A Time of the Strong

It’s believed that Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. election is a victory of nationally-oriented forces over the global elite, a victory that’s become a starting point for similar political changes in other countries of the Western world.

Such an interpretation undoubtedly merits attention. Yet I think that by focusing exclusively on it, we lose sight of far more serious and interesting trends in the domestic political life of countries with democratic systems.

I would venture to suggest that in the next few years we’ll see strong, charismatic leaders with authoritarian governing styles come to power in European countries and, as a consequence, liberal democracy as a model, with its maximum decentralization of powers and their distribution among many persons, will decline.

A new cycle is beginning, one in which individuals and their personal decisions will determine the course of history to a far greater degree than institutes and institutions. And it’s one in which new Churchills, Roosevelts, Stalins, and de Gaulles are bound to appear.

It would be wrong to offer an assessment of Trump as the U.S. leader, considering the fact that he hasn’t even taken office yet, but his first moves generally make it clear that he’ll be a tough, assertive head of state who doesn’t much concern himself with rules and procedures.

One example: No sooner had auto giant Ford announced the construction of its facility in Mexico than the future U.S. president announced that in such a case he would slap a tax on car models manufactured in that country for import to the United States. And lo and behold! Literally just a few hours after the warning, the company backed down on building the Mexican plant.

Need I elaborate on the fact that Trump’s threat had little in common with the general rules and procedures established for all the players in the market? I think not. But Trump moves forward like a tank toward his stated goal of reviving a “great America” and creating new jobs as one of its components. And this, obviously, fully reflects his constituents’ demand for much-needed changes.

In this sense, Trump’s victory is not only and not so much a victory of a nationally-oriented elite over conventional globalists as much as a victory of a politician with an authoritarian governing style, made possible by a public demand that has changed in recent years, and not just in the United States.

Why has public demand changed so much in the Western world that it has put the very existence of the liberal model of democracy under threat? There are a number of objective reasons for it.

First of all, it’s the economy. It’s fine to live in a sterile democracy when prosperity is growing, when there’s work and bread on the table (or even better — several cars in the garage). But when the problems begin, demand arises for a sort of “strong man” who will judge justly and feed the people.

Second, it’s a crisis of political systems. In a conventional, standard democracy, there’s a president or prime minister and there’s a parliament voted into office in an election. There are judicial and law enforcement systems, there’s the practice of law, and so on and so forth.

In our case, we have, on the one hand, the emergence and strengthening of public organizations that duplicate and replace the usual institutions in the implementation of their authority; for example, human rights advocates and ombudsmen effectively duplicate lawyers and supervisory agencies, and socially-oriented non-profits duplicate the corresponding federal and municipal government agencies. This wouldn’t have happened if these very institutions were effective and self-sufficient.

And on the other hand, for example, there’s an extremely low level of confidence in the legislature in many countries of the Western world. Judge for yourself: the U.S. Congress’ average approval rating in 2016 was just 17 percent. At the same time, the average rating over the entire period of sociological sampling — and it’s been carried out by the Gallup Organization since 1974 — hasn’t exceeded 31 percent.

With the exception of a short list of countries like Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, and a few others, the level of citizen confidence in their parliaments in European countries also leaves much to be desired. In France, only 18 percent trust the parliament; in the United Kingdom, 35 percent; Italy, 19 percent; in Spain, 15 percent; and in Lithuania just 10 percent.

Against this background, of course, our State Duma stands out with its phenomenal December approval rating of 52 percent. But one mustn’t forget that these relatively high percentages are first and foremost an advance for reforms regarding restoring basic order and improving discipline. It may well be that our Duma will manage to keep its approval rating at this level going forward, but, objectively speaking, it’s impossible not to recognize that today it’s once again to a large extent a story about a strong leader who has succeeded in overcoming a number of the perennial ills of Russian parliamentarianism, and to a lesser extent an appraisal of the work of the institution itself.

And, finally, third, it’s the situation that’s developed in the sphere of international security.

Both the mythical threats from Russia and the real threats from terrorist organizations are likewise automatically influencing the electoral preferences of citizens around the world, increasing the demand for strong leaders capable, if required, of addressing various problems, of remaking systems and rules as necessary, including by ignoring generally accepted procedures.

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About Jeffrey Fredrich 199 Articles
Jeffrey studied Russian language at Northwestern University and at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He spent one year in Moscow doing independent research as a Fulbright fellow from 2007 to 2008.

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