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Confusing populism with tyranny

Gideon Rachman fails to distinguish the strong from those who pretend to be


This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The greatest threat to human happiness is tyranny. Other dangers, such as Climate Change or Covid-19, may well be fearful, but tyranny does not merely end in the sometimes considerable extinction of life (consider the 45 million deaths caused by Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”). More than that, tyranny oppresses the human soul. No one in a tyranny is free, not even the tyrant: it is a society in which everyone is afraid, in which actions are guided by fear before truth or reason, and from which there is no escape. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has revealed the failure of the West to understand and contain tyrannical dictatorships. 

The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World, Gideon Rachman (The Bodley Head, £20)

Tyranny is a type of constitution where one individual controls a monopoly of power. For Plato, it was a state that actively maddens the tyrant. Part of the problem is not that tyrants are irrational, but that they are denied the information needed to make rational choices. Flatterers do not tell tyrants the truth (this may explain the poor intelligence informing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine). In a “court society” governed by fear, moral corruption is inevitable. As Mao’s doctor Li Zhisui put it: “Survival in China … depends on constantly betraying one’s conscience.” 

Following the deaths of Stalin in 1953 and Mao in 1976, a gradual move away from personalism to collective deliberation was visible even in authoritarian regimes, such as Russia or China. Tyrants stalked only the fringes of the political world, in Africa, Central Asia or North Korea. But in the last two decades personalism has increased. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are the prime models, facilitators and patrons for aspiring tyrants. 

Behind this failure to understand dictators is the belief that all governments and rulers are morally equivalent. The “removal of the moral component from foreign affairs” has been, as Russian dissident Garry Kasparov has argued, a “catastrophe”. This lack of moral clarity has contributed to, or is accompanied by, a malignant narcissism in the politics of democracies. 

A fair example of such narcissism is provided by the Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman in The Age of the Strongman. Rachman rightly points to the worrying global growth in personalist regimes but fails to distinguish between politicians in democracies and dictators. His definition of “strongmen” principally concerns ideology and leadership style: they are “typically … nationalists with little tolerance for minorities, dissent or the interests of foreigners”. Structural and constitutional differences are largely elided. He fails to distinguish the strong from those who merely pretend to be strong. 

Structural and constitutional differences are largely elided

Thus, the strongman who appears most prominently, even from the first sentence of the book, is Donald Trump. Rather than attempting to elucidate tyranny, Rachman interprets the behaviour of the former president of one of the world’s oldest democracies (and other democratic politicians he dislikes) through the actions of dictators such as Putin and Xi. 

The limitations of this argument are most on display in Rachman’s chapter on Boris Johnson (yes, another “strongman”). The evidence for Johnson’s strongman nature almost entirely concerns his desire to break rules. The more important question is whether a politician is able to break rules. Johnson is said to have been willing “to break the law” in proroguing Parliament in 2019. That is pretty much it. 

Johnson’s government abided by the Supreme Court’s decision that prorogation was unlawful. This is not “breaking the law”; it is the rule of law at work. There is no just comparison with a regime that actively uses the law as a tool to restrain opponents (as the CCP has done in Hong Kong). Brexit put great stress on the British constitution, yet that stress was bearable, because established democracies are less vulnerable to “strongmen” than ones where constitutional checks are weak. 

This muddling of populism with tyranny appears to have a political agenda. The “defenders” of democracy who receive praise from Rachman are those whose politics most conform to the outlook of the Financial Times: Biden, Merkel (whose reputation elsewhere plummets by the day), Macron, Trudeau, Ardern. On the other side are Those who support Trump or Brexit, who consider (in words of Marine Le Pen quoted by Rachman) “control of immigration, economic patriotism, rational and reasonable protectionism” as not unthinkable, or even those who “question … the impartiality of the Civil Service and the BBC” (perish the thought!). 

The Left has come to regard its own political success as democracy

All these enter the “supporters of strongmen” box and join “the cult of the leader that threatens democracy around the world”. 

The result is to delegitimise political views that are worthy of discussion in a democracy. Johnson or Le Pen may be wrong, yet voters can only be sure following rational deliberation. Debates on such issues are not a sign of democracy under threat, but of democracy in action. There is a danger that in shutting down such debate, in rigging the game or making rules only for adherents of one political ideology, that opponents may indeed start to wish to change the game or break the rules. 

The Left in the West has come to regard its own political success as conditional for, or identical to, the health of democracy. This trend, of which Rachman’s book is just one example, has several negative results. Most important, the fetishisation of Trump and Johnson as bogeymen has blinded many to the real threat from genuinely dangerous people. Had European elites worried less about Brexit and more about Ukraine, the world might be a safer place.

Second, in identifying domestic opponents with external tyrants, Rachman and others encourage exactly the kind of moral confusion they claim to avoid. The formula for his book is essentially “Putin is bad” + “Trump is like Putin” therefore “Trump is really bad”. Such a view encourages those on the Right to attempt an opposite, and equally flawed, equation: “Trump is not that bad” + “Putin is like Trump” therefore “Putin is not that bad”. 

To counter tyranny abroad, Western governments need to develop a coherent global strategy. It must identify tyranny unequivocally as a real and significant threat to humanity: the new “Axis of Evil” must be uncovered. And to counter tyrannical tendencies within existing or emerging democracies, strong institutions are needed, which gain trust and respect: claims from both Right and Left that the “vote was rigged”, whether by the “deep state” or by Cambridge Analytica, do not help. More than that, we need to cultivate a love of liberty and freedom. A large state that encourages citizens to rely on a beneficent bureaucracy is not conducive to such a culture. 

“The desire to be free continues to burn strongly within us,” declares the Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Nathan Law, “because freedom is central to our humanity.” This, the fact that all peoples inherently desire to be free, is the strength of democracy. Policymakers of the past — Churchill, Reagan and Thatcher — knew this and knew that principled resistance to tyranny would, in the end, ensure safety and freedom for the world. It is time to remember this truth, before it is too late. 

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