relying on disinformation and propaganda to bolster his populist, authoritarian rule.

Here is a summary of the key points about the rise of MBS and Netanyahu:

  • Benjamin Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia were elated when Trump was elected in 2017, as they saw Obama’s policies as naive and wanted a US president who would prioritize stability and get tougher on Iran.

  • Both Bibi (Netanyahu) and MBS became the preeminent political figures in their countries, centralizing power around themselves personally to an unprecedented degree.

  • Despite sharing similar aims and temperaments, their environments are quite different - MBS lives in extreme opulence, while Netanyahu’s surroundings are more modest.

  • Netanyahu has been Israel’s longest serving prime minister, dominating the country’s politics. He allied with Trump and suppressed domestic opposition.

  • MBS rapidly amassed power in Saudi Arabia, casting aside the previous system of consensus and seniority. He cultivated ties with Trump through excessive flattery.

  • Both leaders worked to counter Iran, their shared enemy. They found a willing partner in Trump’s administration, which also took a hard line against Iran after abandoning the nuclear deal.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem is spartan and modest compared to the opulent lifestyle of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

  • Netanyahu enjoys cigars and champagne, while MBS operates with impunity and has detained and murdered opponents.

  • Netanyahu and MBS were brought together by a shared enemy, Iran, and a shared friend, Jared Kushner.

  • Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, was able to broker a historic diplomatic deal between Israel and the UAE thanks to the shared Saudi-Israeli opposition to Iran.

  • This was a political win for Netanyahu, who had resisted pressure to agree to a Palestinian state. His lifelong opposition to a two-state solution stems from his family’s staunch Zionism.

  • Netanyahu embraces a populist nationalism that rejects the more liberal founding ideology of Israel. This parallels politicians like Modi and Erdogan.

  • Having grown up partially in the US, Netanyahu is steeped in American culture and is an adept operator there. A family tragedy propelled him into politics in Israel.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu rose from obscurity to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. His brother Yoni became a national hero after being killed in the 1976 Entebbe raid.

  • Netanyahu became an advocate for Israel on the world stage, serving as UN ambassador and Likud party leader before becoming prime minister in 1996. He would go on to win multiple elections over the next 25 years.

  • Netanyahu aligned Israel with right-wing nationalist leaders like Trump, Orbán, Duterte, and Bolsonaro, finding ideological affinities and mutually beneficial relations.

  • He disregarded concerns about illiberalism and human rights records of these leaders, believing they would support Israel’s interests against shared rivals like Iran and the Palestinians.

  • Netanyahu also built ties with China for technology cooperation and with Saudi Arabia through the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who shares hostility toward Iran.

  • Critics argue Netanyahu’s alliances with illiberal leaders undermine Israel’s claim to be a democracy, but Netanyahu prioritized security and support over progressive concerns.

  • In May 2017, Donald Trump made Saudi Arabia the destination for his first foreign visit as U.S. president. This was a huge compliment to the Saudis and yielded practical benefits, as Trump was willing to abandon Obama’s Iran deal, which was important to the Saudis.

  • Though King Salman was formally the Saudi leader, his son Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was the true power. MBS had risen to prominence quickly after being named defense minister in 2015.

  • MBS presented himself as a reformist to Western leaders and media, allowing social reforms like women driving. But he also showed intolerance for dissent, even arresting royal family members.

  • The 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi damaged MBS’s reputation. But Western leaders pragmatically maintained relations with Saudi Arabia and MBS.

  • MBS exhibits tendencies like centralizing power, promoting a cult of personality, and committing murder that align him with other strongmen leaders in the age of authoritarianism. Despite Western criticism, he maintains relationships with leaders who find Saudi Arabia strategically useful.

  • Fernando Henrique Cardoso was president of Brazil from 1995-2002 and oversaw Brazil’s transition to democracy and economic reforms. By 2017, he was watching his accomplishments unravel amid economic and political crises.

  • With the economy in recession, President Dilma Rousseff impeached, and widespread corruption exposed, conditions were ripe for a populist backlash. The far-right Jair Bolsonaro emerged as a leading candidate for the 2018 election.

  • Bolsonaro ran an anti-establishment campaign similar to Trump’s, promising to crack down on crime and corruption. He won a decisive victory as Lula, the popular leftist candidate, was barred from running.

  • Like Trump, Bolsonaro treated politics as a family business and appealed to social conservatives. He built a coalition of agricultural interests, evangelical Christians, and the pro-gun lobby.

