The Cult of the Strongman – Dead or Alive

Much has been written in recent months about the return of the strongman-leader. In many nations around the world leadership has reverted to personalized authoritarianism – to governments in which single individuals, invariably men, lead with an iron fist. Russia, China, Turkey, Egypt, Philippines, Hungary – all are examples of countries that have become less free than they were because they have regressed to one-man rule. Moreover, followers, voters and nonvoters, in countries such as India, Japan, and now the United States have embraced leaders with a similar tendency to centralize power – notwithstanding the democracies within which, supposedly, they are situated.

A clear indicator that leader-power is being strengthened while follower-power is being weakened, is the rehabilitation of dead leaders famous for being authoritarian if not actually totalitarian. In Russia, for example, Stalin has been rehabilitated – brought out of the shadows back into the light. It is estimated that under Stalin some 20 million Soviet citizens perished. Notwithstanding, Stalin is being hailed once again as a strong leader who led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II and stood up to the West during the Cold War. Last December Russia’s Communist Party ostentatiously honored Stalin’s birthday, celebrating him with flowers and speeches that testified to his “genius and talent.” All this, obviously, with blessings from above, that is, from President Vladimir Putin.

In China Mao Zedong has been rehabilitated. It has been estimated that under his Great Leap Forward some 45 million Chinese died. Notwithstanding, Mao’s reputation has been resurrected in the nation’s discourse, allowing him, in death, to reclaim his status as the single most important figure in the nearly 100-year history of the Chinese Communist Party. All this, again, with blessings from above, that is, from President Xi Jinping, who has taken to extolling Mao as the Party’s founding father, and embracing him as a symbol of nationalism and populism.

The most recent example of such a resurrection is in the Philippines. After twenty years in power, most as a corrupt and ruthless dictator shielded by martial law, Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in 1986. He fled to Hawaii, where he died three years later. Four years after that his remains were returned to the Philippines, to his hometown, where they have stayed ever since – until now. Now, last week, with the blessings of the mercurial and, yes, ruthless new president, Rodrigo Duterte, Marcos was given a surprise and very private hero’s funeral in the Philippines national cemetery. Why? For the same reason that Stalin’s reputation was rehabilitated – and Mao’s. It is to get the past to legitimize the present. It is to get dead strongmen to testify on behalf of live strongmen. It is to get authoritarian leadership to trump democratic leadership.

Richard Nixon anyone?

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