“In response to the social upheavals of the 1960s, Hollywood produced a series of highly popular “angry man” crime dramas in the 1970s. These are the stories of vigilantes and renegade cops, played by the likes of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, who push past weak-willed bureaucrats, corrupt politicos and political correctness to restore justice in violent times. These are men who never let law undermine order.
The US is now emerging from another period of sweeping social change, economic anxiety, urban crime and pointless wars, which again has stoked demand for a tough-talking vigilante to pay weak-minded liberals a lesson. But this time, he isn’t a creation of Hollywood. He lives in the White House, and he’s playing his role with gusto.
This trend is not confined to the U.S. In every region of the world, changing times have boosted public demand for more muscular, assertive leadership. These tough-talking populists promise to protect “us” from “them.” Depending on who’s talking, “them” can mean the corrupt elite or the grasping poor; foreigners or members of racial, ethnic or religious minorities. Or disloyal politicians, bureaucrats, bankers or judges. Or lying reporters. Out of this divide, a new archetype of leader has emerged. We’re now in the strongman era.” (“The ‘Strongmen Era’ Is Here. Here’s What It Means for You,” Ian Bremmer, Time Magazine, May 3, 2018)
When Time did this piece over two years ago now, the United States was struggling to understand the phenomenon that gave rise to its own leader, Donald Trump. Here was a figure so divisive, so bereft of understanding of world affairs, and so dangerous for his country, and for the world. And yet, here he was, riding the crest of a popularity wave. Defying all conventional logic, he won the elections against most expectations, and managed to hold the entire nation—including generations of pedigreed politicians—hostage to his own fortunes. People were agreeing to his every word, and kowtowing to his inane ideas and suggestions—something that would have been unthinkable in presidencies past.
And Trump wasn’t alone. From Moscow to Manila, from Sao Paulo to Shanghai, the rise of the strongmen was not difficult to notice. They were everywhere almost at the same time, and their people—for the most part—seemed to be supportive of their governance.
Why did this happen, and how has this played out since then, in a pandemic-plagued world we now live in?
It’s probably not a single answer for all cases, but in many of them, it seems that there is an undercurrent of anger among the populace, that has propped up the rise of these strongmen. Whether it is economic insecurity, rising criminality, threats of foreign aggression—and whether these be real or imagined —it seems that people looked to “strong” leaders to see them through whatever crises they perceived to be plaguing them at the time.
And yet, fast forward two years into what is perhaps the biggest crisis in our collective memory, how have the strongmen fared? Well, almost to a strong man, they all flunked the crisis leadership test. Strongmen-led Russia, Brazil and the United States (strange, but Trump is a strongman as Putin is) now lead the world in terms of coronavirus infection and deaths. China, for all its bluster about how it has handled the pandemic, started it all. Its unwillingness to act decisively to contain the disease within its borders arguably contributed to the reach of this contagion, way beyond what it could otherwise have been.
Crisis leadership needs the best minds working together to solve common problems. The thing is, strongmen are not suited for collaboration. So no matter how stupid their ideas, how nonsensical their statements, these are not challenged by their advisers. So from Trump recommending the ingestion of cleaners, to the Philippines enduring a long lockdown without any coherent recovery plan, to Russia grossly underreporting its own figures—the situation just gets from bad to worse.
And so, here’s the rub. For people hitching their wagons to strongmen to get them out of trouble— including getting out of this unprecedented pandemic—what we have seen instead is unchallenged incompetence of the highest order that now threatens not only the well-being of their nations, but of the entire world.