  • Bolsonaro was seen as an outsider battling corruption. His working-class supporters respected his physical courage, having survived an assassination attempt.

  • His victory marked a populist backlash against the progressive politics of Lula and Cardoso. Brazil’s embrace of authoritarianism and rejection of “political correctness” paralleled trends in the U.S. under Trump.

Here is a summary of the key points in the passage:

  • Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil in 2018, representing a right-wing populist shift in the country’s politics. He expressed nostalgia for Brazil’s era of military dictatorship and admiration for Donald Trump.

  • Bolsonaro appointed liberal economists like Paulo Guedes to key positions, appeasing big business with promises of deregulation and lower taxes. But his cabinet also included right-wing culture warriors like Ernesto Araújo who railed against “cultural Marxism.”

  • There were authoritarian echoes, like Bolsonaro’s culture minister appearing to plagiarize a speech by Goebbels. Latin America had seen brutal military regimes in the 1960s-1980s, though Bolsonaro argued their tough measures were justified.

  • Bolsonaro represented a 21st century style of populism, similar to Trump, Duterte, Orbán. He blurred lines between government, party, and state while ignoring checks on executive power.

  • Populism has a long history in Latin America on both left and right. Chávez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia were leftist populists praised by figures like Corbyn.

  • Chávez followed the strongman playbook - packed the courts, altered electoral system, cultivated a personality cult. He warred on poverty but financed programs through oil money and debt, amid corruption.

  • Hugo Chávez’s rule in Venezuela demonstrated the initial appeal but ultimate failures of left-wing populism. He curbed poverty through oil revenues but undermined democracy and the economy. Under his successor Maduro, Venezuela plunged into severe economic crisis.

  • The disasters in Venezuela cast a shadow over leftist leaders in Latin America. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil tied his leftist opponent Lula to the Venezuelan catastrophe.

  • In Mexico, left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Amlo) won a landslide election victory in 2018, seen as a repudiation of the country’s elite. Like Bolsonaro, he is a nationalist and populist.

  • Both Bolsonaro and Amlo reacted similarly to the coronavirus pandemic, downplaying its risks like Trump. Their countries suffered very high death tolls. But this did not immediately dent their popularity.

  • Bolsonaro and Amlo also dragged their feet in acknowledging Trump’s election defeat, showing similarities between right and left populism. Their reluctance likely reflects concerns about electoral legitimacy, given they have alleged fraud in their own electoral losses.

  • Abiy Ahmed became prime minister of Ethiopia in 2018 and was initially hailed as a liberal reformer by Western media and institutions. He freed political prisoners, invited opposition groups back from exile, made peace with Eritrea, and committed to democracy and press freedom.

  • However, some were skeptical from the start that Abiy was just another strongman in the making, appealing to nationalism and suppressing debate.

  • In 2019 Abiy spoke at Davos, critiquing strongman leadership and emphasizing democracy and development as interlinked. He received praise and soft questioning from the audience. Later that year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

  • However, Abiy soon showed authoritarian tendencies - arresting journalists and opposition, and resorting to military force and atrocities against the Tigray region. His reputation as a liberal champion quickly faded.

  • This followed a familiar pattern of Western embrace and then disillusionment with supposed liberal reformers who become increasingly autocratic, as seen with leaders like Putin, Erdogan, and Xi.

  • Africa has a long history of leaders hailed as heroes after colonialism turning into strongman despots. Zimbabwe is a prime example, with Mugabe ruling repressively for decades before being replaced by Mnangagwa, showing hopes for reform there were likely misplaced.

  • Abiy’s trajectory highlights the continued temptation to embrace ostensible liberal reformers and the difficulty of resisting strongman rule globally.

  • Robert Mugabe rose to power in Zimbabwe as a liberation hero in 1980, but turned into a despotic ruler over time. His mismanagement led to hyperinflation, economic collapse, and political oppression.

  • Emmerson Mnangagwa succeeded Mugabe but also failed to improve conditions, with continued repression and economic stagnation.

  • The pattern of liberation leaders becoming autocrats is common in Africa, with some exceptions like Nelson Mandela.

  • Jacob Zuma’s presidency in South Africa from 2009-2018 was marked by corruption and ‘state capture.’ However, South Africa’s institutions proved strong enough to eventually bring him down.

  • Despite failures of leaders like Mugabe and Zuma, polls show Africans still largely favor democracy over other forms of government.

  • Some point to Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Ethiopia’s late Meles Zenawi as examples of strongman rule bringing stability and economic progress.

