Are We Entering The Era Of “The Strongman?”

Mar 9th, 2019 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

One of the major political struggles of our day is whether nations are embracing a democratic order, centered in the will of the people, or an authoritarian one, characterized by a strongman who satisfies the demand for a more muscular, assertive leader.  After World War II, the optimistic vision was of a more democratic, open world with free trade, open borders and empowered citizens throughout the world.  That vision appears to be dead.  In fact, some would argue that the world is embracing a more authoritarian order (e.g., Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, and Erdogan’s Turkey).

This trend toward authoritarianism has caused me to think of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008).  Born in 1918, Solzhenitsyn was raised Russian Orthodox, but converted to Marxism-Leninism in a Soviet school.  Trained as a scientist, he was drafted into the Russian army in 1941 to fight Hitler.  By 1945, he was a captain.  In a private letter to a school friend, he referred to the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin as the “mustachioed one.”  The secret police got the letter and he was thrown into a concentration camp for eight years.  This horrific federal prison system was called the Gulag.  There Solzhenitsyn was challenged by Christians who maintained their faith in such barbaric conditions.  That faith challenged his atheism.  In the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn came to faith in Christ.  He began “writing in his head” about this barbarism.  In 1953, the Soviets released him and he began to write about the Gulag’s horrors.  His famous One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a typical day in the Gulag, based on his own experience.  In other books, he recounted how the Bolshevik Revolution led to over 60 million deaths.  In 1970, he was awarded the Noble Prize for literature.  His multi-volume The Gulag Archipelago documented communism’s brutality that led to the slaughter of millions with dimensions making it on par with the Nazi Holocaust.  He was openly challenging the Soviet state. Thus, in 1974, Solzhenitsyn was stripped of his citizenship and banished from the Soviet Union; he took up residence in Vermont.  Solzhenitsyn, invited to address Harvard University in 1978, chastised the West for abandoning its Christian heritage, which had been its moral compass for centuries.  The West had not lost God to tyranny, but had abandoned Him to materialism and decadence.

Solzhenitsyn wrote graphically of the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism.  His writing and moral leadership helped bring down the Soviet Union.  But his critique of the West, with its democratic heritage sourced in Christianity, was not spared.  He demonstrated the need for the Christianity’s ethical standards and personal morality for a democratic order to work.  We have not heeded his challenge.

The United States was created in the summer of 1787 as a republic, not a pure, majoritarian democracy.  Political power is separated into three branches of government and the people elect their representatives (based on population in the House and equal state representation in the Senate).  As James Madison envisioned, these representatives are subject to rules and institutions as well as accountability to the people.  There is a built in system of checks and balances to guard against tyranny and authoritarian rule.  But if the institutional checks and balances seem to be limiting the will of the people, they might turn to a strongman who will smash these institutions and “rule directly on the people’s behalf.”  The appeal of a strongman who will denigrate the institutional checks and balances of a republic is at the center of the emergence of populism in America and in other nations.  American populism has generated Donald Trump but is also generating the progressive left within the Democratic Party.  Both the populism of Trump and that of the progressive left argue that an elite conspiracy is subverting the will of the people.  Only a champion, a strongman, is the solution.  Many see Trump as that “strongman.”  The emerging socialism of the progressive left is looking for a similar strongman.

Is there evidence that other parts of the world are turning to strongmen?  Consider the evidence:

  • Vladimir Putin is clearly constructing an authoritarian state supported by the twin pillars of Russian Orthodoxy and a corrupt bureaucracy dedicated to him and him alone.
  • Xi Jinping is doing the same in China. An Ian Bremmer has argued, Xi is “consolidating power on a historic scale.  He has announced the dawn of a ‘new era’ for China, or a golden age of expansion that will bring his country to the global center stage.  And recently, he erased presidential term limits.  The era of rule by party consensus is finished, at least for now.”
  • In the Philippines, a recent election brought Rodrigo Duterte to power, who is ruling more “like a Mob boss than a President.”
  • In Latin America, strongmen have emerged in Nicaragua with Daniel Ortega, ruling as a virtual dictator. And, of course, in Venezuela we have the brutal and inept Nicolas Maduro.
  • In the Middle East, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has consolidated near authoritarian power in Egypt. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is “replacing elite consensus in the Saud clan, with authoritarian control.”
  • In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees himself as reviving sultanate rule over his country.  He is manipulating Turkey’s political system to remain in power.
  • In Europe, Hungary’s Viktor Orban has turned his nation into an increasingly authoritarian one, arguing that the principle threat to Hungary is those who advocate Western democracy.

In virtually all of these nations, those in power limit citizen access to the Internet and other social media sites, all of which these leaders consider dangerous to national security.  Both Russia and China, for example, keep their citizens in the dark when it comes to much of the Internet or content on the Internet that each deems threatening.  There is no freedom of the press and there is little access to sites critical of these regimes.

As Ian Bremmer so correctly observes, “Perhaps the most worrying element of the strongman’s rise is the message it sends . . . Why emulate the US or European political systems, with all the checks and balances that prevent even the most determined leaders from taking on chronic problems, when one determined leader can offer a credible shortcut to greater security and national pride?”  In short, democracies and republics are turning to strongmen for pragmatic reasons:  They get things done.  A corollary to this mindset is a willingness to surrender basic rights and liberties because of the strongman’s pragmatic accomplishments.  The greatest threat to this reality is the strongman yet to come.  The Bible speaks much of a strongman to come who will pragmatically solve problems all the while gaining incredible power.  He is called by various names:  “the little horn” of Daniel 2 and 7; the “abominable one” of Daniel 9:27 and Matthew 24:15; the Beast” of Revelation 13; and the antichrist of 1 John 2:18.  Jesus says that his deceit and shrewdness will be so powerful and compelling that even the elect could be tricked into following him (Matthew 24:11, 23-24).   He will be the ultimate “Strongman.”

See Max Fisher and Amanda Taub in the New York Times (22 January 2019); and Ian Bremmer, “Welcome to the Strongman Era,” in Time (14 May 2018), pp. 43-45.

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