A World Ruled by Strongmen

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The rise of personalist authoritarian strongmen: “Who cares about democracy?!”

Guest post by Seden Anlar, member of the IAPSS Student Research Committee on International Law and Governance.  The author would like to thank Julia Lagoutte for her time, valuable remarks, and constructive criticism of the article

There is a widespread impression that the world order is changing faster than ever before, and this viewpoint fosters uncertainty. Over the past ten years, the crucial combination of uncertainty with the false perception of an escalating threat has led to an increase in calls for strong leaders “who do not have to bother with Parliament and elections[1].[2]

According to Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, who drew data from European and World Values Survey findings, people in North America and Europe have become “more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system. They are less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.”[3] Moreover, in 2009, Marc Hetherington co-wrote the book ‘Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics,’ in which he argued that the United States had seen a shift among voters with an authoritarian inclination – marked by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders.[4]

These studies show that societies are now more vulnerable and under the influence of personalist authoritarian strongmen that provide simple answers – often fallacies – to the complex issues of today’s world. As a result, across regions, power is getting consolidated into the hands of one man or a small group of narrow-minded individuals, ranging from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and leaders in Ecuador, Venezuela, Hungary, and Poland.[5] All these men have promised to lead and govern through the force of their personalities and their readiness to ignore the rule of law which is backed up by a willingness to use extrajudicial violence against the so called enemies of the state.

Media vs. Strongmen: A Bizarre Relationship

How these strongmen get their messages across, reach huge audiences, and display themselves as the solution are through the middle men, namely, the mass media. Thus, a full debate cannot be achieved without engaging in a discussion on the fraught relationship between the media and strongmen.

Strongmen show aggression to the press as part of a slow-drip strategy of discrediting all information that is not dispensed by their close allies. Partisan media outlets that support the aforementioned political figures not only function as their enablers but are also complicit with strongmen.

On the other end of the spectrum, the media outlets which criticize the above-mentioned political figures are usually labeled as the enemy. This classic authoritarian posturing is to invoke the phrase ‘fake news’ as a rhetorical tool to undermine opponents, rally a certain political base and try to discredit the mainstream media.

From ‘Lügenpresse’ to ‘Fake News’

In countries where press freedom is restricted or under considerable threat, strongmen have seized on the phrase ‘fake news’ to justify beating back media scrutiny.[6] Even though it may seem like the term ‘fake news’ is a new trend used by today’s authoritarians, it has been around at least since the 1890s.

The accusation of ‘fake news’ or ‘lying press’ has an ominous precedent, tracing back to the history of the German phrase ‘Lügenpresse’. The term was originally coined by the German author Reinhold Anton in 1914, and it was used during World War I to refer to the so called enemy propaganda.[7] Some 30 years later, Hitler and the Nazis appropriated the term to weaken opposition to the regime and to attack media outlets that were deemed to be unsupportive of the Nazi party and its aims.[8]

Nowadays, the term ‘fake news’ is used more commonly than ever; in fact, so commonly that Collins Dictionary decided to make it the ‘word of the year’ upon finding that the use of the term had risen by 365 percent since 2016.[9]

It is difficult to say how much the fake news epithet has damaged journalism and the media; however, there is no doubt that the concept in question is used to build an alternative reality and to tar any uncomfortable fact with which the authoritarians of the current world order do not want to deal.

A Scary World Order

The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Typically, strongmen trade on feelings of insecurity, fear and frustration. Putin and Erdogan have portrayed Russia and Turkey as surrounded by enemies. Egypt’s President Sisi has promised to rescue Egypt from terrorism. China’s President Xi Jinping, and India’s Prime Minister Modi have capitalized on ordinary people’s frustrations with corruption and inequality. The Trump campaign has incorporated elements of all these themes, promising to reverse the national values and identity by labelling immigrants as so called criminal aliens and by enshrining the idea that foreigners are invading the country.[10]

If the election and rule of the above mentioned political figures reflect the present conjuncture, it is safe to say that several societies are choked with fear. According to Lewis & Clark College president Barry Glassner, we are living in the most fear-mongering time in human history, and the main reason for this is that there is a lot of power and money available to individuals and organizations who can perpetuate these fears.[11]

Political parties, governments, and the media use fear to gain support for policy initiatives and drive ratings and profitability.[12] Ratings-obsessed mainstream/corporate media routinely covers the rare instead of the everyday, and isolated events are magnified into full-blown social catastrophes. Exceptions to the rule become the rule itself. People believe that gloom and doom are always just around the corner. In this new world order, migrants, minorities, and disadvantaged groups are regularly scapegoated by powerful media and emboldened authoritarians. As a result, the double standards set by the media and politicians contribute to fuelling a toxic discourse around identity[13], implying that the alienated ‘other’ will take over.[14]

Politics of fear or anxiety? Let’s set the terminology straight!

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

Fear is, indeed, the most powerful human emotion. It is blinding, it consumes the truth, and poisons all the evidence, leading societies to false assumptions and irrational conclusions. But most importantly, fear is very easy to spread, especially in politically divided societies. For mass media, insurance companies, certain advocacy groups, politicians and so many more, people’s fear is easy to manipulate, and it is worth billions if executed properly.