  • Kagame has achieved development gains in Rwanda, but at the cost of political repression, with dissidents often winding up dead. He has vocal Western admirers who overlook his authoritarian tendencies.

  • Some authoritarian leaders in Africa, like Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, have been supported by the West because of their records of economic development and technocratic governance. Their repression and undemocratic practices have often been overlooked.

  • China’s growing influence in Africa has enabled and protected dictators, as it provides aid and trade without conditions on democracy. China also trains African officials in propaganda and dissent suppression.

  • Democracy has been declining across Africa over the past decade as Chinese influence increases. The US and other Western nations have reduced pressure for reform.

  • China exports surveillance technology to African nations to help authoritarian regimes monitor and control their populations. For example, Zimbabwe adopted Chinese facial recognition systems.

  • Other authoritarian states like Russia openly support African strongmen and unconstitutional power grabs, further undermining democracy.

  • Under Trump, the US stepped back from supporting democracy in Africa, like endorsing fraudulent elections in Congo. But the Biden administration aims to return to pressuring for political reform on the continent.

  • Angela Merkel of Germany and Emmanuel Macron of France were seen as champions of liberal democracy and counterweights to the rise of nationalist strongmen like Trump and Putin after 2016.

  • Macron was a young, charismatic French politician who founded a new centrist party and won the French presidency in 2017, defeating far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. His victory was seen as halting the populist tide.

  • Macron positioned himself as a pro-EU, pro-globalization technocrat in contrast to nationalist leaders. He appealed to educated, middle-class voters.

  • Merkel’s modest, deliberative style also contrasted with the macho posturing of many strongmen. As German chancellor she became a spokesperson for traditional liberal values.

  • Merkel grew up in East Germany and was shaped by that experience. She has led Germany since 2005 and managed Europe’s refugee crisis.

  • Both Merkel and Macron tried to defend liberalism and multilateralism, but faced domestic protests and challenges from resurgent nationalism. Their authority waned somewhat by 2020.

  • Angela Merkel pursued a successful career as a scientist in East Germany before entering politics after the fall of communism. She rose to become leader of the Christian Democratic Union and was elected chancellor in 2005, the first woman and East German to hold the position.

  • By 2015, Merkel was the most important political figure in Europe, having shaped the EU’s response to the euro crisis. Her decision to accept over 1 million refugees into Germany during the refugee crisis made her an icon for liberals but a villain to right-wing populists.

  • In the 2017 elections, Merkel’s party suffered losses as the far-right AfD party gained a large share of votes, especially in eastern Germany. This represented a threat to the liberal establishment in Germany.

  • A series of shocks from 2014-2016, including Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Brexit, and Trump’s election, challenged Merkel’s belief in the inevitability of liberal democracy.

  • Emmanuel Macron’s election in France in 2017 was welcomed in Berlin, but his proposals for EU reform were viewed with suspicion. The relationship warmed during the Covid-19 crisis, as Merkel endorsed joint EU debt issuance, a significant gesture.

  • Emmanuel Macron pushed for deeper European integration, including EU-wide debt and a rival to the US dollar as a reserve currency. This was agreed to by Angela Merkel as she neared retirement.

  • Macron has avoided major scandals but not met hopes for renewal in France. There is still high unemployment, deindustrialization, and concerns over immigration and Islamism.

  • Macron has moved to the right on issues like security and social values to counter the far-right threat from Le Pen. But differences remain over the EU, globalization, and immigration.

  • There is now a nationalist vs globalist ideological divide rather than left vs right. Le Pen aligns with nationalist leaders globally.

  • Many nationalist leaders demonize George Soros as representing ‘globalism’. Soros is Jewish and a philanthropist, so is an easy target.

  • In reality Soros does not match the conspiracy image. But he has committed huge resources to promoting democracy and liberal values, making him a threat to authoritarian leaders.

  • George Soros is a Hungarian-born American billionaire philanthropist and investor. As a child during WWII, he lived through Nazi occupation of Hungary before emigrating to London and later the United States.

  • Soros was profoundly influenced by the philosopher Karl Popper and his writings on open societies, liberalism, and democracy. This shaped Soros’s philanthropic efforts through the Open Society Foundations which promote these values globally.

  • Soros made his fortune in finance, applying Popper’s skepticism about human knowledge to financial markets. By the 1980s he was a billionaire through his hedge fund Soros Fund Management.

  • In his philanthropy from the 1980s onward, Soros funded causes supporting open societies, democracy, minority rights and freedoms across Eastern Europe, South Africa, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere.

