Though hardly a champion of democracy, Russian President Vladimir Putin late last month delivered an address that would sound familiar — and, to many people, attractive — in democracies from the United States to much of Europe. Putin railed against expansive definitions of gender, calling the idea a “perversion,” part of a “complete denial of man [and an] overthrow of faith and traditional values” by “Western elites.”
“The world has entered a period of revolutionary transformations,” which Russia aims to resist, Putin said in a speech that echoed the rhetoric of Russia-friendly right-wing politicians in many democracies.
In the United States, former president Donald Trump has presumptively rejected future election results, and a majority of Republican candidates on the ballot this fall for major state and federal elective offices have joined him in repudiating the outcome of the 2020 presidential election — an epidemic of election denialism in the United States that historians and political scientists define as a core element in any country’s drift toward authoritarian rule.
Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism heralded a new era of democratic governance and a huge expansion of global trade, that democratic wave has been replaced in many countries by a tide of authoritarianism.
The street demonstrations and passion for the freedom to travel, trade and speak out that brought down the Soviet empire seemed to promise a vast expansion of people power — and for a time, democracy broke out in most of the former satellite nations of the Eastern Bloc. Similarly, the Arab Spring revolutions that began in 2010 raised the promise — but no enduring reality — of democratization across the Middle East.
Recent years have brought a sharp reaction in many parts of the world, as globalization, political polarization, the rise of social media and a collapse of trust in major institutions have left many people feeling betrayed by their governments, torn apart from their careers and alone in their communities, according to historians, political scientists and sociologists who have studied these shifts in the world’s economies and governments.
The result has been a similar quest for nationalist solutions in country after country, and a growing bond among the far-right autocrats in those places. For example, Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orban, and Italy’s likely new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, have spoken to acclaim at gatherings of the Conservative Political Action Coalition — a group that has helped propel Trump’s movement in the United States.
“The trend we are seeing reflects a disillusionment around the world that the democratic process fails to produce effective, charismatic leaders,” said Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. “In country after country, the idea spreads that we need strong leaders who get things done. And it’s not just in politics: We see the valorization of tech CEOs like Elon Musk as problem solvers who get the job done.”
In the United States, if there’s one thing President Biden and Trump agree on, it is the existence of what Biden calls “a battle for the soul of this nation.” The two men phrase the nature of that struggle very differently. To Biden, the threat is authoritarianism; to Trump, it is socialism and the country’s internal ills as “a failing nation.” But the polarization that the two politicians represent is a corrosive fact, and it mirrors divisions that are leading other large democracies around the world to embrace populist, right-wing leaders who promise a return to order, traditional values and a focus on the frustrations of working people.
Trump’s definition of American greatness has long included open admiration of strongmen around the world. After China’s communist regime put down pro-democracy student protests in 1989, Trump praised the Beijing government, saying, “That shows you the power of strength.” During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said he admired how Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein killed terrorists. “They didn’t read them the rights,” he said. “They were a terrorist: It was over.”
This year, at a rally in Georgia, Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping’s control of his people: “He runs 1.5 billion people with an iron fist. Yeah, I think he’s smart.” Also this year, Trump called Putin’s rationale for invading Ukraine “genius,” saying the Russian autocrat is “a tough cookie, got a lot of the great charm and a lot of pride, and he loves his country.”
More Republicans are adopting the kind of strongman rhetoric that seemed to play so well for Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), for example, has turned the “authoritarian” label around to malign countries that have long been generally well regarded for good governance. He has declared Canada and Australia to be under the thumb of “authoritarian rule” because of their efforts to limit the spread of covid-19, and he has proposed to create a state military force “not encumbered by the federal government” to handle local emergencies, as well as a state law enforcement agency in charge of protecting “election integrity.”
It is no coincidence that populist leaders, many from business or other nonpolitical backgrounds, are rising in many countries around the same time. “In each of these countries, far-right movements have exploited resentments made much more acute by globalization,” said Kathleen Frydl, a historian at Johns Hopkins University who studies conservative institutions. “Each country has its own reasons why authoritarianism becomes appealing, its own inequalities or racial tensions. But there’s a validation across all these countries, where far-right leaders can point to Putin as a model of authority and control.”
What the authoritarian regimes have in common is their roots in what Moisés Naím, a former Venezuelan cabinet minister who is now a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, calls the three P’s: populism, polarization and post-truth.
Populist leaders “use ‘divide and conquer’ to explain everything,” Naím said. “Through identity politics, parties become like sports clubs, polarizing people into hard and fixed camps. And with the rise of social media, anything goes and people don’t know whom to believe, taking us into the post-truth era.”
In a time when governments around the world are finding it “devilishly difficult to deliver what citizens feel they deserve,” the three P’s result in a craving for the order that strongmen promise, said Naím, the author of “The Revenge of Power.”
In the United States, trust in government, business, media and other major institutions has been on the decline for decades. A pervasive sense of insecurity spread among many Americans after the 9/11 attacks, the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic upheaval, and the collapse of local communities as the internet nationalized the culture. All of that led the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance to conclude that the United States has fallen into “democratic backsliding.”
