Revenge of the “Strongman.”
Lessons from around the globe.
Summary: Back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire have the nation bracing for a rematch between Trump and Biden. This essay explores how other nations are dealing with the ‘strongman’ wannabe dictator phenomenon. Maybe there are lessons to glean from the experiences of other countries. So in that spirit we’re going to do some globetrotting to look at three countries in two states of authoritarianism at present and one in recovery like the U.S.
It’s election season in America. With back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, Donald Trump is moving toward his third GOP nomination for the presidency, setting the stage for an epic rematch between two men with nothing in common but the Oval Office.
Can we just share a moment before we start to say what the actual fuck is going on? I mean, we’re really running this back and having a do over aren’t we?
The difference between Trump 2016, 2020 and Trump 2024 isn’t Trump. It’s us. In 2016 we were all like, “get the fuck outta here.” Then in 2020 we were like, “no seriously, get the fuck outta here.” In 2024 you’ve got people on both sides being like, “I don’t even know anymore.”
To find anything remotely this FUBAR we have to go all the way back to when Grover Cleveland barely edged out James Blaine in 1884 to become president. He beat Blaine by only 37 electoral votes and less than 60,000 total votes.
Fun fact, James Blaine is David Blaine’s great-great-grandfather.
Also a fun fact, that’s not true.
In 1888, Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote but won the electoral college to oust Cleveland. Then in the next election James B. Weaver entered the race as a populist and threw all the results into disarray and for the first and hopefully only time in U.S. history a president was elected to a non-consecutive term.
What’s your point?
Well, I have a couple of them. The first is that RFK Jr. could be the new James Weaver. I’ve said it before that I think he pulls more from Biden than he does from Trump. But what I really want to examine today is how other nations are dealing with the strongman, wannabe dictator phenomenon. Maybe there are lessons to glean from the experiences of other countries. So in that spirit we’re going to do some globetrotting to look at three countries in two states of authoritarianism at present and one in recovery like the U.S.
Let’s actually start with the recovering democracy.
When Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil, it felt like another wave in the tsunami of far right wannabe dictatorships in the style of Donald Trump. The biggest so-called democracy in Latin America—the “B” in the BRIC economies—suddenly lurched to the far right in a populist wave that sought to undo the successful social and environmental programs ushered in under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known simply as Lula, and his hand-picked successors. Lula himself is in his third non-consecutive term as president having served from 2003 to 2011 during the economic revolution in Brazil.
One of the great tragedies of losing political commentator Michael Brooks was his ability to convey the importance of Lula style social democracy to an American audience. So often we neglect to draw on our natural and vital partnerships with Latin American nations. It’s not our fault really, because the mainstream media was pretty quiet when Lula for example was first in power because his brand of socialism represented a true threat to capitalist structures.
The reality of the Lula years is a mixed bag for socialists but they’re important to study both in retrospect and currently now that he has resumed duties as president.
Throughout most of 2023, Brazil was expected to post modest GDP growth gains. But by the close of the year, most economic observers had revised their estimates and it’s now believed that Brazil’s GDP growth was slightly more than 3%. This was enough to catapult the once troubled economy from the 11th largest in the world in 2022 to the 9th in 2023. Global agencies such as the IMF and the OECD predict that this growth will slightly contract this year but they still consider it a strong and healthy recovery.
Some financial analysts appear to agree that a slowdown is inevitable because the central government is reducing stimulus and easing monetary policy. It’s also believed that slow growth among the big economies such as China, the U.S. and Germany will hamper overall growth and that the unpredictability of Argentina’s new regime under President Milei could throw a monkey wrench into the Latin American economies in general.
But to the point of the story. In recovering from a strongman, has Lula been a hero or more of a corporatist?
His big things are environmental protection and poverty reduction. So on the whole, the numbers don’t look all that bad. Inflation came down to around 4.7%, unemployment came down a full percentage point and deforestation was halved from the year prior as well. The former points won him high praise from financial observers and the markets hit an all-time high toward the end of the year. The latter earned him mixed praise from climate organizations who applauded the slowdown in deforestation but noted that much of the economic growth was tied to government incentives in Brazil’s agribusiness and fossil fuel industry. So carbon emissions are on the rise even though Lula has publicly stated he is committed to the complete end to deforestation by the year 2030.