  • Soros played a famous role betting against the British pound in 1992, helping force the UK out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in an event known as ‘Black Wednesday’.

  • From the 1990s onward, Soros increasingly became the target of nationalist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories portraying him as a shadowy manipulator. Criticism of Soros has come from political leaders worldwide.

  • In the US, Soros was attacked by Republicans for his liberal donations and opposition to George W. Bush. During the Trump administration he was frequently demonized, accused of paying anti-Trump protestors among other conspiracy theories.

  • George Soros has become a target of conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic attacks from authoritarian leaders and far-right groups around the world. Figures like Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Donald Trump, and Nigel Farage have accused Soros of being part of a globalist plot against national sovereignty.

  • The attacks often use anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish financiers controlling the world. Some defend themselves by saying Soros can’t be Jewish because he is secular and critical of Israel.

  • Soros’s philanthropic Open Society Foundations fund pro-democracy and civil society groups which threaten autocratic regimes. Countries like Russia, Hungary, Israel, and Turkey have cracked down on Soros-linked organizations.

  • China has emerged as a top priority for Soros in recent years as he sees Xi Jinping’s regime as the biggest threat to open societies. Soros was an early philanthropic presence in China but was later squeezed out.

  • The demonization of Soros echoes anti-Semitic backlashes against liberalism in Europe in the 1930s. The nationalist right today makes similar accusations that Jews like Soros are trying to undermine nation states.

  • At the same time, figures like Steve Bannon aim to promote illiberal nationalism and fight Soros’s vision of open society internationally. The ideological battle between open and closed societies is playing out transatlantically.

  • The author met with Steve Bannon, former advisor to Donald Trump, at a hotel in Berlin. Bannon was focused on the threat posed by China and wanted Europe to align with the US against China.

  • The author traces Bannon’s connections to far-right thinkers across Europe and the world, including in Hungary, Italy, Brazil, and Russia. These thinkers are often anti-liberal, anti-globalist, anti-immigration, and promote nationalist agendas.

  • However, the author notes that while there are connections, it may be an oversimplification to see this as an organized global network. There are also differences between the thinkers’ agendas.

  • Key common themes emerge such as opposition to liberalism, feminism, globalism, and promotion of the nation-state over universal values. Some of this shades into racism and attacks on diversity.

  • The author relates this to the revival of interest in Carl Schmitt, a Nazi legal theorist whose anti-liberal ideas are now inspiring nationalists and far-right thinkers globally.

Here is a summary of the key points about Nazi Germany:

  • Carl Schmitt was a prominent German legal scholar and Nazi supporter who provided intellectual justification for authoritarianism. Despite his Nazi past, his ideas have regained popularity among some modern anti-liberal thinkers.

  • Schmitt argued against liberal democracy, universal human rights, and the rule of law. He emphasized the friend-enemy distinction as fundamental to politics and justified suspending the law through declaring a state of emergency.

  • Schmitt joined the Nazis after Hitler’s rise to power, writing legal justifications for the regime’s authoritarian actions like suspending democracy and purging Jews from academia.

  • Contemporary far-right thinkers in places like China, Russia, Brazil, and the US have embraced aspects of Schmitt’s anti-liberal philosophy to justify illiberal policies and strongman rule.

  • Schmitt’s ideas provide an intellectual basis for undermining liberal institutions like independent courts and the media by claiming they are inherently partisan. His work is influential among advisers to authoritarian-leaning leaders like Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, and Donald Trump.

In summary, Carl Schmitt was an influential Nazi-era thinker whose anti-liberal philosophy continues to provide inspiration for modern authoritarian movements, despite his discredited past.

  • Steve Bannon is a genuine ideologue who promoted populist ideas and changed the world through his association with Donald Trump. He was an adviser to Trump in the aftermath of the 2020 election, urging supporters to protest the supposed stolen election.

  • The storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 by pro-Trump rioters threatened American democracy. Biden’s inauguration took place just two weeks later with the backdrop of this recent attack.

  • Biden faces the challenges of strengthening democracy at home while confronting increasingly assertive strongman leaders like Xi and Putin abroad. America’s ability to defend freedom globally depends on saving its own democracy.

  • The Republican Party remains dominated by Trump, who continues to falsely claim election fraud. This adherence to Trumpism compromises the GOP’s commitment to democracy.

  • Biden aims to prove democracy can work, but faces an uphill battle with a slim Congressional majority. His withdrawal from Afghanistan was an early challenge.

  • America’s allies look to Washington for leadership on promoting democracy, but question whether the U.S. has the means and energy for this fight post-Trump. The world worries Trumpism may return in 2024.

