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The Siren Song of “Strongmania”

CLAREMONT – Political strongmen are back in style. Not long ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the only leaders worthy of the label. Today, he has much more competition.

The trend can be seen in traditionally autocratic regimes. Chinese President Xi Jinping is arguably the country’s most powerful leader since the death of Mao Zedong four decades ago.

But something similar can be seen in countries that had been touted as model young democracies. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had long been moving toward autocracy, has concentrated power further in the wake of last month’s failed military coup. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has reversed a post-communist success story with a sharp turn toward illiberalism. Even in the Philippines, where the People Power Revolution overthrew Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, voters have just elected as their president Rodrigo Duterte, an avowed populist strongman and trigger-happy warrior against drug lords.

Even the world’s most stable democracies have been infected by strongmania. In Austria, Norbert Hofer, leader of the far-right Freedom Party, is likely to be elected to the presidency in October. And in the United States, Donald Trump has capitalized on the frustration and prejudices of parts of the American electorate to gain a chance – fortunately, weakening by the day – of becoming the country’s next president.