The global rise of strongmen

The global rise of strongmen

Some dictionaries translate the German word “schadenfreude” as “gloat,” but Germans say that does not quite give the exact meaning of the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. 

Schadenfreude does not fully cover the feelings of the Turkish democrats and liberals when they heard about the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. They have long experienced a kind of inferiority complex for struggling to explain the consecutive election victories of Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan to their friends in the West, but now they can say, “Look, it can happen to you too.” Turkish conservatives and nationalists, meanwhile, are happy to point their fingers at others and say, “See, it happens everywhere.”

When I talk to friends and colleagues in Western democracies, I see they have similar feelings about the election of Trump. Perhaps many people who care about rights and freedoms, including pressure groups, have also become a little fed up with the lecturing tone of their American counterparts.

But in today’s world there is little good news for enhancing rights and freedoms, democratic values and the rule of law - or even maintaining their current level. This fact has only become more obvious with the election of Trump. 

Populist leaders who apparently know everything for their people, snub intellectuals and urbanites, and praise traditional, religious and nationalist values over modern, secular, global ones are seemingly in the ascendance. Rights and freedoms are good for them only so long as they serve their political needs.
Everything is free for the one who has the power. Standing against that power, which usually comes with the ballot box, only leads them to try to stamp out every opposing voice as “subversive” or “terrorist.” 

It did not surprise me when I read that a pro-Trump senator had argued that anti-Trump protests could be considered “economic terrorism.” Nobody should be surprised if soon the “economic” adjective is dropped to label all protest rallies as pure terrorism.

I don’t know why Chinese President Xi Jinping is rarely included in the current lists of strongmen running strong governments just because there are no free elections in China. After all, the state of China does not only concern 1.4 billion Chinese citizens, but also all those parts of the world in close economic and political cooperation with Beijing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was almost alone in this trend when it first started. Perhaps we may regard him as the trendsetter. Since he came to power we have seen Narendra Modi come to power in India through free elections in 2014, while there is also Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.

In 2017 there are crucial French presidential elections, which will likely become a race between Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen: Between the right and the far right. In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has removed European Union flags from his office, leaving only the Italian national flag, as if to acknowledge the decline in political influence of the EU in world politics with the coming of Trump onto the stage.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is likely to be reelected in the election next year, but she will also have to compete with a rising tide of populism from the far and xenophobic right.

It seems that a unusual kind of energy is accumulating in world politics, like the energy of an earthquake between tectonic fault lines.