Putin has been only too happy to encourage the insecurities that lead to support for such displays of strength. The Russian president directed his government to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to undermine faith in the democratic process and to help Trump win, according to U.S. intelligence agencies. He also has latched onto controversies such as gender politics, as he did in his speech last week, “as part of a deliberate effort to destabilize the politics of Western countries,” Gvosdev said.
But the polarization and the spread of disinformation on social media that have altered American politics stemmed primarily from internal domestic changes and dislocations, not from Russia’s interference, Gvosdev said.
And for many Americans, the idea that the country’s democracy is threatened does not weigh as heavily as the impact of inflation and the disrupted nature of work in the era of a pandemic and massive technological change. A new Monmouth University poll asked people what issues were most important as they considered their votes this fall, and 54 percent cited concerns about the economy and cost of living, while 38 percent said they were most concerned about fundamental rights and democratic processes. Republicans overwhelmingly put the economy first — 71 percent of them — and Democrats largely put rights first, at 67 percent. But although there is widespread agreement that authoritarian parties and movements have been gaining traction in many countries, the ultimate success and lasting impact of this wave of far-right populism remains the subject of great debate.
Some political leaders and academics fear an enduring era of authoritarian rule, driven by the promise to return to working people some of the stability and security that has been swept away by globalization and the resulting transfer of many jobs either to lower-paying regions of the world or to automation. The trend has been exacerbated by the division of people into agitated and aggressive factions on social media.
But others say the authoritarian wave will be just that, a short-lived surge that recedes as it becomes evident that the far-right populists do not have any good solutions for most people’s frustrations, either.
“As quickly as authoritarian movements gain steam, they lose it because they can’t deliver on their promises,” Gvosdev said. “They inevitably get ensnared in corruption because they have a ‘rules for you but not for me’ approach.” He cited Bolsonaro, Orban and Rodrigo Duterte, a former president of the Philippines, as examples of strongman leaders who came under criticism for perceived hypocrisy and sweetheart deals in their administrations.
Populism by itself doesn’t necessarily succeed or fail at resolving the kind of frustrations — the economic, cultural and social dislocations of the past 20 years — that plague much of the world, Frydl said. Populism can take the form of George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign, with its overtly racist appeals to White voters, or it can lead to reforms such as the direct election of senators and legalized marijuana use, she noted.
Authoritarian governments generally take power on the wings of charismatic and powerful figures such as Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, the business magnate who led the country in four stints as prime minister between 1994 and 2011.
In many cases, those leaders prevail with a message that only they can turn their countries’ focus away from regional or global issues and back to themselves and their own dire needs.
But analysts are divided over whether authoritarian surges tend to peter out when the strong leader fades from the scene. Some say it’s a mistake to assume that the departure of such a dominant figure spells the end of the authoritarian chapter in that country’s history.
For one thing, it’s not clear what happens to the fading strongmen. “There are dictators who have nowhere to go,” Naím said. “They have to stay in power to protect themselves from jail and to protect their assets. Should you provide an exit ramp for them or go after them?”
In the United States, Frydl pointed to the mistake of concluding that the anti-intellectualism and far-right exclusionary attitudes of McCarthyism — the anti-communist crusade led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) in the 1950s — ended with the senator’s disgrace. Rather, she noted, McCarthyism led directly to the popularity of the racist, anti-immigrant John Birch Society in the 1960s, the Wallace campaigns in 1968 and 1972, and on to Trump’s focus on the damage to U.S. society he said had been caused by Mexican and Muslim immigrants.
“When we name the man and not the movement, we delude ourselves into thinking that when the man goes away, so does the movement,” Frydl said.
The latent tendencies toward extremism often linger in a society, “but it usually takes a charismatic leader to bring them to the fore,” Gvosdev said.
The U.S. case is on the cusp of that kind of shift, Gvosdev said: “The question is, can Trumpism be sustained by a more effective leader or does it follow the pattern of not easily translating to someone else?”
There appear to be two main ways countries pull themselves out of an authoritarian spiral, historians say. In some cases, political leaders take a stand for democracy, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in the face of pro-Nazi protests that broke out in some parts of the United States in the early years of Hitler’s rule. In other instances, the resistance to authoritarian rule comes from below, from activists, unions or political groups — as happened in East Germany, South Africa and during the American civil rights movement.
Authoritarian rule’s end is not quite as simple as the famous scene in the 1987 movie “Moonstruck,” in which Cher slaps Nicolas Cage and instructs him to “snap out of it,” Frydl said. But neither is it always necessary for a society to confront its embrace of extremism and force its adherents to repent. Even as South Africa and the Czech Republic confronted authoritarian pasts by setting up formal truth and reconciliation commissions, West Germany and Japan were transformed after World War II into thriving democracies without going through that kind of process.
The way to end authoritarianism has been documented through the years, but that doesn’t mean there’s an easy recipe to follow. “Nobody can predict the collapse of an authoritarian regime, but we do know the ingredients,” Naím said. “Elections, independent judiciary, term limits — that’s the magic sauce. We used to talk about that recipe for banana republics, but now it applies to the United States.”