Trump, Putin, Erdogan: Gideon Rachman’s typology of the authorcrats. – Politics
The recipe is the same everywhere: a cult of personality, contempt for the rule of law, claims to represent “common people,” and rhetoric that appeals to fear and nationalist emotions. These are the basic characteristics of the authoritarian rulers who, in the past twenty years from China to the USA – often against all expectations – have risen to the top of a large number of states. The British journalist Gideon Rachman calls them strongmen in his book, and in fact so far it has almost only been men who fit into this scheme and often present themselves as “men” to the point of ridiculousness, like Rodrigo Duterte on the Philippines bragging about acts of violence, Narendra Modi in India, who launched a satellite engraved with his portrait into space in 2001, or of course Vladimir Putin, who posed shirtless in Siberia as if he’d like to be with in his free time Brown bears wrestle. It is also because of this lack of restraint that Rachman identifies Vladimir Putin as the archetype of this politician, whose style, for example donald trump openly took as a role model.
State and officials are perceived as one
The strongmen are often, but not always, autocrats. In the German translation, the book is also called “The World of Autocrats”, which is a bit misleading. Because when introducing this term, Rachman is probably just about introducing a new category between democratically elected and democratically minded heads of state at one end of the spectrum and more or less open dictatorships at the other end. At first glance, it seems a bit strange that he considers both Putin and Boris Johnson in Great Britain and Jaroslaw Kaczyński in Poland to be strongmen. But it is just another trait of many of these strongmen that they pose as democratic but act autocratically, blurring the lines between forms of government. Until recently, Putin also presented Russia as a democracy and at the same time accused the West of not sticking to its own ideals. And of course, as many of these strongmen put it, only they can save their own nation from corrupt foreign forces: “The distinction between state and officials is blurring,” writes Rachman, “so that a replacement of the strongman dangerous and unthinkable by a mere mortal.”
In fact, the hallmark of many of these politicians, with the exception of Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and few others, is that they were at some point democratically elected. Because strongmen often not only claim to represent the “common people”, in many cases they also understand very well what at least one majority of the population would like to hear and how to reach those voters. It is best not to use arguments or facts, for strongmen these are only argumentative assets anyway, as Donald Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway involuntarily put it with her “alternative facts”. Emotions and “felt truths” are more important, and these are best addressed through social media. These media and their often hesitant handling of propaganda, fake news and hate have also contributed to the rise of these politicians.
The Ukraine war raises questions
After an introduction to the theory of strongmen, Rachman presents the representatives of this species from Putin to Abiy Ahmed in each individual chapter and, in addition to often funny anecdotes (Rachman has met many of these politicians personally in the course of his career), also provides a small history of the international dismantling of democracy in the past 20 years. Although he also addresses the war in Ukraine in a new foreword to the German edition, the book still raises a few unanswered questions after the events of that year.
Where would the Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko be located, for example, or the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, neither of whom have anything to do with democracy but share many characteristics of the strongmen? And is the newly elected Giorgia Meloni the first strongwoman in Italy? The categories don’t seem to fit, but this also has to do with the fact that this type of politician, after his rapid rise, seems to have gotten into a crisis again when Jair Bolsonaro was voted out of office in Brazil, and the inventor of this style is also responsible for this responsible: Wladimir Putin. Because the superimposition of the state and its person can quickly turn against the rulers if they make catastrophic and obvious wrong decisions like Putin with the invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, of course, it could also strengthen the strongman type in other countries if Putin can still point to successes in his war of aggression.
Check out methods and tricks
With his book, Rachman not only delivers the overdue characterization of a currently incredibly successful type of politician between democracy and autocracy – by not locating them on one side or the other, but in their own category, he makes them more tangible and understandable; their tricks and methods clearer. He also shows that there is a need for clarification when dealing with these politicians who, like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Xi Jinping or also Mohammed bin Salman, often generated as liberal reformers, only to slide further and further into autocracy. Because against politicians who build their careers primarily on provocations, lies and emotions, what helps above all are facts.