It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that strongmen now rule the world. The days are long gone when The Economist fawned over Angela Merkel as the “indispensable European” and the Financial Times hailed her as “the leader of the free world.”
In Washington, as the recently honored talk radio star Rush Limbaugh observed, Donald Trump, he of the three wives, is “Mr. Man.” (Let’s not dignify, by repeating it, what the shock jock said last week about Pete Buttigieg.)
In London, Boris Johnson has just purged his Cabinet, losing — perhaps rather earlier than intended — his chancellor of the exchequer and several other independent-minded ministers. Meanwhile, in Beijing, Xi Jinping has already begun pinning the blame for the coronavirus epidemic on provincial officials in Hubei, instead of on the excessively centralized, repressive, and compulsively mendacious political system over which he presides.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman still rules the roost in Riyadh, despite having ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and Nicolás Maduro shows no sign of exiting Caracas, despite having caused the Venezuelan economy to implode so disastrously that more than 4 million people have fled the country.
The strongmen are all around: from Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia to Rodrigo Duterte in Manila to Narendra Modi in Delhi to Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang — not forgetting Viktor Orbán in Budapest.
And at the top of the authoritarian guild sits Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who (I am told) lives the private life of one of the more lascivious Roman emperors. Wealthy beyond the dreams of Croesus — some say the wealthiest man on the planet — the master of all he surveys in Russia, and far and away the most skilled player of the great game we call geopolitics, Putin is the capo dei capi.
Only the other day, Putin almost mockingly announced a government reshuffle that makes Johnson’s recent effort in Britain look like tinkering with the placement at a Notting Hill dinner party. The Russian president made his entire government resign.
There are three problems with being a strongman. First, the stronger you become, the more paranoid you must become, as your rivals can hope to supplant you only through dark conspiracies. Second, the more paranoid you become, the less reliable the information you receive. For who really dares to tell the boss the truth? Third, at some point, you are likely to die a violent death, because only when you are dead as a doornail can your enemies feel safe. As Frank Dikötter makes clear in his brilliant new book “How to Be a Dictator,” a peaceful retirement tending to a rose garden is seldom an option for the strongman.
Mussolini found this out the hard way. In April 1945 he and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were summarily shot and hung upside down from a girder in Milan. Two days later, Hitler died by his own hand as the vengeful Red Army closed in on his Berlin bunker. To avoid ending up dangling from a girder, he ordered that his body be cremated, along with that of Eva Braun, his long-term mistress, whom he had married a day earlier. (Being the dictator’s girlfriend is also very hazardous.)
Stalin won the war, but died in March 1953, at the age of 74, partly because his own entourage was too terrified to order prompt medical action after he suffered a stroke.
It is sometimes said that most dictators die in their beds. That may have been true in the 1970s. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier died peacefully in 1971. Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 was from natural causes. So was Mao Zedong’s in 1975. “There is no [personality] cult without fear,” writes Dikötter, the world’s leading authority on the tyranny of Mao. The Chinese strongman succeeded in terrifying a fifth of humanity.
But bad things nearly always happen to strongmen who lose or relinquish power, as many dictators did in the 1980s and 1990s. Nicolae Ceauşescu fell before a firing squad. Saddam Hussein went to the gallows in December 2005. Moammar Khadafy was shot in 2011 while trying to escape the revolutionary wave we misname the “Arab Spring.”
The key to survival as a strongman, aside from inaccessibility (on which subject, see the brilliant Chinese film “Hero”), is to have an intimate circle of people who know they would also be for the chop if you were overthrown.
But you also need to deter any potential successor from getting impatient. One way of doing that is to have multiple sons and play them off against one another. Another option is to have no heir and project longevity so credibly that no one dares aspire to succeed you.
Yet no one lives forever — not even Fidel Castro, one of history’s most durable strongmen. And clinging to power as you gradually go gaga is a sure way to ensure that your legacy goes up in smoke not long after you do.
Looking at our present crop of strongmen, you might be tempted to conclude that the democratically elected ones — Trump and Johnson — are more vulnerable than the authoritarians. After all, they have to face the voters every four or five years. I am not so sure.
History suggests that a significant proportion of the undemocratic strongmen will be gone within the decade — and it will not be coronavirus that carries them off. Unless, that is, the Wuhan epidemic proves to be Xi’s Chernobyl, which it may yet.
Come to think of it, didn’t The Economist once call him “the most powerful man in the world”?
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.