The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy around the World by Gideon Rachman - review by Owen Bennett-Jones

Owen Bennett-Jones

My Grievance is Bigger Than Yours

The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy around the World


Bodley Head 288pp £20

In his whistlestop tour of authoritarian leaders, the Financial Times correspondent Gideon Rachman asks what the world’s strongmen have in common and why so many of them now exist. His archetype is the founding father of modern despotism, Vladimir Putin, in whose wake have come to power a dozen or so cruel, socially conservative nationalists, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Xi Jinping in China, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and also, Rachman argues, Boris Johnson. The British prime minister is included in the list because of his populism, hostility to immigrants and casual contempt for institutions that stand in his way. But it’s only fair to say that he doesn’t, like most of the company he finds himself in, jail his political opponents.

In many respects, the subjects of this book have little in common. Some, such as Saudi Arabia’s current ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, who also falls into Rachman’s category of strongman, began life with either money or elite connections. Others were born into poverty. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, grew up in a village house with no running water and Narendra Modi started his improbable journey to the prime ministership of India as a boy selling tea on the streets of Mumbai. Their political histories are as varied as their personal ones. Putin, Erdoğan and Orbán all began their time in power craving Western acceptance. By contrast, Xi and Duterte have never cared about the opinion of the West.

One thing these strongmen have in common is that they were all helped into power by a peculiar set of circumstances. George W Bush’s futile military campaigns, the 2008 financial crash and the advent of social-media platforms without editors on hand to weed out disinformation together led to

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