  • Biden’s administration is cautious about using military force abroad, as the American public is weary of foreign wars after Afghanistan. This limits Biden’s ability to assert global leadership.

  • China’s economic power makes it a formidable rival to the US. Many countries now trade more with China than the US. This reduces America’s diplomatic influence.

  • Biden has continued Trump’s confrontational approach to China, seeing it as an ideological battle between democracy and autocracy. But China points to America’s domestic problems as evidence of its weakness.

  • Putin also faces a more defiant US under Biden after enjoying a more acquiescent Trump. But Putin has cracked down harder on Russian dissidents like Navalny.

  • Other strongmen leaders see ambiguity in Biden’s human rights focus. They hope to avoid criticism as potential US allies against Russia/China.

  • Modi hopes India’s importance containing China will mean the US overlooks India’s democratic backsliding. But some in Washington have noticed.

  • MBS moved quickly to appease Biden after benefiting from Trump’s indulgence over Khashoggi’s murder and Yemen.

  • After the Biden administration took office, relations between the US and Saudi Arabia became less antagonistic. Biden could not afford to fully break with Saudi Arabia due to the need for Saudi intelligence sharing against terrorism, MBS’ control over intelligence agencies, and Western business interests.

  • In June 2021, Benjamin Netanyahu lost power in Israel after 12 years, but claimed electoral fraud and a conspiracy against him. Israel’s institutions held firm and Netanyahu lost office. This demonstrated the importance of strong institutions in countering autocratic leaders.

  • Opposition forces united against strongman leaders with upcoming elections in Hungary, Brazil, Turkey and the Philippines. It remains uncertain if the rulers will step down if defeated.

  • Boris Johnson in the UK embraced some strongman tactics like attacking independent institutions, but avoided overt alignment with European far-right leaders to maintain relations with Biden.

  • The era of strongman leaders like Erdoğan, Modi, Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson and Duterte emerged in the last decade. They are skilled at building a personal following but often lack the skills to govern effectively.

  • Strongman rule may contain the seeds of its own destruction, as incompetence undermines support. Efforts to change rules to benefit allies backfire.

  • The Age of the Strongman emerged outside the West after the 2008 financial crisis weakened the West. It could last 30 years like previous eras, but needs continuing success to sustain support.

  • Past eras followed a similar arc - new ideology emerges, gains followers, overreaches and creates backlash. Incompetence may undermine strongmen.

  • Strongmen tend to look for foreign enemies when facing domestic troubles. Risks include rising global tensions and conflict.

  • Decline of liberal internationalism poses threats to global economy and environment cooperation. Irreparable environmental damage may occur before the Age of the Strongman passes.

  • The rise of strongman leaders like Putin, Xi, Erdoğan, Modi, and others represents a backlash against liberal democracy and a belief that autocracy is a superior system.

  • In the 2000s and early 2010s, many Western commentators praised these leaders, seeing them as modernizers who would strengthen their countries. This view has now been largely discredited.

  • Strongman rule tends to rely on coercion, propaganda, and personality cults rather than institutions and the rule of law. It is an inherently unstable form of government.

  • Strongmen face difficulties with succession, as everything depends on the leader himself. When the leader dies or becomes infirm, there is usually a destabilizing power struggle.

  • Staying in power for decades tends to lead to paranoia, loss of touch, and megalomania in strongman leaders.

  • Without open discussion and institutions to provide checks, strongman governments are prone to adopting disastrous policies without changing course.

  • For all these reasons, strongman rule often ends in turmoil and collapse. Though the current wave may persist for some time, it is ultimately an unsustainable model of government.

Here is a summary of the key points from the notes for Chapter 3 on Xi Jinping:

  • Xi Jinping has consolidated power in China to a degree not seen since the era of Mao Zedong. He has established a cult of personality around himself.

  • Xi has reversed the trend towards collective leadership in China, established under Deng Xiaoping. Xi has accumulated numerous leadership positions and demanded public displays of loyalty.

  • Xi has overseen a crackdown on dissent in China, with increasing censorship and surveillance. He has also purged the Communist Party of rivals through an anti-corruption campaign.

  • Xi’s rise reflects his princeling status as the son of a revolutionary hero. He has cast himself as the savior who will restore China’s greatness and the Communist Party’s authority.

  • China’s economic growth enabled the Communist Party to rebuild legitimacy after Mao’s disastrous policies. This provided the platform for Xi’s elevation and assertive foreign policy.

