A weakness for ‘strongmen’

Trevor Grundy on a new book in which five noted writers offer portraits, both amusing and alarming, of five global leaders who are wooing voters away from liberalism

Until recently, progressives believed the retreat of liberal democracy after the end of the Cold War would be like water running uphill. ‘There is no coherent alternative to liberal democracy,’ wrote Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History (1992).

But the Marxist historian Vijay Prashad, who edited Strongmen, a timely book about a handful of the world’s top-dog, so-called ‘strongmen’, counters with a verbal punch from Antonio Gramsci who said in his Prison Notebooks, ‘The crisis consists in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum, a great deal of morbid symptoms appear.’

An even better quote describing the present time comes from George Orwell who wrote in his 1940 essay Inside the Whale: ‘We are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorship – an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction. The autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence.’

In an age of confusion and the collapse of age-old religious and moral beliefs, the danger is not a small amount of water flowing upstream.Rather, it is the threat of a secular tsunami and the arrival of an era that provides opportunities for the emergence of truly weak, self-proclaimed ‘strongmen’ who, says Prashad,‘hide behind ugly rhetoric that befuddles the masses but who are little more than cowardly when it comes to social reality’.

Media- and big money-invented nonentities spring from nowhere to become national leaders, even presidents, like France’s Emmanuel Macron. They jump onto the backs of fast-moving forms of strident nationalism, wave flags, make promises, inspire weary souls and grow obscenely rich while promising a better life for the poor.

Parallels with 1930s’ Europe abound. While there is, of course, a danger in drawing too many links between then and now, some do exist and can be seen in this enthralling examination of five strongmen rulers: Donald Trump (the US), Narendra Modi (India), Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), Vladimir Putin (Russia) and Rodrigo Duterne (the Philippines).

Each section of the book is a timely, well thought out and sometimes amusing send-up of the new generation of Adolf and Benito wannabes.The five writers are the American playwright Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues), who believes America is suffering from a virus in the form of a chubby man with orange hair; Danish Husain, the banker turned actor and poet who muses on the subject of Narendra Modi; the Turkish novelist and author of Istanbul, Istanbul, Burhan Sönmez; Russian-American writer Lara Vapnyar and the Filipina novelist, Ninotchka Rosca.

As the publisher’s blurb tells us, these essays do not presume to be neutral. They are by partisan thinkers and writers, people who see not only the monsters but a possible future beyond the ghouls.

Although readers can enjoy the authors’injections of humour and mockery into these sketches of men who now rule so many parts of the world with disregard for any interest but their own and their immediate family and friends (in America and so many parts of Asia and Africa, the son-in-law also rises), we should remember that it is not enough to mock, as the British satirical magazine Private Eye does every fortnight.
If it’s true that we are edging towards a new kind of global fascism, we need to know much more about where it went after the Second World War, where it’s hiding now and what conditions make it bubble up from under the Earth, like one of those rivers in Africa that disappear during drought and then, decades later, suddenly and terrifyingly swiftly rise again in another part of the continent, with people asking, ‘Where did this come from?’
Nationalism is on the rise. So, like it or not, we must deal with the phenomenon.If we want to win the political battles, advises Yascha Mounk in his new book The People vs. Democracy, ‘we need to fight for the interpretation of what that nationalism should look like rather than running away from nationalism altogether’.
More books like Strongmen are needed. More and more ‘strongmen’ (and women) need to be examined if we are anxious to enter the second half of the century speaking, thinking, feeling.

Little known commentators of great worth often turn their talents towards small magazines where they feel free to express themselves in a way they cannot in the international print media.In the mid-September issue of the Canadian online magazine Cold Type, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Christopher Hedges warned of another banking/financial crisis that will make the last one – a decade ago – look like a vicar’s tea party.With interest rates at next to zero, he warns that ‘the elites will have no escape plan. The financial structure will disintegrate. The global economy will go into a death spiral. The rage of a betrayed and impoverished population will further empower right-wing demagogues who promise vengeance on the global elites, moral renewal, a nativist revival heralding a return to a mythical golden age when immigrants, women and people of colour knew their place, and a Christianised fascism.’

Christianised fascism – an oxymoron if ever there was one. Strongmen part two, please.


Trevor Grundy is an English journalist who lived and worked in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa from 1966-1996

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