So mostly upside, right? Hang tight. Let’s go to the other side of the spectrum to check out the World Socialist Web Site, which is…let’s just say the writers there are a little less sanguine about Lula’s return.
“In 2024, in addition to cuts in social spending due to the prospect of a worsening world economy and the implementation of the new fiscal regime, it is expected that social spending will be even further decreased with the proposed ‘zero deficit target’ for the year’s budget that the PT managed to get Congress to approve in December…The government has not offered wage increases this year for the vast majority of the public sector, only raises in food, health, and childcare benefits, which does not include retirees. After six years of frozen wages under the Temer and Bolsonaro governments, most sectors will only receive a 4.5 percent increase in 2025 and 2026, which doesn’t compensate even for last year’s inflation…In contrast, Lula announced an increase of up to 27.48 percent in 2024, 2025 and 2026 for various sections of the federal police and federal highway police, which constitute a loyal base of support for Bolsonaro.”
Lula seems to be doing an interesting dance of incrementalism. There are some similarities that we should pay attention to in Brazil right now. It’s like Bernie Sanders won the election in 2020 but ran the government exactly the same as Joe Biden has. The only difference is that Bolsonaro is barred from running for president until 2030 because of the capital riots he inspired after he lost. He took a page from Trump’s playbook, fucked around and found out. Payback for putting Lula in jail on charges that were eventually dropped as well.
Different rules down there.
Or maybe not.
Anyway, Lula is way more cautious than domestic leftists like to admit. On slowing deforestation he’s beyond reproach. That’s signature Lula. Where he differs from most is in terms of his support for impoverished Brazilians. He is reinstituting some of the most popular programs from his first presidency that reduced extreme poverty by orders of magnitude. But he’s taking his time reforming the economy by appeasing the bourgeois old guard that sided with Bolsonaro and wooing large corporations with tax incentives and investments.
But when it comes to the corporate class, nothing is ever enough. His approval ratings are improving with 55% of the population approving of Lula personally and 42% approving of his government. Doesn’t sound earth shattering compared to another guy we’re going to talk about in a minute but it’s a vast improvement over where he started. But these numbers are bolstered by those at the low end of the economic spectrum despite how much time and money has gone into wooing the investor and corporate class in Brazil.
Today’s Brazil is very different from the one he left in 2011 with staggering approval ratings of 87% when he left office. Today’s Brazil is infected with the same autocratic mind disease, like Stockholm Syndrome for Bolsonaro similar to what Trump acolytes suffer from in the United States. Brazil also has an evangelical strain running through it that means leftists can do no right. It will be curious to see where Lula’s approval ratings go if growth indeed slows when the stimulus runs out and Lula pursues a zero deficit strategy.
I’ll leave you with two things to think about.
The first is that it probably takes longer to recover from an autocratic ruler than we know. I mean, before Trump we’d have to go back to…hmm…Andrew Jackson? (Someone get Heather Cox Richardson on the blower.) Sure, we’ve lived through neoliberal assholes like Nixon, Reagan and Clinton. We’ve had heavy handed political figures like LBJ and FDR. Big stick carrying loudmouths like TR. But the design of our republic really did contemplate the balance of power. It was even strong enough to keep Trump’s worst instincts in check.
But the most fervent and ardent right wingers in this country got a taste, a hint of what it would be like to have a real strongman dictator in charge. Yes, it was mostly rhetorical but if this fucking guy can beat all 91 criminal charges against him, clear the primaries and beat back Biden he’ll be fucking Rocky Balboa. It will be Rocky V, but Rocky nonetheless.
Moreover, he’ll have set an unbelievable precedent when he just pardons himself. He’ll have his hand picked Supreme Court in his corner with Crooked Clarence, Handsy Kavanaugh, Creepy Coney Barrett, Adolf Alito, Neil Gorsuchmydick and Feckless Roberts. It’s beyond dystopian.
The other thing to think about is how Lula is approaching this second turn at the wheel. His first two terms in the aughts were nothing short of miraculous. The economy exploded under Lula and millions were lifted out of poverty. His administration benefitted from his predecessor’s plan to tame inflation, called Plano Real, which worked over time similar to the shock therapy Carter employed that ultimately benefited Reagan. Then there was the discovery of a massive oil field just off the coast during the oil price boom. But these were conditions that several nations experienced at the time.