  • Xi aims to make China the preeminent global power by 2049 through the “China Dream” and projects like the Belt and Road Initiative. He emphasizes the Chinese Communist Party’s control over all aspects of society.

Here is a summary of page 16:

The book discusses how Xi Jinping has consolidated power in China through a cult of personality and authoritarian tactics. Some key points:

  • Xi has eliminated term limits, allowing him to rule indefinitely. This reversed previous norms set after Mao’s rule.

  • He has purged rivals through an anti-corruption campaign and sidelined other top leaders.

  • Xi demands complete loyalty and obedience from party officials. There is no room for dissent or criticism.

  • He has tightened control over the media, internet, academia, and civil society to suppress dissent.

  • Xi promotes a narrative that he is uniquely qualified to lead China and realizes the “China dream.” His power is tied to a growing personality cult.

  • Under Xi, the party-state exercises control over virtually every aspect of Chinese society. Individual rights and freedoms are severely restricted.

In summary, Xi has established highly centralized, personalistic rule in China by removing constraints on his power and suppressing any opposition or dissent. He is the most dominant Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

Here is a summary of the Financial Times article “power changed Hungary,” Financial Times, May 21, 2020:

The article discusses how Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has consolidated power in Hungary over the past decade. It states that Orbán has weakened democratic checks and balances, brought much of the media under government control, and enacted constitutional changes that entrench his party Fidesz’s power. The article argues that the COVID-19 crisis has allowed Orbán to accelerate the erosion of democracy by ruling by decree without parliamentary oversight. Critics accuse Orbán of exploiting the pandemic to further accumulate control. However, Orbán remains popular among his base due to his nationalist, anti-immigration stance. The article suggests Hungary is drifting towards authoritarianism under Orbán’s leadership.

Here is a summary of the key points about Abiy Ahmed and democratic disillusionment in Africa:

  • Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with Eritrea, but his reputation has since declined amid civil war and authoritarianism in Ethiopia.

  • Many hoped Abiy represented a democratic renewal in Africa, but he has cracked down on opponents and delayed elections. Disillusionment with democracy is growing across Africa.

  • High hopes followed independence in the 1960s, but coups and dictatorship soon followed in many countries. Long-ruling leaders like Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Mobutu in Congo left a legacy of corruption and poverty.

  • South Africa transitioned to democracy in 1994 under Mandela, but later came to be plagued by corruption under Zuma.

  • Surveys show Africans want more democracy, but frustration is growing with its failure to deliver economic progress and good governance.

  • The retreat of democracy in places like Ethiopia and Mali raises concerns about a resurgence of authoritarianism in Africa. But democratic pressures remain strong from a youthful population.

Here is a summary of the Politico article “Rwanda: The Darling Tyrant”:

The article profiles Paul Kagame, who has ruled Rwanda since 1994. It describes how Kagame has been hailed as a visionary leader who has brought stability and economic growth to Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. However, the article argues that Kagame rules through fear and repression. His regime has cracked down on opposition politicians, journalists, and activists. Critics accuse him of unlawful detentions, torture, disappearances, and assassinations. The regime tightly controls political space, civil society, and the press. Elections are heavily manipulated to ensure victory for Kagame.

The article states that major Western powers have largely turned a blind eye to Kagame’s repression, valuing Rwanda’s stability and Kagame’s reliable support in regional conflicts. Kagame has carefully cultivated his international image and relationships. However, there are growing concerns about his authoritarianism. The article suggests Rwanda may face instability when Kagame eventually leaves power, due to the lack of open debate and viable opposition. It concludes that the West should apply more pressure on Kagame to open political space and stop repressing critics.

Here is a summary of the key points from the referenced articles:

Thomas Edsall, “Mitch McConnell Would Like Trump to Fade Away”:

  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is trying to distance the Republican Party from former President Trump, seeing him as a threat to winning back Congress and the White House.

  • But Trump retains strong support among the Republican base, posing a dilemma for the party.

Michael Gerson, “Trump’s rot has reached the GOP’s roots”:

  • The pro-Trump wing of the Republican Party is willing to undermine democracy to gain power, as evidenced by the January 6th attack on the Capitol.

  • This anti-democratic faction has infected the roots of the party, posing an existential threat to American government.

See Edsall, New York Times:

  • Refers back to Edsall’s article about the Republican Party’s struggle with Trump’s ongoing influence.

Eliza Relman, “Mark Meadows says all the top 2024 GOP candidates have Trump as their last name”:

  • Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows claims any serious 2024 Republican presidential candidate will have the last name “Trump.”

