Look around the world today and one sees the emergence of strongman rulers in nations of various political stripes. We often like to call it populism, but is it really? And if so, what is causing the spread of “populism” around the world? At the forefront of these movements is a strongman ruler.
We can find some commonalities and relate them to the United States. In eastern Europe, it revolves around a sense of national sovereignty and especially affects the middle class who find themselves in a precarious situation which they blame on globalization “personified” by the EU. In Asia, whose democracies are considerably younger and who have largely benefited from globalization, it is the growing middle classes who clamor for protection through a tough leader and a stop to placating minorities and Western cultural influences. For example, Hindu nationalism in India is on the rise, South Korea has a president who rules with an iron fist, and the Philippines has a president who openly endorses death squads.
The situation in the United States is subtly different, but the dynamics share some things. Here, it is broadly the middle class, but with a racial component thrown in. In effect, they perceive themselves as the forgotten class left behind by globalization, adrift in a world of lessened national power, and forced to the marginal edges of culture.
Democracy’s health and economics are inextricably entwined and democracy starts to unwind when there is a threat to prosperity. Germany never survived these threats in the 1930’s. Sadly, growth is collapsing at the very time more people than ever before in world history are becoming prosperous. Equally important, now more than ever people are becoming unaccustomed to being deprived of that prosperity. Fear of loss grows exponentially with the growth of wealth- that is an economic maxim called loss aversion. With greater prosperity comes greater demands on governments to protect that prosperity.
Technology has played a role. At the click of a mouse anyone can now weigh in on any number of subjects anonymously. As a result, what was once prestigious- politicians, the media, academia- are now seen as obsolete. Today, people view the media as not reporters of news, but as gatekeepers checking opinions for political correctness. As someone once said: healthy mistrust can quickly turn into pathological contempt. With our elected leaders, people start to question who the leaders really represent- the voters or themselves?
This has created an international backlash against the elite who scolded us that globalization is the only way forward. Whether on the right or left, globalization is always criticized for it’s lack of democracy. But we’ve been spoon-fed the belief that we can have it both ways- globalization and national sovereignty. In fact, you cannot. You cannot negotiate a multinational trade agreement where all the partners have potentially 20 different sets of consumer protection, labor and environmental laws and fully expect 20 countries to rewrite their laws to conform to the trade agreement. That is a loss of sovereignty and what is fueling the anti-EU fervor in Europe. It is also what is fueling opposition to the TPP here. To the left, those other countries are not adapting to our laws and protections (the Sanders-Warren view). To the right, we are surrendering national sovereignty in the name of free trade (the Trumpkin view).
The whole dynamic translates into a national sense of losing control over one’s fate. We are at the mercy of forces beyond our control and those forces were set into motion by the so-called elites.
If democracy is to be saved, it is not sufficient to state that there is anger out there. Donald Trump and other strongman leaders are not necessarily manipulating the dynamics, but they certainly take advantage of it. Today, anti-elitism is the new populism and that is manifested in the rise of the authoritarian leader.
Looking at commonalities between these various movements, one can tell they have taken the language of revolt and “revolution” from the left. The existing system is so “rigged” that an alternative is the only answer. That alternative invariably boils down to the promise of a new political order and governance without compromise, or institutional obstructions. It is a bizarre sort of direct democracy filtered through a single person confirmed by a vote. The leaders say, “I feel your pain; put your trust in me. You will regain power that has been taken from you by the elites.” And as an aside, they will say, “The only way this can be done is through an strong leader who must and shall shatter all those things elite- political parties, the media, the courts, the Washington cartel, etc.”
With the end of the Cold War, there was a false perception that democracy had defeated the last potent opponent of liberty. Only the shape and form of the authoritarian leader has changed, but they never went away because a concrete wall fell in Berlin.
Whether we are talking about the United States, Sweden, Hungary or India, the unspoken question in everyone’s mind- and the one that is scary- is whether we have pushed democracy and liberalization too far? It does not take a genius to step in and answer that question for a susceptible electorate. For false promises of “protection,” people are becoming willing to surrender liberties.
Trump is a paradoxical character- both a genius and not a genius. He is not one given his childish speech patterns, his lack of knowledge and his simplistic solutions to complex matters. His proposals are erratic at best. But, he has changed the rules of the game. Today, the more honestly politicians speak about the complexity of issues and the their personal limitations, the more they open themselves to attack.
For example, take Paul Ryan considered one of the best politicians when it comes to policy. In fact, he is considered a policy “wonk,” thus thrusting himself into the elite category. As leader of the House and the GOP, he must also get legislation passed which sometimes involves making deals with the opposition because of his own limitations. Considering the above- an honest discussion of the complexity of issues coupled with personal limitations on getting a full conservative agenda passed- Ryan becomes an obvious target of Trump’s strongman leadership rhetoric. Along the way, Trump sees the GOP, epitomized by Ryan, as one of those institutions that must fall.
James Fallows, a journalist, once noted: “Liberal democracies like ours depend on rules but also on norms—on the assumption that you’ll go so far, but no further, to advance your political ends.” Trump shreds those norms. The very notion that Trump has violated so many norms on so many levels is frightening. Most pundits state that Trump has 50 million core supporters who will vote for him. That’s 50 million Americans who condone the breaking of these norms and that is potentially more frightening.
Trump’s commitment to freedoms enshrined in the Constitution is dubious at best. If we assume the worst, the Constitution would have no meaning. Of course, one cannot really follow Trump’s train of thought given his stream of consciousness ramblings. But, the evidence is not encouraging. Should Trump win the presidency, he will see that victory as a mandate and vindication of his style and his “policies” and act accordingly come hell or high water and Constitution be damned.
Democracy has it’s flaws for sure, but it is the only system that becomes stronger through internal criticism. As democracy becomes more complicated, the more precise that criticism must become. We cannot revert to simpler times and use old ways of thinking to combat the rise of authoritarianism. When you have Governors (Paul LePage) arguing that we need an authoritarian leader like Trump or a presidential candidate praising the strongman, iron-fist autocratic rule of people like Putin, then the words of Nikita Kruschev ring more true: The Soviet Union will not destroy America; we will destroy ourselves.
Nowhere is democracy more entrenched than in the United States. We have been a constitutional republic for over two centuries and have endured many events that would have killed lesser nations. But, the rise of a person like Donald Trump and the fact he will get at least 50 million votes proves that our democracy is a fragile institution. When the choices at the end were an authoritarian strongman wannabe, a thoroughly corrupt and untrustworthy career politician, and an avowed socialist- and if that is the best our political system can offer- then the prognosis is not optimistic.