Book Review | The Evolution of Tyranny

Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century
By Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman
Princeton University Press,
360 pp., $29.95

The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World
By Gideon Rachman
Other Press,
288 pp., $27.99

Thirty years ago, as the Soviet Union was coming apart and its hold on Eastern Europe was loosening, democracy appeared ascendant not just in Europe but worldwide. For advocates of democratic government, the 20th century concluded on a triumphant note. Today that note is a distant, barely audible signal from a bygone era. The drift away from democracy and the rise of autocracy is an unmistakable and important feature of global politics in our time. These two books attack it from different angles.

Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman chart an evolution in despotism from old-fashioned “fear dictators” (Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, for example) to “spin dictators,” autocrats who win elections, enjoy favorable poll numbers and refrain from mass incarceration or mass extermination of their critics. They tolerate neutered opposition groups that are destined to remain so, thanks to rigged election laws, news media that are pro-government if not government-controlled and public discourse that is incessantly “spun” in the dictator’s favor.

Rule by spin, they argue, has largely replaced rule by fear in the world’s dictatorships. China and North Korea operate in the old-fashioned way, but, as Guriev and Treisman write, “where fear dictators burn books and ban private newspapers, spin dictators mostly just push criticism to the fringes, keeping national TV for themselves.”

The pioneer of rule-by-spin in their view was Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister from 1959 to 1990, who learned that an intolerant autocracy can earn the investment and admiration of Western democrats, provided it maintains a superficially credible appearance of democratic institutions.     

Their rogues’ gallery of new-breed dictators includes Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chavez, Peru’s former president Alberto Fujimori, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and, of course, Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Ay, there’s the rub.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine occurred after Spin Dictators had gone to press, but until then, Putin fit the designation of spin dictator pretty well. Elected by a relatively educated population of whom more than one adult in four has a college degree (about the same as Singapore, the authors observe), Putin’s regime must take the reality of a literate public into account. He must present the Russian people with the right semblance of political legitimacy. The authors quote Putin’s political consultant on the problem of spinning his 2004 electoral victory so as not to appear so big as to beggar belief. The challenge was “not to get too much…Seventy-five would be too much…Seventy-two was just right.” Putin qualified as a spin dictator because he controlled the mass media and tolerated marginal dissent.

Then things changed. Making it a crime, with a possible 15-year prison sentence, to call the war in Ukraine a “war” was surely a trick out of the fear dictators’ playbook. A Moscow rally in support of the “special operation” drew (by whatever mix of patriotism and obedience) 200,000 Russians, demonstrating Putin’s popularity and the futility of hoping for his ouster. The long-tolerated independent radio station Ekho Moskvy was shut down, eliminating what Guriev and Treisman call the “one high-credibility channel kept in reserve.” They cite research showing that Ekho Moskvy had unintentionally served Putin’s purposes back in 2012, when Putin ran to return to Russia’s presidency after a spell as prime minister that satisfied a constitutional limit (since lifted) on consecutive terms as president. Ekho Moskvy’s accurate reports on the size of Putin’s crowds demoralized the opposition precisely because, unlike the stories on state-controlled media, they were credible. The tolerance of such a voice reflected a finesse that was sacrificed to the bludgeon as a casualty of the invasion of Ukraine.

In the face of such actions, author Guriev has revised his appraisal of Putin’s place on the spectrum of autocrats and despots. “Putin’s regime has completed its reversion from a 21st-century spin dictatorship to a 20th-century dictatorship based on fear,” he wrote in the Financial Times in April, after the invasion of Ukraine. “Unfortunately, this is what Russia will look like until he is gone.”

The reclassification of Putin raises questions about the standards applied in the original diagnosis. As Guriev knows all too well—having left Russia in 2013 after being harassed by the government for writing critically about the prosecution of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky—being on Putin’s wrong side carried consequences more dire than unfair spin. Khodorkovsky was imprisoned and lost most of his billions. As in the poisoning and imprisonment of Putin’s political challenger Aleksei Navalny, the deft manipulator’s skill at spin was not in evidence; brute force was. True, this was not terrorism on a Stalinist scale, but measuring by that scale risks minimizing virtually all state-sanctioned violence.The authors are interested in spin and fear as alternative instruments of controlling the masses. Surely, the willingness to imprison or poison only a few of one’s troublesome compatriots is a hint of possibly more widespread terror to come—a message from the fear dictator deep inside the soul of the spin master.

What Guriev and Treisman certainly have right is that most of today’s new-breed autocrats do not publicly disavow or disparage democracy, but rather go to great lengths to ape democratic practices. This raises the question of whether the pretense of democracy masks the absence of an ideology beyond, say, the popular cause of “Making [insert your country’s name here] Great Again.” That cause may show itself as Putin’s irredentist Russia, Erdogan’s “neo-Ottomanist” (meaning more regionally engaged) Turkey, or Orbán’s complaint against the “indefensible borders” imposed on Hungary after World War I. These are grievances that resonate with their publics, but do such nationalist ideas possess the global appeal that communism and fascism once did?