What made Lula’s term special was how he invested the economic gains into special programs and social safety nets for the poor and working classes. These investments paid enormous dividends and helped supercharge Brazil’s economic growth and standard of living.
A couple months ago, a clip of Antony Blinken visibly wincing when Biden referred to President Xi Jinping as a dictator went viral. If you listen closely you can hear his asshole actually puckering.
That’s because over the past few months, Tony Blinken has been pushing hard to normalize relations with China and dial back the tension between the world’s two biggest economies and polluters. When it comes to US foreign policy sometimes you have to listen to what’s not being said to understand where things are. For example, how are those poor Uyghur people doing? Any update on the lab leak in Wuhan? How’s everything with the supply chain? I mean, like, are we cool?
In the member newsletter I shared a link to Paul Krugman’s op-ed in The New York Times this week about the slow meltdown of the Chinese economy. In it he explains how we basically went from “everyone needs to take Mandarin lessons” to “we’ll just make everything here instead”. That’s only part of the assessment, however. Krugman points to poor leadership under President Xi, which has become a popular talking point and one that’s hard to verify quite honestly. But we can take it at face value considering he has been criticized for what Krugman calls “arbitrary interventions” into the economy.
Beyond Xi’s heavy hand Krugman points to low consumer spending as a percentage of GDP for a few reasons: “These include financial repression — paying low interest on savings and making cheap loans to favored borrowers — that holds down household income and diverts it to government-controlled investment, a weak social safety net that causes families to accumulate savings to deal with possible emergencies, and more.”
President Xi’s predecessors were keen to relinquish power for fear of invoking comparisons to Mao Zedong. But in 2018, Xi eliminated term limits and orchestrated a third term, making him the longest-serving head of state in modern China and fueling the inevitable criticism that he was turning the country into a de facto dictatorship. With the Chinese economy riding high on government stimulus and inserting itself into diplomatic relations all over the globe, Xi became an obvious fit for the role of bogeyman in the United States.
Noted American economist Jeffrey Sachs describes the shift in attitude toward China among U.S. policy makers, writing:
“The US dusted off the old playbook to slow China’s surging growth. President Barack Obama first proposed to create a new trading group with Asian countries that would exclude China, but presidential candidate Donald Trump went further, promising outright protectionism against China. After winning the 2016 election on an anti-China platform, Trump imposed unilateral tariffs on China that clearly violated World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. To ensure that WTO would not rule against the US measures, the US disabled the WTO appellate court by blocking new appointments. The Trump Administration also blocked products from leading Chinese technologies companies such as ZTE and Huawei and urged US allies to do the same.
“When President Joe Biden came to office, many (including me) expected Biden to reverse or ease Trump’s anti-China policies. The opposite happened. Biden doubled down, not only maintaining Trump’s tariffs on China but also signing new executive orders to limit China’s access to advanced semiconductor technologies and US investments.”
From what the Financial Times called a “testy first phone call” with Beijing and a standoff in 2021 in Alaska, Antony Blinken began the Biden tenure with tough talk and criticism of China’s economy and nuclear aspirations. Since the decline in Chinese economic growth, the tone out of the state department has cooled significantly. But who are we if we’re not the nation fighting some existential foreign threat? Nazis. Japan. Communism. The War on Terror. China. That was the natural order of things dammit and now China is going the way of Japan and our policy is left naked because we know beneath it all that we need them as much as they need us. Our economies are inextricably linked at this point.
So in Xi Jinping we have a strongman in decline having poured the Chinese treasury into ghost cities, support for developing nations and a housing market bubble. We understand what happens when an economy overheats and could offer some advice to Xi in this time of need.
First off, the people get restless and in many cases take to the streets. Not a good look for a despot. Secondly, trading partners become a little wary and look elsewhere for opportunities, creating a vicious cycle that can turn growth negative quickly. In democracies the release valve for economic pressures like these is free and fair elections, something China doesn’t have. So the big takeaway and concern here is that Xi begins to take extraordinary measures to hold power and authority and we also have a little insight into what that means. When authoritarian figures have their backs to the wall they call in the special teams unit to run one very specific play; otherwise known as the military.
Maybe that’s why Blinken’s bluster has cooled a bit. The last thing the Biden team needs right now is an agitated dictator with an itchy trigger finger and 1.4 billion reasons to pull it. As for Xi Jinping, he’ll be longing for the days that he was as trusted and beloved as this next guy.
