When the cat’s away those mice sure do play, don’t they?
One need look only at the decision Sunday by China’s Communist Party to abolish the country’s presidential term limit, which will enable Xi Jinping to remain in power indefinitely, to appreciate that it’s springtime for strongmen – and nobody has to worry what America thinks about that.
Just being “president” or “prime minister” is so passe now, so 1990s. Xi wants to be emperor, not president. Russia’s Vladimir Putin wants to be czar, not president. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to be caliph, not president. Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi wants to be pharaoh, not president. Hungary’s Viktor Orban wants to be king, not prime minister. And Iran’s Ali Khamenei already has the most coveted title du jour, supreme leader, and he’s bent on keeping it. ‘Tis the season.
Martin Luther King Jr., once observed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” If so, it seems to be taking a detour this decade in some really big important countries. “The arc of history looks less like it’s bending toward justice and liberty and more toward the 1930s,” observed Michael Mandelbaum, the author of “Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era.”
Tempting as it might be, one can’t blame this trend on Donald Trump alone – although he is not only comfortable with foreign strongmen, but in the case of both Putin and Xi, seems to be awed by them, and may even be envious of them.
Indeed, if you were to draw one of those New Yorker maps of the world from Trump’s perspective, it would show Trump Tower, the White House and Mar-a-Largo, all clustered together on one side of a wall, and beyond that just Trump-branded golf courses, countries that won the Miss Universe contest when Trump ran it, foreign oligarchs who’ve funded the Trump Organization, and flags denoting North Korea and a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Everything else would be specks labeled “shitholes.”
But, truth be told, Trump is also reflecting a widespread exhaustion in the country with democracy promotion. “It started post-9/11, with Bush getting bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan,” argued Mandelbaum, a historian of U.S. foreign policy. “Then the great financial crisis of 2008 exacerbated it. Obama believed that America and the Middle East would both be better off if we withdrew our involvement there. And then we got Trump’s pointless self-infatuation and tendency to judge foreign leaders not on human rights or support for democracy, or even on support for America, but on how much they praised him.”
Roll out the red carpet for Trump and you can roll up as many democracy protesters as you like.
At the same time, though, who’d look at our democracy today as a model for emulation? It takes $1 billion to run for the White House, Congress has become a forum for legalized bribery, the president has uttered roughly 2,000 lies and misleading statements since taking office – and his own party doesn’t care – a gun cult holds Congress hostage, and computer-designed gerrymandering enables candidates to pick their voters, not have voters pick them.
We also now have our own major state-run network, Fox News, that treats our president as “Dear Leader” – much the same way that China’s People’s Daily does Xi.
Is this a democratic model you’d stand in front of a tank to import?
Other trends are at work as well. One is the quest for stability. In places like Egypt, Russia and Iran, for instance, people reflect on their own recent failed democratic revolutions – or they look at the Hobbesian chaos that came in their wake in Syria and Libya – and they utter a famous Arab proverb or its local equivalent: “Better 100 years of tyranny than one day of anarchy.” And strongmen in all of these countries have become very adept at playing on these popular fears of instability or anarchy.
In addition, the combination of climate change and governance breakdown in swaths of the Middle East, Africa and Latin America has resulted in more refugees on the road around the world today than at any other time since World War II. They’re all trying to get out of their “world of disorder” into the “world of order.”
These refugee flows have proved to be a useful boogeymen for all these strongmen, who combine a kind of aggressive nationalism of historical destiny – “Only I can return our country to its rightful place in the world” – with an aggressive defense of national boundaries. This approach works to tighten their grip on power and on their borders, and to deflect attention from how much they and their cronies are stealing.
At the same time, rapid changes in the workplace, and around social norms, have come so fast for some people that they’re looking for leaders who will erect a wall that can stop the winds of change and bring back the 1950s.
Lastly, there’s technology. It’s been great for mobilizing protesters into the square – and for autocrats to use facial recognition, cyberspying or data mining to more efficiently track, arrest and silence all of them.
In the long run, I’m still hopeful that this phase will pass – that the stability and sugar highs that these strongmen offer will prove to be illusory – and that the free flow of ideas and people, and regular rotations in power, will prove superior vehicles for the greater good. But it won’t happen unless we reaffirm their validity here in America. Today, that’s not the case.
The cat’s away for a reason. It’s lost.