  • This illustrates Trump’s continued grip on the GOP despite being out of office.

Jonathan Kirshner, “Gone but not forgotten: Trump’s long shadow and the end of American credibility”:

  • Trump’s foreign policy damaged American credibility and alliances, with lasting impacts.

  • His unilateralist approach undermined the liberal international order.

Jake Sullivan et al., “Making US Foreign Policy work better for the middle class”:

  • Argues US foreign policy should focus more on benefiting the American middle class rather than global economic integration.

  • Criticizes the bipartisan foreign policy establishment.

Kremlin accuses Joe Biden of spreading hatred:

  • Russia accused Biden of anti-Russian rhetoric during the 2020 campaign.

  • Sign of the tensions between Biden and Putin.

Quoted in Henry Foy, “The Brutal Third Act of Vladimir Putin”:

  • Refers to critical comments about Putin from the Foy article.

Tom Mitchell, Primrose Riordan and Nicolle Liu, “Hong Kong will sit on China’s lap”:

  • China has tightened its control over Hong Kong, seriously eroding its autonomy.

  • Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms have been severely curtailed.

Quoted in Sanger, New York Times:

  • Refers to quote about Xi Jinping’s ambitions in the Sanger article.

Demetri Sevastopulo and Tom Mitchell, “Bitter summit shows no reset in chilly US-China relations”:

  • The Biden-Xi summit did not lead to any significant improvement in US-China relations.
  • Tensions remain high between the two powers.

David Smith, “How Tucker Carlson and the far right embraced Hungary’s authoritarian leader”:

  • Tucker Carlson and other American right-wing figures have praised Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian populism.
  • Shows the American far-right’s attraction to illiberal democracies.

Martin Donai, “Political outsider prepares to take on Orban”:

  • Discusses the opposition candidate seeking to unseat Orban in Hungary’s elections.

Bryan Harris and Michael Pooler, “Bolsonaro tests Brazilian democracy”:

  • Bolsonaro is eroding Brazilian democracy through his attacks on institutions and embrace of authoritarianism.

Laura Pitel and Funja Guler, “Turkish opposition leader helps shape unlikely alliance to challenge Erdoğan”:

  • Discusses the Turkish opposition attempting to unite to defeat Erdogan’s ruling party.

Jonathan Ames, “Boris Johnson plans to let ministers throw out legal rulings”:

  • Johnson wants to give ministers more power to disregard court rulings, undermining judicial checks on executive power.

  • Covid-19 pandemic severely impacts Brazil, the Philippines, and the global economy

  • Military coup in Myanmar in 2021 overthrows elected government

  • Brexit motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment; led by Boris Johnson

  • China’s growing power and human rights abuses, especially against Uighurs

  • Democratic erosion under authoritarian leaders like Erdoğan in Turkey, Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro in Brazil

  • Expansion of Israeli settlements under Netanyahu

  • Modi promotes Hindu nationalism in India

  • Orbán consolidates power in Hungary, undermines democratic institutions

  • Populist leaders use social media to directly reach supporters

  • Putin’s Russia seen as threat to liberal democracies and world order

  • Rise of right-wing nationalism and xenophobia in Europe and elsewhere

  • Trump pursues “America First” agenda, disrupts alliances and institutions

  • Xi Jinping strengthens control in China, expands regional influence

Here is a summary of the key points about the populist leaders and countries covered in the book:

  • Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - Former mayor of Istanbul, now president. Islamist and nationalist. Curtailed press freedom and judicial independence, jailed opponents. Close to Putin.

  • Hungary’s Viktor Orbán - Right-wing populist prime minister since 2010. Eurosceptic and anti-immigration. Consolidated power over judiciary, media, academia. Close ties with Erdogan. Criticized by EU.

  • India’s Narendra Modi - Hindu nationalist, BJP leader, prime minister since 2014. Promotes Hindu nationalist policies, accused of intolerance of minorities and dissent. Tense relations with Pakistan. Closer ties with US and Israel.

  • Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman - Crown prince since 2017. Consolidated power, cracked down on critics. Social reforms while repressing activists. Responsible for Yemen war and Khashoggi murder.

  • China’s Xi Jinping - President since 2013. Consolidated power, no term limits. Increased party control, surveillance, detentions of Uyghurs. Assertive foreign policy, crackdowns in Hong Kong, coercion of Taiwan.

  • Russia’s Vladimir Putin - President since 2012, after earlier terms. Repressive of critics, controls media, rigged elections. Annexed Crimea, intervened in Ukraine and Syria. Meddled in foreign elections.