When we talk about popular strongmen in the world, there’s no question Narendra Modi’s got the hot hand.
There was a time when Modi wasn’t even allowed to travel to the United States because he was suspected of being a violent Hindu nationalist responsible for violence toward Muslims. Fast forward to 2023 and he’s addressing the U.S. Congress and currently enjoys, get this, a 76% approval rating in India.
The key to Modi’s popularity is twofold. First off, the macroeconomic optics look great and give the people of India a sense that they are indeed playing a winning hand. India is now the 5th largest economy in the world and in 2023 India officially became the most populous country, surpassing China. Growth is growth so it makes sense from the outside why this might be the case. But inside India, the economic picture is a little more murky. India remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. According to Oxfam:
“The top 10% of the Indian population holds 77% of the total national wealth. 73% of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest 1%, while 670 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a 1% increase in their wealth.”
So why would a country with such a significant wealth gap give Modi the highest approval ratings of any other leader on the planet? One of the most visible and highly touted projects that was just unveiled this month offers some insight.
As reported on NBC this month: “India came to a halt Monday as Prime Minister Narendra Modi presided over the opening of a grand Hindu temple on a contested holy site that has become a symbol of religious tensions in the world’s largest democracy. The $217 million Ram Mandir honors Lord Ram, the most revered deity in Hinduism, and is transforming Ayodhya, a city of about 3 million people in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, into a tourist hub that officials hope will be a Hindu version of the Vatican.”
Virtually all of India came to a halt, including the stock market, to mark the occasion of the temple dedication by Prime Minister Modi. But as Al Jazeera reports:
“For many among India’s 200 million Muslims, the state-sponsored pomp and ceremony around the temple’s launch is the latest in a series of painful realisations that – especially since Modi took office in 2014 – the democracy they call home no longer appears to care about them.”
This is a significant part of Modi’s success among the people. Modi has proven deft in showing a soft side toward the Hindu people while preserving a veil of religious devotion that has endeared him to many in India. Essentially, he is pursuing classic neoliberal free market economic policies mixed with a healthy dose of ethnic nationalism. Despite the presence of 200 million Muslims within its borders, many Muslim Indians feel increasingly marginalized. India’s increasingly close relationship with the Netanyahu administration in Israel has also given Muslims in India and neighboring nations cause for concern that tensions may widen beyond internal conflicts to India.
Bring it home, Max.
Strongmen have always made for popular figures throughout history. Even in the post-Enlightenment world that saw the death of monarchical rule in most of the world, strongmen often rose up during troubled times to wrest control. The prospect of a second term of an emboldened Trump beating the rap 91 times and promising to only take revenge on his enemies like a dictator on day one of his administration is harrowing. The United States has been responsible for atrocities throughout the world but it has maintained a facade of decency and democracy domestically since the Civil War. I say a facade because of the unspeakable oppression of marginalized groups that has always existed.
But a no holds barred Trump carries the prospect of something different from anything we’ve experienced as a whole in our lifetime. And the only reason we, as a nation, are even contemplating his return is because we’ve had a taste of autocracy and made it out alive. There’s a bit of… “I wonder just how far this will go” curiosity among his supporters and even among those who are disappointed in Biden.
Lula was once the most popular public figure in the world. But because Brazil’s elite got a taste of dictatorship under Bolsonaro and the bourgeoisie lived to tell about it, it’s now emblazoned on their subconscious. And so Lula struggles to reach his former heights, all the while making concessions to a subset of the population that will never really accept him.
Xi Jinping is entering wildcard territory as he realizes the limitations of unlimited spending set against declining birth rates and a contracting economy. Would-be dictators looking to hold onto power make bad decisions. It’s little wonder why Blinken and company have done an about face and flinched when Biden went off script and forgot that we’re supposed to be friends again.
When Trump was president the first time around, Narendra Modi went out of his way to praise Trump and develop a close relationship with him. While it paid few dividends at the time, the Donald would be walking into a vastly different world and may very well look to cozy up to the popular Modi.
The shared playbooks of strongmen and dictators are remarkably transparent when viewed from the outside. It’s when it unfolds in front of one’s eyes that it’s more difficult to see. Couldn’t happen here. Those aren’t real democracies. We have checks and balances. Structures and systems.
No one person is above the law in the United States. Right?
Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).