Strongman Politics: Obama Is Right to Be Concerned About the Rise of Authoritarians in Democracies Around the World


Former U.S. President Barack Obama, addressing an audience of around 15,000 people in Johannesburg yesterday during a visit to South Africa, lamented a worldwide increase in what he described as “strongman politics”—and he’s right to be concerned.

Obama was speaking in honor of the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. Born on July 18, 1918, Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid struggles but went on to become South Africa’s first black head of state after the racist apartheid system was abolished. And even though Obama didn’t mention any strongmen in particular, he outlined a troubling pattern of authoritarian figures emerging in democracies.

“I am not being alarmist,” Obama told the audience. “I’m simply stating the facts. Look around: strongman politics are ascendant.” And the pattern Obama described was one in which “elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained” even though “those in powers seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning."

Obama’s speech came the day after Arizona Sen. John McCain lambasted President Trump for his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. As McCain sees it, Trump is much too sympathetic to someone he considers an “autocrat” and a “tyrant.” And Putin, who was reelected to another six-year term earlier this year, fits the pattern that Obama described during his speech—one in which authoritarians are gaining power not through violent insurrection, but by being voted into office and sometimes reelected.

One is also seeing this pattern in countries ranging from the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte to Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was reelected on June 24 with 52.4% of the Turkish vote and defeated opponent Muharrem Ince.

Technically, Erdogan is not an outright dictator; Turks have voted him into office. But he is definitely an authoritarian and has undermined the checks and balances in Turkey’s federal government. For many years, Turkey had a reputation for being one of the more liberal and democratic countries in the Islamic world—and it’s still a long way from the strict sharia law one finds in Saudi Arabia or Iran. Erdogan has never declared that Turkish women are going to start wearing burkas whether they like it or not, but he’s critical of feminism—arguing that a Muslim wife’s place is in the home, not the boardroom. And the Turkish president has jailed dozens of journalists, restricted freedom of speech, built new prisons to lock people up on sedition charges and altered the Turkish constitution in a way that has given him greater powers. 

Like Erdogan, Duterte is a president who technically isn’t a dictator but has the mentality of one. In 2016, the year Duterte was elected president of the Philippines, he campaigned on a tough-on-crime platform—and the 22 years he spent as mayor of Davao City weren’t without allegations of civil rights abuses. But as president, Duterte’s track record became much worse. 

After taking office, Duterte launched a vicious, militarized anti-drug campaign—and at least 12,000 people have been killed in the Philippine War on Drugs. Duterte has not only been responsible for the deaths of drug traffickers, but also, of numerous casual drug users and countless numbers of innocent people who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Despite Duterte’s appalling record on civil liberties, Trump has applauded him for being tough on crime and trying to rid his country of drugs. But while Trump shows an affinity for Putin, Erdogan and Duterte, he doesn’t feel that way about Nicolas Maduro—who came to power in Venezuela (another troubled democracy with an authoritarian leader) after Hugo Chavez’ death from cancer. Trump seems to prefer right-wing authoritarians to a left-wing authoritarian like Maduro, and he has even toyed with the idea of a “military option” on the part of the U.S. to remove Maduro from power.

In France, a would-be authoritarian who has run for political office and received millions of votes is Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right and blatantly racist National Front. Le Pen, in fact, came in second place when she lost to President Emmanuel Macron in France’s 2017 presidential election, winning 33.9% of the French vote compared to 66.1% for neoliberal Macron. 

Le Pen’s loss was considered a landslide defeat, and Macron won twice as many votes. But the fact that a white nationalist like Le Pen received more than 10 million votes and was favored by roughly one in three French voters last year is downright frightening.   

Although Trump is wildly unpopular in Europe overall, Le Pen is a major exception to the rule: she has expressed admiration for his aggressive hyper-nationalism. Trump has applauded Le Pen for being “strong on borders,” and Trump ally Steve Bannon has even spoken at National Front events in France and assured Le Pen that “history is on our side.”

From Turkey to the Philippines—and even France if Marine Le Pen ever comes to power—democracies can easily fall prey to authoritarians. And Obama’s warnings about the trend of “strongman politics” should not be ignored. 

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