In recent weeks, two leaders — Xi Jinping in China and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia — have consolidated personal power to degrees unprecedented in their countries’ recent histories. And Donald Trump, presumptive leader of the free world, has praised them both for doing it.
In later October, China’s Communist Party added what it called “Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era of Socialism With Chinese Special Characteristics” to the constitution. A cult-of-personality campaign for Xi, reminiscent of the days of Mao Zedong, is in full swing. So are purges of his political rivals, dressed up as “anti-corruption” drives.
A few days later it was Saudi Arabia’s turn, with Crown Prince Mohammed launching a wave of dismissals and detentions of senior ministers and fellow members of the royal family. Again, the pretext was corruption. Again, the goal was to sideline rivals as he aims to take his elderly father’s throne and remake the kingdom — at best, as an Arabian version of the autocratic liberalism practiced by the late Shah of Iran (an improvement, to be sure, over current conditions).
Xi and Mohammed are not alone. We are living through another age of strongmen: Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey; Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Egypt; Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines; Viktor Orban in Hungary; Vladimir Putin in Russia. Trump isn’t one of them — the U.S. system won’t allow it, as Tuesday’s elections happily remind us — although he fits the psychological profile and yearns for their level of control.
We are also living through another era of democratic self-doubt. Low growth became the new normal for the better part of a decade. We fight wars we don’t know how to win and rue the consequences of action (Iraq) and inaction (Syria) alike. We inhabit a culture we despise and see no way of improving. Congress is paralyzed. The parties are broken. The president is a dolt.
Such moments aren’t historically unknown: They seem to recur roughly every 40 years. The 1930s and 1970s were also periods of autocratic resurgence and democratic degeneration, when exhaustion with process-based politics gave rise to enthusiasms for the politics of charisma, efficiency, or both.
“I have seen the future and it works,” was progressive journalist Lincoln Steffens’ judgment on the Soviet Union. “The notion of liberty,” he added, “is false, a hangover from our Western tyranny.”
But something is different this time. In Franklin Roosevelt and later in Ronald Reagan, the United States elevated leaders who made the case for the superiority of open societies over closed ones. They ennobled democracy by giving it a sense of destiny and high moral purpose.
“Optimism is in order,” Reagan told the British Parliament in June 1982, adding that the “march of freedom and democracy” would leave “Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.” Reagan spoke at a moment when unemployment in the United States was reaching 10 percent and the prime interest rate ran north of 15 percent. But he was right, and prophetic, and his confidence was infectious.
Compare that to Trump, who in his visit to Beijing made clear how arousing he finds huge displays of military pageantry. “You’re a very special man,” the president told Xi, and congratulated him for his “extraordinary elevation” to dictator-for-life. Left unsaid was that this is a man whose regime has, in recent years, kidnapped Hong Kong booksellers, imprisoned the country’s sole winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, kept his widow under house arrest and seized U.S. naval equipment in international waters.
As for Saudi Arabia, Trump tweeted his approval of the purge by saying that the crown prince and his father “know exactly what they are doing” and that the detainees the regime was “harshly treating” had been “’milking' their country for years!”
U.S. presidents of both parties, including Roosevelt and Reagan, have long known how to maintain productive relationships with regimes whose judicial and political standards fall short of our own. Previous administrations have also used prudent diplomatic silence in the face of domestic upheavals abroad.
But Trump’s rhetorical effusions on behalf of a repressive communist dictator and a Saudi political crackdown are something else: an American presidency in the service of un-American values. Conservatives were once enraged when Jimmy Carter lavished praise on Romanian despot Nicolae Ceausescu. What do they have to say for the president now?
The Trump administration has proposed gutting funding for the National Endowment for Democracy, whose origins lie in Reagan’s 1982 speech. The National Security Council dropped its focus on democracy and human rights. And the State Department is giving active consideration to scrubbing democracy promotion from its mission statement.
This is supposed to be a counsel of realism, the lesson of bitter experience from past democratic exuberance. But it smacks of the envy our stunted strongman feels for his role models. And it raises the question of who will stand up for freedom as the Age of the Strongman rolls forward, unopposed.