In what is both a compelling and controversial work on events and personalities of our times, Financial Times chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman vividly chronicles some of the recent and more colorful world leaders in "The Age of the Strongman."
In many ways, Rachman is the lineal heir to U.S. political correspondent John Franklin Carter, and "The Age of the Strongman" is a contemporary version of Carter's 1935 work "American Messiahs."
Writing under the pseudonym "The Unofficial Observer," Carter's "Messiahs" characterized such political powers on the left and right in the U.S. as Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge, "Radio Priest" Father Charles Coughlin, socialist gubernatorial candidate and author Upton Sinclair of California, and, of course, Louisiana's Sen. Huey P. Long.
Rachman's "messiahs" are on the world stage. Donald Trump (U.S.), Viktor Orban (Hungary), Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel), Norendra Modi (India), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), and even heavy-handed African leaders such as Rwandan President Paul Kagame all come to life through Rachman's pen and from his years of covering most of them personally and up close.
With some out of power (for now) — Trump, Duterte, Netanyahu — Rachman's "strong men" are inarguably forces to be reckoned with.
Fueled by voter disgust with traditional politicians and through polarizing issues such as illegal immigration ("Hungary For Hungarians" is a slogan of Orban's Fidesz Party) and political correctness (especially animosity toward the LGBTQ agenda), the strong men have been coming to power worldwide and through the ballot box for the last 10 years.
As part of his thesis that these leaders are operating authoritarian regimes and tolerate little dissent, Rachman traces their genesis to Vladimir Putin. "The archetype," as the author dubs Putin, came to power in Russia 22 years ago and, recent developments in Ukraine notwithstanding, reigns supreme today.
"An idealized version of Putin's Russia has become an inspiration," Rachman quotes author Anne Applebaum, "for right-wing intellectuals, now deeply critical of their own societies, who have begun paying court to right-wing dictators who dislike America."
Analogies between elected strongmen in Europe and the Western hemisphere to China's Xi Jinping are also made.
"Wang Oishan, Xi's trusted ally … liked to shake up foreigners by boasting of the numbers he had sent to jail … 'It's over a million.' "
Ren Zhigiang, a party member and real estate tycoon, "published an open letter accusing the Communist Party of incompetence and condemning the stupidity of the great leader." For this, the reader learns, Ren was sentenced to 18 years in prison on corruption charges.
As much as Trump, Netanyahu, Modi, and other democratically-elected strongmen may inveigh against their enemies, it is definitely a reach to picture them arbitrarily imposing harsh prison sentences on those who criticize them.
Rachman focuses particular attention on Hungary's Orban and his self-styled "illiberal democracy." This was of particular interest to me, having spent a week in Budapest last October. Under the Orban government, unemployment dropped from 4.3 percent in July of 2021 to 3.5 percent in July of this year, and Hungary's flat tax remains at 15%.
"With a two-thirds parliamentary majority behind him," writes Rachman, "Orban was steadily eroding the country's independent institutions as he brought the courts, media, civil service, universities, and cultural institutions under the control of his party." (The author failed to say just how he has done this; whether he used strong-arm tactics or simply enacted legislation.)
To the Orban administration's assertion that there is an active opposition press and that "independent newspapers and other media continued to oppose and to criticize the government," the author counters that "the government's core constituency outside the big cities was much more likely to get its news straight from the main television stations."
Unmentioned is that all of Orban's opponents — from former communists to the virulently antisemitic Jobbik Party — joined forces last year in a "grand coalition" whose common denominator was hatred for the three-term prime minister. Their joining of forces notwithstanding, Orban's Fidesz Party emerged triumphant for a fourth time.
This was unique, as strongmen usually fall in a democratic system when their enemies join forces. Cases in point are the coalitions that last year deposed Netanyahu in Israel and the Czech Republic's Orban-like Prime Minister Andrej Babis.
Another question raised by the author is when one political party democratically wins a two-thirds "supermajority" of seats in a Parliament or Congress (Orban's Fidesz and Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party), does that constitute a threat to democracy?
How different is that, the reader wonders, from FDR's Democrats holding two-thirds majority of both Houses of Congress from 1933-39 to enact landmark social legislation and having the presidency to sign it into law?
And does Italy, which has not had an elected prime minister in a decade, have a better form of government with an unelecred leader than one that has been elected?
It's ironic that the government of Italy's last unelected Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, recently collapsed and new elections this fall are likely to result in a nationalist government coming to power, with Giorgia Meloni of the nationalist Brothers of Italy becoming the "strong woman" of Rome.
It would appear that Netanyahu is on the comeback trail in the coming Israeli elections in November. Both Trump and soon-to-be former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson talk seriously with close associates of returning to power.
From Italy to Tunisia, there are nationalist movements and accompanying "strongmen" (or women) on the rise. That is additional incentive to read "The Age of the Strongman," and perhaps suggest a second volume in a few years.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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