Many people, not just Clare Foges, refer to people like Trump, like Putin- and even like Boris Johnson as strongmen. And though they can ostensibly shield themselves behind that perception, even a quick look at their actions sets the match of truth to the tinder paper of their lies. The idea that it takes a strong man to bring order and authoritarian tropes is foolish, because only authoritarian leaders are so afraid of dissent that they forfeit the freedoms of discourse, repeating empty lines about G7 recoveries and vaccine rollouts or EU membership instead of facing, head on, the scrutiny of a tired and angry country.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat has written an extensive book bringing light into the dark and murky perception of the strongman and revealing the departure from any rectitude it takes to be, or be perceived as, a classic strongman. She also spoke at length on “Enemies of the People“, a podcast about extremism to discuss the perception of the strongman and why those who are seen as such by the media are anything but, and looking at today’s examples of this archetype it’s easy to see why. Take Putin.
Vladimir Putin is a coward. A terrified coward who hides himself behind the facade of a ruthless strongman. Throughout history, strongmen have appeared in various guises and often the biggest examples of “strongmen” are in fact- not.
Putin’s regime is handled with an iron fist, something which seems, at a glance, to be a trope of a strong and powerful man. Nobody is denying Putin’s power, but strong? It’s the mark of a coward to prevent any scrutiny. It’s why any attempt to place Johnson as an opposite of someone like Putin is, frankly, funny. Johnson is cut from the scraggly end of the same cloth as Putin.
Looking at his government’s flagrant attempts to seize the reins of whatever passes for democracy in the UK, it’s quite plain to see that Johnson desperately wants to push the message of someone with a plan, with a big brain- someone who knows what’s right, what’s best for the people: we’ll take protest away because it might bother you (even though it’s a fundamental right), we’ll tear ourselves out of the single market and the customs union (it means cheaper goods and a much freer market for you to sell into and buy from but so what, freedom!), who needs covid restrictions (hospitals are crawling slowly towards almost 100% capacity nationwide, the cancer treatments we were told would be freed up by dropping restrictions are cancelled left right and centre- but we’re the first country ‘through’ the pandemic eh)
This attempt to make Johnson out as a weak leader is right- but not for the reasons that writers like Foges think: all strongmen leaders are cowardly. Johnson is a member of this club along with those she lauds as “doers”; after all, their favourite defence of Johnson is that he “got brexit done” – heedless of the profound cost of course. To a man, every leader who fits this trope is weak, more interested in consolidating power in a shield around them than doing the job. We’ve seen the perfect examples of this over and over- Let’s look at another example foges mentioned: Donald Trump.
So riled he was that his authority was challenged over his appalling handling of the Coronavirus pandemic he incited an insurrection during a pandemic, uncaring as to whether his followers may sicken or die defending him. He could have spent his time in office making the American people’s lives better, could have brought in legislation to redistribute tax, fix healthcare, reform police or the army, change budgeting. Instead he clung to his podium speaking about invisible, inexorable enemies of democracy as he worked to besmirch it with his own grubby hands. Strong men sit back and let their minions, usually other men, do their bidding. They enthrall others with promises of power and station, and use them. They snatch fear from the hearts of other men and use this fear to line up human shields before them. Only true strong men face the scrutiny of the opposition, the true criticisms of their adversaries and do it without an army of others surrounding them: it’s the equivalent of the person who bullies you when his friends are around but ignores you when he’s alone. And for some reason we have all collectively allowed this archetypal throwback to mediocrity to continually take the podium of power.
Now looking back at Johnson we can see that he fits in well with this crowd of peers that he’s occasionally placed in opposition to. Lets’ then look at other supposed strongmen like the leaders of true authoritarian regimes- Brazil’s Bolsonaro, a man who spent the pandemic talking about his penis and selling off the rainforest or letting it burn. Strong men are seen as bull headed, as if it’s a positive that you can’t change the mind of a man who has decided that he should let the life preserving trees on his continent turn to ash even when presented with science. Johnson too said we would be on course to “irreversibly open the economy” only to close it again months later as coronavirus rocked the nation again. So is a strong man a man who can admit to his wrongdoings, or a man who obfuscates them? At this point, I’m not sure it matters: strong men are the ones who rush in and make the wrong decisions in the first place.
Lately Johnson has taken to referring to President Zelenskyy as “my friend”, a transparent attempt to capture that machismo, bravery and effortless charisma that Zelenskyy has displayed as his country faces horrors beyond our pale imaginations in the UK. This is, of course, another trope that strongmen use- desperately trying to capture the accolades of actual leaders: we both know if war broke out in the UK Johnson would hide so deeply underground he would cook his morning toast on the outside of the earth’s molten core.
Ultimately one has to question why the world is so captivated by these wasteful men, men so afraid of scrutiny they refuse to recall parliament to face questions about their probity, and why people like Foges try so desperately to separate Johnson from the pack. Everybody knows that men like Johnson, Bolsonaro, