Author examines the impact of leadership on democracy in a book about current affairs



by Gideon Rachman (Bodley Head £20, 288pp)

Timing is everything. Gideon Rachman has got his spot on with The Age Of The Strong Man: How The Cult Of The Leader Threatens Democracy Around The World, which comes out as Russia’s dictator — let’s not equivocate here — launches a war of extermination against a neighboring democratic state.

The chapter on the killer in the Kremlin is entitled Putin — The Archetype. The author’s point is that Vladimir Putin has been an inspiration to a certain sort of politician (typically narcissistic).

Donald Trump never hid his admiration — even describing as ‘genius’ Putin’s threats to Ukraine masquerading as ‘peace-keeping’. President Xi of China pronounced him to be his ‘best friend’; the Philippines’ ‘strongman’ president Rodrigo Duterte declared: ‘My favorite hero is Putin.’ And Rachman quotes a British adviser to Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman saying his boss had ‘awestruck admiration’ for Putin.

Gideon Rachman has penned a new book exploring how leaders can be a threat to democracy around the world. Pictured: Russia’s Vladimir Putin

From Donald Trump’s point of view — Rachman has a chapter on him, too — Putin was just trying to ‘make Russia great again’. It is undeniable that when he took over as president from Boris Yeltsin (a drunkard) on December 31, 1999, the former KGB officer inherited a country in a collective nervous breakdown.

But it was primarily the rise in oil prices that enabled Putin to restore Russians’ pensions and prospects, just as it had been the collapse in oil prices that tipped the Soviet economy over the edge.

Still, Putin had posed as a ‘modern reformer’; one of the themes of this book is how a succession of leaders who became increasingly vicious and autocratic had captivated Western commentators when they first arrived on the scene. Putin, Xi, Erdogan of Turkey, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame — all of these were hailed as progressive, enlightened leaders, a fresh start for their countries.

Rachman, engagingly, pleads guilty himself, describing how in 2013 he had been part of a ‘small group of foreigners’ invited to meet Xi in Beijing’s Great Hall Of The People, nearly a year after he had been appointed China’s leader.

Rachman, the Financial Times’ long-standing chief foreign affairs columnist, records how ‘reassuringly technocratic and rational’ Xi seemed, and that his ‘willingness to answer questions seemed refreshingly spontaneous’.

Almost a decade on, no one dares question anything the supreme leader says, and the world’s most populous nation is now brainwashed into chanting from Xi Jinping Thought, the modern-day equivalent of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.

In the world’s largest democracy, India, Narendra Modi, too, has embraced the ‘cult of the strong leader’, to the extent that, unlike any of his predecessors, he has caused stadiums to be named after him. Indians who received Covid vaccinations were given a certificate with Modi’s portrait on it.

Meanwhile, the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, now a US resident, is quoted here saying his friends in India were reluctant even to criticize the government on the telephone: ‘People are afraid, I’ve never seen this before.’

Again, Rachman is admirably frank about his own misjudgment, having seen this Hindu celibate as ‘refreshing’ and ‘invigorating’, quoting his own effusive columns when Modi first ran for office ‘with some embarrassment’.

THE AGE OF THE STRONGMAN by Gideon Rachman (Bodley Head £20, 288 pp)

THE AGE OF THE STRONGMAN by Gideon Rachman (Bodley Head £20, 288 pp)

But he was not alone, far from it, in this naive optimism. One of the reasons is that such characters well understand the sort of noises Western leaders and foreign policy pundits want to hear — and duly make them.

Thus, when he took over from Yeltsin, Putin promised to ‘protect freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the mass media, ownership rights, these fundamental elements of a civilized society’. Whereas in fact he always had the career KGB man’s contemplate for these values.

In such a book it is odd to find Boris Johnson lined up with these dictatorial exponents of the leadership cult. But the chapter concerned is titled Boris Johnson And Brexit Britain; and the FT is the editorial home of the least reconciled to the referendum result of 2016. Rachman complains that, in 2019 (as the anti-Brexit forces mobilized in Parliament with the connivance of the Speaker), Johnson ‘hinted at violence on the streets , saying that those who were trying to thwart Brexit were “playing with fire” and “would reap the whirlwind”.’

But had Parliament blocked the verdict of the plebiscite which it had itself called and promised to honour, MPs would indeed have been playing with fire — and got badly burnt.

Johnson and Putin don’t belong in the same category; not just because the PM is far from a strong leader (veering all over the place like a wobbly shopping trolley according to his former adviser Dominic Cummings), but because the British people, unlike many Russians, don’t fetishize such matters. Thank goodness.

Rachman’s book went to press just before Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. If this adventure ends as badly as I think it will, the hubristic cult of the strong leader will meet its nemesis.


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