Putin, Xi, Modi, Assad welcome to the world of the strongmen as western will to act begins to crumble

At the end of January, unless something really strange happens, all four major powers in the world will be ruled by authoritarian figures. Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Narendra Modi in India and Donald Trump in the US.

What explains the rise of the strongman, or female? Why is liberal democracy being tested in so many countries by rightwing demagogues who seem to care very little for the liberal component. Hungary and Poland can no longer be called liberal democracies. Forthcoming elections in France and the Netherlands will show whether an autocratic one-man party( Geert Wilderss Freedom party ), or an illiberal far-right party( Marine Le Pens Front National ), will cause upsets in western Europe.

The claim that people have the governments they deserve has always struck me as a little unfair. Russians didnt choose Stalin. Chairman Mao was never elected. Opposition against Putin never had much chance.

Nonetheless, the number of people craving a strongman may be larger than nice liberals, such as myself, like to admit. There might be a parallel to be drawn with the common desire for organised religion, which waxes and wanes but never vanishes. Not that every form of religious faith is inherently authoritarian. But most religions offer safety in numbers, a sense of belonging, a dream of salvation, if not in this life, then in the next, and the patriarchal reassurance that our future is in the good hands of wise deities and their representatives on Earth.

Strongmen and populist leaders rely on charisma more than expertise and well-thought-out policies. In days of stress, when large numbers of people fear the future for whatever reason, such leaders offer the same kind of reassurance that religious authority does. Expertise becomes at best an irrelevance and at worst a dirty word.

Sometimes, typical strongmen harness traditional religion to their causes. Modi came to power in India riding a wave of Hindu chauvinism. When he is not riding horses without his shirt on, Putin presents himself as the champ of Russian orthodoxy doing battle with the decadence of a degenerate west. Xis references to Confucianism may be half-hearted, but he too claims the mantle of a traditional Chinese ruler purging our own countries of noxious influences from the barbarian world.

Misguided western policies pushing the borders of Nato too far, too soon might have contributed to the successful branding of Putin as their own nationals saviour. And western intervention( Iraq ), or maybe lack of intervention( Syria ), has made a bloody mess of the Middle East, where dictators still flourish. The rise of China would have happened, whatever the western powers might have done.

Of all forms of modern dictatorship, the Chinese is perhaps the most insidious, because unlike the Soviet Union, it is so successful, at the least in a material sense. Even some provincial Chinese airports build JFK in New York City look like a relic of the developing world. Now that the US, under Trump, is likely to lose both the will and the credibility to protect its democratic allies, Chinas domination, at the least in Asia, will be unstoppable. To the Chinese, this is no more than a natural reversion to the old order, when peripheral people and barbarians needed to pay deference to the Middle Kingdoms rulers.

Some dictators Hitler, Mao became the gods of their own cult as a substitute for traditional religions. They, too, loathed trained experts and critics, who were treated as infidels to be burned at the stake, as it were.

Shanghai,
Shanghai, a emblem of Chinas material success. Photograph: Alamy

The decline of the western order has coincided with western democracies being managed by a variety of experts, or technocratic elites, who were less interested in projecting dreamings of the future, let alone salvation, than in observing bureaucratic solutions to immediate problems. The European union, it is true, rests on a postwar dream of peace and brotherhood, but it, too, is largely run by well-meaning bureaucrats who are failing to reassure anybody.

In a country of anxiety, many people no longer trust the experts. They want the consolation that only charismatic leadership can provide, the powerful father figure, “the mens” of dreams, the anti-establishment utopian who promises greatness once again. On the right, such leaders usually promise to purge the heathens too , not just the elitists and annoying critics, who think they are better than us, but unpopular minorities who are not like us.

Religion plays a role here too. In his examine of American democracy in the 19 th century, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that political liberty could only work in tandem with Christian morality. But merely as long as organised faith was kept separate from political authority.

This arrangement has worked for quite a long time. Organised religion provided an institutional source of solace, belonging, and hope, even or especially for the least privileged members of society. But this is now decreased. Hence, perhaps, the dangerous propensity to project the needs once catered to by religious faith on to secular leaders.

Religion still plays a more important part in most American lives than is common in Europe, to be sure. A US president still has to pretend to care about religion, even if he doesnt really devote a damn. And yet, even there, the rage against the elites, as arrogant, corrupt, and soulless( a common image of Hilary Clinton ), has collected such force-out than even religious people attempt a kind of salvation in ecstatic mass rallies adoring a shady business tycoon who has marriage three times, and grabs pussy. He may be a sinner, but he promises glorious things that no technocrat is available with. That so many people have fallen for it shows how deeply we have sunk.

Ian Buruma is prof of democracy and human rights at Bard College, New York. His books include Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance

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