As revealed in the disturbing reappearance of the "strongman" leader, the past two decades have witnessed the alarming international rise of authoritarianism. This, according to Orwell award and European Press Prize-winning journalist Gideon Rachman in The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World, poses a dire challenge to the survival of liberal democracy. Indeed, in the last 20 years "a process of democratic erosion has set in" around the world, thanks to the rise of political strongmen who characteristically place their "instincts above the law and institutions."
The rogues' gallery of strongman leaders Rachman analyzes is a familiar list, with a few surprises thrown in that will stir some debate. Beginning with the 2000 election of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency, Rachman sets a brisk pace on this bleak journey of today's most threatening world leaders: Recep Erdoğan, Xi Jinping, Viktor Orbán, former U.S. president Donald Trump, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, Abiy Ahmed and Boris Johnson (a dubious inclusion). While oceans of ink have been spilled on these politicians on an individual basis, Rachman (Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century) finds a universal coherence in the strongman playbook that can instruct those nations wishing to resist. The "four cross-cutting characteristics" are: the deliberate creation of a cult of personality; disdain for the rule of law; an attempt to represent "the real people" against elites; and fear-based politics that elevate nationalism. This cogent study provides a timely (and chilling) examination of the strongman leader and how freedom-loving societies should respond. --Peggy Kurkowski, book reviewer and copywriter in Denver, Colo.