Strongmen and the concept of charisma

Time magazine’s latest issue banners the article written by Ian Bremmer, titled “The ‘Strongmen Era’ is here. Here’s what it means for you.”  Filipino readers will be keen to know if the country’s tough-talking president, Rodrigo Duterte, is among the “strongmen” featured in the Time essay.  They won’t be disappointed.  He is. What it means for us, however, is a far more complex matter.

Mr. Duterte denies that he is a strongman. Reacting to the Time article’s reference to him as an example of this emerging archetype of leadership, he declares: “I have never sent anyone to jail who criticized me ….  But if you are a foreigner, that is another thing.”

One wonders if Sen. Leila de Lima, President Duterte’s archcritic, would be in jail today, awaiting trial for conspiracy to trade in illegal drugs, if he had not explicitly targeted her. Technically, he did not send her to jail.  But, the public knows that, on his orders, his people, and the state offices they command, did everything to put her in jail by charging her with a nonbailable offense.

Though he likes to project himself as a street-smart and willful decision-maker, Donald Trump does not quite earn a place in Time’s gallery of strongmen. The reason for this, says the article’s author, is that America’s institutions — in particular, its judiciary and its press — won’t indulge him. “Trump may complain about judges, but he can’t avoid their rulings. He thrills audiences with attacks on the press, but public fascination with his every utterance replenishes media financial reserves.”

What Time’s analysis suggests is that the antidote to the rule of strongmen rests in the rule of law and the independence of the press. But, don’t we know that already?

Indeed we do. But, as Bremmer notes, what clearly requires explaining is the sudden explosion of the strongman in politics in different regions of the world—at a time when everyone takes for granted that the Cold War has been won by liberal democracy and free markets.

Bremmer’s analysis alludes to the bureaucratic inertia in which many countries today find themselves mired, preventing governments from addressing complex situations with the will and urgency they require. He focuses on the role of the leader as the ultimate protector of his people, taking unconventional but necessary decisions in their name. Strongmen seek approval for their actions directly from the people, ignoring the checks and balances that make democracy a tedious and time-consuming exercise.

Strongman rule, argues Bremmer, exploits the emotions inherent in the “them-and-us” polarity — the fear, the antagonism, the bigotry, and the insecurity that reside in what Freud once referred to as “the narcissism of minor differences.”  In present-day Europe, “them” refers to the migrants from other countries who are seen as not only taking away jobs from the continent’s own native population, but also threatening their very way of life.  In Turkey, “them” refers to the so-called “parallel state” that supposedly has been built by the followers of Fethullah Gülen, the influential US-based Muslim cleric and who, ironically, preaches love, peace, and tolerance. In Mr. Duterte’s Philippines, “them” would be those that have profited from a society that has chronically nurtured crime, corruption, and illegal drugs.

When you cast a net as wide as Bremmer’s, however, there is a good chance you would catch a diverse collection of fish that have little in common with one another. Bremmer suggests that the failure of liberal democracy to provide clear solutions to the vexing problems posed by globalization has brought us to the era of the strongman. I’m not sure if this picture fits the Philippine case.

In many ways, I think Filipinos see globalization as a good thing. Far from being threatened by it, they view it as opening new opportunities for productive employment both at home and abroad.  A nation of consumers, they are inclined to see the cheap products that globalization brings to their shores more than the threat they pose to fledgling local industries and small producers.

I would view the rise of strongmen as symptomatic of the struggle to get out of the “iron cage” of routinized and depleted systems. Think of the spent force that “Edsa People Power” has become. The term “iron cage” belongs to Max Weber, the German sociologist who also gave us the concept of the “charismatic leader.”  To Weber, “charismatic leadership” is a form of domination that is rooted in the belief that a leader possessing magical gifts and capabilities is summoned by history to solve a society’s problems during a critical period.

Whether the leader actually possesses these gifts and qualities, and produces miracles, is of little consequence.  Indeed, true believers are not interested in validating the power of the charismatic leader in terms of concrete achievements.  It is like faith: It requires no proof.

Its persistence rests rather in rituals that replicate its essential mystery and potency.  The strongman’s playbook mimics theater. It is endlessly renewed — to borrow from Robert Paxton’s analysis of fascism — in “the gratification of submerging oneself in a wave of shared feelings, and of sacrificing one’s petty concerns for the group’s good; and the thrill of domination.” In Europe in the mid-1930s, Walter Benjamin observed, the ultimate fascist experience took the form of war, exactly what Hitler gave to the Germans.

But, a “war on drugs”? Who would ever have thought that a Filipino strongman could make a platform out of it?