Trump, Duterte and the Resurgence of Strongmen


Trump, Duterte and the Resurgence of Strongmen

Illustration: Akshita Monga

If you somehow find yourself using a whole lot of abusive language these days and rolling your sleeves higher than usual, don’t be alarmed. Aggression is in the air and “strongmen” are the new pin-up boys. I use the inverted commas because facts don’t really show that they are strong, but their actions are there for all to see – they bear down on the population, love to destroy institutions, and have a penchant for anything that has to do with violence.

Often, they come with expletive-laden language. Do you know that dude from the Philippines, who didn’t even spare the Pope and POTUS with his favourite “son of a whore” insult? Yeah, that one. His folks seem to love him because he is intent on killing lots of people – drug dealers, he says – and has proudly compared this to Hitler’s elimination of the Jews in Europe.

A long way backward the world has come, huh? The man of the hour, Donald Trump, moved a whole nation with his abuses and transgressions and his popularity seemed to increase, as his antics got more absurd. Mind you, we are talking democratic support and not forced loyalty like in Saddam’s Iraq or Gaddafi’s Libya.

It would be easy to write off Trump and Duterte as outré samples instead of an evident shift to a perverted form of leadership more in tune with Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin, he of the bare-chest fame, is lauded roundly for the strong, decisive actions we seem to love these days. What a strongman he is, everyone seems to say, including my cousin who is impressed by Vladimir’s invasion of Ukraine and Syria. “See, he is teaching the United States some manners. He is gaining respect.” And no, my cousin does not see reason when I tell him that under Vladimir’s stewardship, the Russian economy has contracted and his government is bankrupt enough to deplete even its rainy-day fund. In fact, big badass Vladimir had to go with a begging bowl to China, an erstwhile Cold War rival, to seal energy deals at unfavourable terms. But, Vladimir’s subjects are happy, if the Kremlin media is to be believed. So is my cousin.

Some time back, Vladimir had a tiff with another rabble-rouser – the self-styled hero, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan, the kingpin of Turkey, is a strongman who came to power democratically and focused on the economy for eight years. But, all that has now gone down the drain. He appears more obsessed with closing down newspapers, rounding up “traitors”, and bashing up whoever does not toe the line. And that line can be dicey. Well, he is now baying for blood of an ally-turned-foe cooling his heels in the United States. To nobody’s surprise, Erdogan and Vladimir are now slowly thinking of getting into bed.

Unfortunately, this love affair with strongmen is slowly catching up in India, a country that has taken significant strides since the dark days of the Emergency.

If you’re thinking, “Who cares about far-out Russia?” then I’ll have you know that the narrative of these strongmen is playing out uncomfortably close to home. Since Xi Jinping took power in China, he has been doing two things – purging his party of opponents and sharpening China’s claim on the whole of South China Sea (all this amid talks of peaceful coexistence that ironically includes shielding a Frankenstein created by one of its minions). China is so focused on its system of economic development without a strong voice for its people that it has even stopped pretending that it is a communist country and embraced its identity as a dictatorship that encourages capitalism along with state domination.

Unfortunately, this love affair with strongmen is slowly catching up in India, a country that has taken significant strides since the dark days of the Emergency. Have you seen how people exchange high-pitched rants about surgical strikes and honesty certificates, egged on by a vitriolic social media? Boasts of a 56-inch chest can contribute to an election victory while criticism through cartoons may place you behind bars. Our feudal politics with its clamour for the divine right to rule for entrenched political families has added to this mess. Rhetoric has replaced policy; radical opinion laced with insults has replaced debate. Loud television debates and an opinionated media – a child can tell which media house sides with whom – has dented the press’s hard-won victories for freedom over the years.

The rise of strongmen who vouch for economic credentials – much unfounded – without regard for political rights is also a measure of how much the world has changed. Today, the world is more in love with high-growth economics, rather than distribution of income or the price for affluence paid in environmental and political terms. We want more money to buy the next big gadget or flaunt our next luxury vacation on social media; a little less “voice” in our political process appears to be an acceptable sacrifice. Unfortunately, those who have been left behind in this affluence race have hardened their positions, either to the extreme Left or Right. Faltering political leadership in the West, especially in Europe, has fuelled the fire further. Brexit was not a bad dream; it’s a reality.

So, on November 8, whether Donald Trump wins the election or not, the fact that should worry you more is that he got this close. He may well eventually lose, but the state of the world pretty much guarantees that another will take his place very soon. And this one may come without a call for pussy grabbing and we may not find it so easy to take him down.