Gideon Rachman comes close to asking that question in his book The Age of the Strongman, which also went to print just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Rachman does not propose a novel taxonomy of contemporary despots (in fact, he alludes in passing to Singapore’s Lee as “a wise if authoritarian reformer”). He does provide a persuasive and disturbing journey from country to country where strongmen (all of them are men) have come to power by deploring the lowly state to which their land had been reduced before they hit the scene and merging their own personalities with the aspirations and needs of the nation. Rachman is the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times and has reported on, if not interviewed, many of the people he writes about.

Most provocatively, he includes chapters on Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and Boris Johnson—each to some degree thwarted from acting on a strongman’s impulse by the institutions of his country’s government. Johnson strikes me as the iffiest suspect in this category, as the case against him is largely based on his embrace of the falsehoods that undergirded the Brexit cause. Would John F. Kennedy, campaigning on a nonexistent “missile gap” favoring the Soviets, have qualified as a strongman under this rubric? Neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon was known for an aversion to exaggeration. How difficult is it to join the autocrats’ club?

Most interestingly, Rachman writes about people whose ideas are influential among advocates of autocracy. On this score, the most disturbing news is the seriousness with which the late Carl Schmitt’s writings are taken by far-right thinkers in countries that include China, Brazil and Russia. Schmitt was a Nazi jurist and political philosopher—a rabid antisemite who disparaged the liberal notion of a neutral state that manages the differences between its conflicting parties. Politics, he said, is about friends versus enemies—that is, war by other means. There are laws, but the sovereign may declare an exception to the law. Declaring the state of exception is the defining power of the leader. In his day, he wrote in support of the suspension of liberties after the Reischstag fire in 1933 and of Hitler’s murder of hundreds of his political enemies on the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. Rachman reports that Schmitt has “re-entered the academic mainstream in recent years” at reputable Western universities, that he enjoys great influence among Chinese academics, that Putin’s adoring polemicist Alexander Dugin has written an essay called “Carl Schmitt’s Five Lessons for Russia” and that Trump-ite Steve Bannon has, at least, read Schmitt.

George Soros is the lone opponent of strongman rule whom Rachman writes about at some length. (Soros has been globally demonized by the far right, very often in antisemitic terms.) He is Schmitt’s complete opposite: a Jew, a victim of the Nazis, an advocate of an “open society.” He supported grassroots democracy in formerly Soviet and Soviet-controlled countries and, later, an independent university that was pushed out of Budapest by Viktor Orbán. I assume Schmitt would have approved of Orbán’s behavior in expelling the university; he probably wouldn’t have blanched had Orbán exterminated the faculty while he was at it.

Does all this foretell a new age of tyrants—some bloodthirsty and some cleverly manipulative—all of them placing the freedoms of ordinary citizens at risk? Reading the future from the political present is always difficult. Consider the case of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, declared an act of genius by Donald Trump. Far from rallying a powerful international coalition of rightists, it has rallied the West and imbued democrats with a new idealism and admiration for the strongman’s irrepressible nemesis. If it is our generation’s Spanish Civil War, this time the side of democracy appears to be holding its own.  What deserves more attention is the predictable, almost formulaic description in both these books of the conditions that precede each strongman/spin dictator’s ascent: widespread corruption, high crime rates, governmental incompetence.

As both these books should make us reflect, the great sorrow of the 21st century is the recognition of the degree to which democratic societies have failed to recognize the persistence of autocracy, despotism and aggression and to acknowledge an appropriate pessimism about human nature. As much as we may prefer to imagine a sunrise of democratization, human rights and the rule of law, humanity’s capacity for depravity casts a dark shadow on our vision of history fulfilled and democracy triumphant. The great princely hope of the House of Saud is hailed as a modernizer, then dispatches a team of his minions to murder and dismember his critic. China engages so deeply in the world economy as to move people by the hundreds of millions from agrarian poverty to a new urban working class, but that does little to soften Beijing’s hand, which is repressive in Hong Kong and genocidal in Xinjiang. The Russian army’s brutal suppression of the Chechens in the 1990s turns out to be not an atrocious lapse by a modernizing, Westward-leaning new regime but a modus operandi, foreshadowing the use of the army as an instrument of terror in Chechnya, in Syria, in Ukraine. It is a sad business, being stripped of the illusions of a hopeful worldview; the world imagined by policymakers in the aftermath of the Cold War was a happier place.

The question we face now is not only whether autocracy is becoming too strong, but whether democracy remains strong enough to withstand it.

Robert Siegel is a special literary contributor to Moment.

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