In order to resist being manipulated by those who spread fear for personal, political and corporate gain, it is necessary to understand it. The first item to understand is that although the emotion may look like fear, sound like fear and smell like fear, neuroscientists argue that it is actually something quite different. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux says: “What we are talking about is anxiety, not fear. Where fear is a response to a present threat, anxiety is a more complex and highly manipulable response to something one anticipates might be a threat in the future. It is a worry about something that has not happened and may never happen.”[15]

Thus, if someone opens fire at a concert you’re attending, you experience fear. But if you are at a concert and you are worried that a shooting attack could occur there, that is anxiety. Because where fear is about a danger that seems certain, anxiety is an experience of uncertainty, and that uncertainty is the exact means that politicians and many others regularly use to try to influence people’s’ behavior.[16]

On the other hand, politics of fear and the unjustifiable ‘fear of the other’ remain to be relevant as xenophobic images, nationalist signifiers and racist fantasies generated by strongmen trigger the generalized anxiety explained above.

So… what’s next?

One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.” – The World House, Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967

Change may be a scary thing but it does not necessarily have to mean loss. The future does not have to be intimidating even when it is unclear. Of course, it is a fact that the recent years have been unsettling for the international community. But the goal should be to make a cultural choice and to separate real threats from manufactured ones.

All in all, if we are to address the very real problems facing the international community today, we must do so without anxiety, but with our heads clear and a sense of empathy for everyone, not just the people who look like or agree with us.[17] We have to think about forming new frameworks in order to create a sense of an international community that is proud and unified in its diversity, and standing up against those who want to exclude based on race or religion, etc. In the face of this increasing intolerance and anxiety, it is now that we should encourage the politics of hope[18] and the bravery to be compassionate.

[1] Yascha Mounk & Roberto Stefan Foa, Yes, people really are turning away from democracy, Washington Post, December 8, 2016 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/12/08/yes-millennials-really-are-surprisingly-approving-of-dictators/?utm_term=.6d43ec84a523 (Accessed April 2, 2018)

[2] Pippa Norris, It’s not just Trump. Authoritarian populism is rising across the West. Here’s why, Washington Post, March 11, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/03/11/its-not-just-trump-authoritarian-populism-is-rising-across-the-west-heres-why/?utm_term=.e90afa32e3f2 (Accessed March 20, 2018).

[3] Graeme Hamilton, Return of the strongman: ‘It’s a perfect storm against democracy right now’, National Post, August 11, 2017

 http://nationalpost.com/news/world/return-of-the-strongman-a-perfect-storm-against-democracy-right-now (Accessed April 2, 2018)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Torrey Taussig, The Rise of Personalist Rule, Brookings, March 23, 2017 https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/03/23/the-rise-of-personalist-rule/ (Accessed March 17, 2018).

[6] Steven Erlanger, ‘Fake News,’ Trump’s Obsession, Is Now a Cudgel for Strongmen, New York Times, Dec 12, 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/12/world/europe/trump-fake-news-dictators.html?ref=todayspaper (Accessed April 2, 2018).

[7] Alexander Griffing, ‘Fake News’? Trump’s media attacks have ominous precedent in Nazi-era ‘lying press’ strategy, Progreso Weekly, Feb 22, 2017  http://progresoweekly.us/fake-news-trumps-media-attacks-ominous-precedent-nazi-era-lying-press-strategy/ (Accessed April 4, 2018).

[8] Seden Anlar, Hitler Said it First: From Hitler’s Frugenpresse to Trump’s Fake News, Insight from Outside, Sep 5, 2017 https://www.insightfromoutside.com/single-post/2017/09/05/Hitler-said-it-first-From-Hitler%E2%80%99s-L%C3%BCgenpresse-to-Trump%E2%80%99s-Fake-News (Accessed April 4, 2018).

[9] Alison Flood, Fake news is ‘very real’ word of the year for 2017, The Guardian, Nov 2, 2017  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/nov/02/fake-news-is-very-real-word-of-the-year-for-2017 (Accessed April 4, 2018).

[10] Gideon Rachman, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the lure of the strongman, Financial Times, May 16, 2016,

https://www.ft.com/content/1c6ff2ce-1939-11e6-b197-a4af20d5575e  (Accessed March 20, 2018).

[11] Neil Strauss, Why We’re Living in the Age of Fear, Rolling Stone, October 6, 2016, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/why-were-living-in-the-age-of-fear-w443554 (Accessed March 22, 2018).

[12] Michael Maslansky & Peter Emerson, America’s Perfect Storm of Fear: Finding the Cure, Huffington Post, February 1, 2016,

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-maslansky/americas-perfect-storm-of_b_602433.html (Accessed March 22, 2018).

[13] Benjamin Joyeux & Esther Benbassa & Olivier Roy, Security and Identity: Between Fantasy and Reality, Green European Journal, April 1, 2017,  https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/security-and-identity-between-fantasy-and-reality/  (Accessed March 15, 2018).

[14] Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I am no longer talking to white people about Race, June 1, 2017, 4th Section (Fear of a Black Planet)

[15] Neil Strauss, Why We’re Living in the Age of Fear, Rolling Stone, October 6, 2016, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/why-were-living-in-the-age-of-fear-w443554 (Accessed March 22, 2018).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Laurent Standaert, Facing Our Fears – Editorial, Fears and Trembling, Green European Journal, Spring 2017 https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/content/uploads/2017/03/Fear-and-Trembling-Perspective-on-Security-in-Europe.pdf (Accessed March 25, 2018)

seden-anlarSeden Anlar (Twitter: @SedenAnlar)

Seden Anlar is a Law School graduate from Maltepe University and is currently working in the international security field in Brussels, Belgium. Her main fields of specialization are global politics, human rights, gender, peace and security. She is a part of the Everywoman Everywhere Coalition and the Student Research Committee on International Law and Governance of the International Association for Political Science Students. She is eager to get involved in interesting and progressive freelance projects that involve political writing and online publishing.