The Gradual Return of Strongman Politics

There have been many individuals throughout history who wish to define their epoch with their own existence, leaving a legacy for posterity to know. Whether with admiration or repugnance, it usually doesn’t matter to such men who have often come under the definition of the “great man theory” first proposed by Thomas Carlyle. Napoleon Bonaparte defined the new era of French aggrandisement across Europe that was to be described as “Napoleonic”. Otto von Bismarck was perceived as the man who finally unified the German states to become a federation that evolved into a nation; with his much later successor Adolf Hitler leading Germany’s own conquest over Europe once attempted by Napoleon, albeit one that sought to reshape Europe into a Aryan utopia, giving disastrous consequences for both sides of World War II. It is easy to say that eventful times, whether bringing change for better or worse, can be the result of one’s actions alone.

However, many now reject Carlyle’s hypothesis as being an anachronism and too simplistic. The most prominent criticism was established by his contemporary, the sociologist Herbert Spencer, who knew that such changes determined by individuals can only be made according to the moment:

“You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown.


Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”

Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology, p. 31.

Great men are therefore made by the great times they live in. The circumstances one experiences gives them the opportunity to establish their legacy. It is apparent that this has happened repeatedly. Napoleon used the French Revolution as a means to gain his prestige; Hitler through the Versailles Treaty’s harsh obligations and the Weimar Government’s weak administration. But is there any opportunities being made avaiable for ‘great men’ to arise now?

When one thinks of Donald Trump, the word ‘great’ hardly brings any positive connotations, the one association of greatness being relevant only to his explicit ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. But greatness doesn’t necessarily mean positive change, as elucidated by the previous examples. Instead, what it often really means is the extent of change it develops. Since Trump was sworn in as US President in January 2017, America’s domestic policy has become a unique form of populism mixed with libertarian economics characterised by income and corporate tax cuts; complemented by a crackdown on immigration. The former tax cut has now been reduced to 37% income tax for the highest earners (those who earn over $600,000 per annum) (Tax Cuts and Jobs Act 2017, s. 11001). Whilst that is relatively laissez-faire, US foreign policy has instead become a mercantilist character not witnessed since the days of American isolationism in the 1920s, with China becoming its visible enemy. Whether one likes Trump or not, it cannot be denied how much US politics and the nation’s foreign relations has changed in the short three years Trump has enjoyed in the White House.

Yet Trumpian populism is only one movement of many that is dominating the global political status quo. Whilst COVID-19 is currently taking up all the headlines (much like Brexit had for the British in the last four years), the international order is becoming strained by both the virus’s impact and by those who either ignore it or use it opportunistically. Trump has accused China of doing the latter, simulatenously doing the same himself through his claims that China has used the World Health Organisation as a ‘Chinese puppet’ and a provider of ‘disinformation’ (Reuters 2020). Yet the US President is not alone in his criticism, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling for a independent investigation into the causes of the pandemic last month, stating that it would be a ‘very reasonable and sensible course of action’ (Payne 2020). Only now has such an inquiry been agreed by the WHO’s 194 members, thanks to a resolution presented by the EU on the behalf of 100 nations (BBC News 2020).

China under the firm influence of Xi Jinping has no doubt understated the severity of the virus to the international community, especially once the virus re-emerged within the Middle Kingdom. This has hardly been ameliorated by China’s descriptions of Australia being the ‘dog of America’, complemented by a threat of sanctions that could do substantial damage to Australian exports (Winterburn 2020). Chinese-Australian animosity had existed before the epidemic, with Australia having passed a Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act (2018), aimed ‘to establish a scheme to improve the transparency of activities undertaken on behalf of foreign principals, and for related purposes’. This was subsequently followed by a A$87.8 million spending spree on a new intelligence taskforce designed to curb Chinese economic espionage within Australian universities (Johnson 2019). There should be no doubt that a new Cold War has emerged, one that will leave liberal internationalism perplexed as to how it should respond to the political muscle tensing that is becoming more visible.

Whether old or new, leaders that are determined to show their independent strength to continue to defy transcendental forces that liberals put so much emphasis on, including the virus. Whilst one should remain vigilante about lies, damned lies and statistics, the current number of COVID-19 cases in the nations that could be colloquially regarded as the ‘strongman states’ is alarming. Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil serves as an example of some of the careless responses to the epidemic, with the country suffering 1,179 deaths on 19th May, its worst day of casualties. Brazil is only behind two of the strongman states, the US and Russia, in having the highest amount of COVID-19 cases (The Guardian 2020). These foreboding figures could be blamed on a stroke of bad luck if one seeks pity. However, the right to be sceptical is justified when Bolsonaro dismissed the virus as only ‘a little flu’, defending himself by stating ‘so what? I mourn [the deaths] but what do you want me to do? My name is Messias but I can’t work miracles’ (Ramsey 2020).

Bolsonaro’s haughtiness towards COVID-19 is not exclusive to himself. Trump recklessly regarded the US’s status as the most infected nation in the world as a ‘badge of honour’, believing that it marks the success of America’s medical services under his auspices through efficiently identifying more cases than any other country (O’Connell 2020). In the case of Putin, some have even accused the most experienced strongman of using the proliferating crisis in Russia to increase his authority; this being through emergency powers used to assist the country’s vulnerable healthcare system. Similar claims have been made against Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

The impact of the coronavirus entails great change for the international order of things. However, it would be a mistake to exaggerate what this change may have for the strongman’s defiance against the liberal world order and its remaining acolytes. There has long been a growing dislike for the unanimity that international organisations such as the UN proposes, who delude themselves in thinking such a thing can exist. Nations such as Russia and China have only ever seen it as fitful means to achieve their respectful ends of preserving or expanding their influence. Putin’s twenty years as president is a testament to this claim. The only significant impact COVID-19 is having on the omnipresence of power politics is to make it more naked. It is thanks to the recent unfortunate series of events that the opportunity that Spencer described for men to become great (or not so great) is now available. As a result of this, the strongmen of today are becoming emperors with no clothes in more ways than one.

Featured image credit: “Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan Struggle for Leverage” by DonkeyHotey is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0



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