  • US’s Donald Trump - 45th president (2017-2021). “America First” nationalist. False claims of election fraud led to Capitol riot. Anti-immigrant policies, disrupted alliances, praised autocrats.

  • The book examines the rise of authoritarian leaders and illiberal democracies in the 21st century, including Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, and Orbán in Hungary.

  • Several factors have enabled their rise, including globalization and its discontents, the decline of liberal values, nostalgic nationalism, social media, and weakening checks and balances.

  • Putin has cultivated a strongman image and used nationalism and propaganda to consolidate power. Under him, Russia has become increasingly authoritarian.

  • Erdogan has been eroding Turkish democracy through measures like jailing opponents, controlling the media, and undermining secularism. He has appealed to religious conservatives.

  • Modi is leading India towards majoritarianism and intolerance of minorities. He has stoked Hindu nationalism and weakened independent institutions.

  • Bolsonaro has attacked minorities, praised dictatorship, and enabled deforestation in Brazil. He uses social media to bypass the press and spread “fake news.”

  • Duterte has carried out a violent anti-drug crackdown in the Philippines while making misogynistic comments and targeting critics. He has high popularity.

  • Orbán has undermined Hungary’s democracy, media, and judiciary. He espouses an ideology of “illiberal democracy” and uses anti-immigration rhetoric.

  • The book also examines leaders like Netanyahu in Israel, Trump in the US, and Johnson in the UK as part of wider democratic backsliding trends.

Here is a summary of the key points related to those page numbers:

  • Chinese policy and attitudes (pp. 3, 68, 70, 210, 211) - Discussion of China’s policies, rise as a global power, and tensions with the West. References to Chinese nationalism and anti-Western sentiment.

  • “Economic” issues (p. 209) - Brief reference to economic nationalism and protectionism.

  • Ethiopia (pp. 174, 175) - Mention of Ethiopia’s economic growth and development under an authoritarian government.

  • Hindu nationalism in India (pp. 5, 15, 49, 75, 76, 77, 78, 84, 85, 224) - Multiple references to the ideology and policies of Hindu nationalism under Modi’s government.

  • Nostalgia and populism (pp. 15, 18, 21, 189, 229) - Points about nostalgia for the past and links to populist politics/leaders.

  • Populist leaders and movements (pp. 8, 137, 187, 197, 211, 228, 230) - References to rise of populist leaders and tactics around the world.

  • George Soros as target (pp. 199, 200, 203, 207, 210) - Descriptions of Soros as vilified by populist leaders and conspiracy theories against him.

Here is a summary of the key points about Rousseff, Dilma; Roxas, Mar; Rudd, Kevin; Ruddy, Chris; Rusesabagina, Paul; and Russia:

  • Dilma Rousseff was president of Brazil from 2011 to 2016 when she was impeached.

  • Mar Roxas was a candidate in the 2016 Philippine presidential election, losing to Rodrigo Duterte.

  • Kevin Rudd was prime minister of Australia from 2007 to 2010 and again briefly in 2013.

  • Chris Ruddy is CEO of Newsmax and a friend of Donald Trump.

  • Paul Rusesabagina is a Rwandan humanitarian who sheltered refugees during the Rwandan genocide.

  • Russia under Putin has seen increased authoritarianism, human rights abuses, interference in foreign elections, and tensions with the West, but also economic growth and rising global influence. Key events include the 1917 Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

Here is a summary of the key points about the United States:

  • Economy: Protectionist policies under Trump, issues with Rust Belt and manufacturing decline.

  • Ethiopia: Provides foreign aid and support to the government.

  • Exceptionalism: Idea of America being unique and exceptional is challenged by Trump.

  • Fox News: Right-wing news network that supports Trump.

  • Germany: Key ally but tensions over defense spending and trade under Trump.

  • Hatred of George Soros: Seen by right as funding liberal causes.

  • India: Growing strategic and economic partner but some trade frictions.

  • The Philippines: Controversial alliance with Duterte government.

  • Population: Aging population presents fiscal challenges.

  • Republican Party: Trump reshapes party, nativist and populist direction.

  • Russia: Attempted election interference causes tensions, but Trump seeks cooperation.

  • Rust Belt: Manufacturing decline key issue, aided Trump victory.

  • Carl Schmitt: His ideas about strong executive power appeal to some Trump advisors.

  • Biden: Defeated Trump in 2020 election, aiming to overturn his policies.

  • Trump: Anti-establishment figure, right-wing populism, challenge to liberal order.

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