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6/2/16

The Law Of The Jungle: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the lure of the strongman - by Gideon Rachman

The rise of Donald Trump has been accompanied by predictable murmurs of “only in America”. But the Trump phenomenon is better understood as part of a global trend: the return of the “strongman” leader in international politics.

"Don't Forget - I am always Right."
Rather than leading the way, America has arrived late at this dispiriting party. Historians might one day highlight the year 2012 as the turning point. In May of that year Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin as president of Russia. A few months later Xi Jinping was installed as general secretary of the Chinese Communist party.

Both Mr Putin and Mr Xi replaced uncharismatic leaders — Dmitry Medvedev and Hu Jintao — and moved swiftly to establish a new style of leadership. Compliant media were encouraged to build up a cult of personality, emphasising the strength and patriotism of the new man at the top.

The trend that began in Russia and China quickly became visible in other countries. In July 2013 there was a coup in Egypt, which resulted in the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood and the emergence of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief, as the country’s new strongman leader. The following year Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had already served 11 years as prime minister, was elected president of Turkey.

He immediately moved to strengthen the presidency, marginalized other leading politicians and cracked down on the media.

The Erdogan phenomenon demonstrates that democracies are not immune to the lure of the strongman. Mr Erdogan is an instinctive authoritarian but he won power through elections. Narendra Modi, who was elected prime minister of India in 2014, ran a campaign based around his own strength and dynamism, promising to reverse years of drift under the mild-mannered leadership of Manmohan Singh. In Hungary, Viktor Orban, an elected prime minister, has demonstrated strong authoritarian tendencies.

This global trend is gathering pace. Last week, the Philippines elected as president a populist wild man, Rodrigo Duterte — widely known as Duterte Harry — replacing the cautious technocratic, Benigno Aquino.

And then there is Mr Trump. Americans might flinch at the idea that US politics has anything in common with the Philippines or Russia. But, in fact, Mr Trump — who looks certain to secure the Republican presidential nomination — exhibits many of the characteristics of the current crop of strongman leaders, including Messrs Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Sisi, Modi, Orban and Duterte.

All these men have promised to lead a national revival through the force of their personalities and their willingness to ignore liberal niceties. In many cases, the promise of decisive leadership is backed up by a willingness — sometimes explicit, sometimes implied — to use illegal violence against enemies of the state.

“Duterte Harry” has played up his links with vigilante gangs. Mr Putin’s use of brutal tactics in the second Chechen war was well known to Russian voters. Mr Modi’s alleged role in a 2002 massacre in his home state of Gujarat was sufficiently controversial to get him banned from the US for many years.

Mr Sisi secured his grip on power with a massacre on the streets of Cairo. And, even in the law-governed US, Mr Trump has promised to torture terrorists and murder their family members.

Strongman leadership usually goes hand-in-hand with extreme sensitivity to criticism. In both the Putin and Xi presidencies there have been crackdowns on freedom of speech. In Turkey, Mr Erdogan has sued almost 2,000 people for defamation. Mr Trump misses few opportunities to insult the media and has said that he would like to make it easier for politicians to sue the press.

Typically, strongman leaders trade on feelings of insecurity, fear and frustration. Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan have portrayed Russia and Turkey as surrounded by enemies. Mr Sisi has promised to rescue Egypt from terrorism. Mr Xi and Mr Modi have capitalised on ordinary people’s frustrations with corruption and inequality. The Trump campaign has incorporated elements of all these themes, promising to reverse national decline and get tough with criminals and foreigners.

At a time when Barack Obama, the US president, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, are both cautious, deliberative internationalists, the risk-taking nationalism of Mr Putin has attracted admirers in China, the Arab world and even the west.

Mr Trump and Mr Putin seem to have formed something of a mutual admiration society. Strongman leaders often get on very well — at least initially. But because their relationships are based on a shared style and swagger, rather than underlying principle, they also often fall out spectacularly.

Mr Erdogan used to have close relationships with Mr Putin and with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria but these have turned into bitter enmities. Further back in history, the 1939 pact between Hitler and Stalin gave way within two years to war between Germany and the Soviet Union.

The alarming truth is that the impact of strongman leaders is rarely confined within national borders. All too often, the undercurrent of violence that they introduce into domestic politics spills over on to the international stage.

Read more: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the lure of the strongman - FT.com

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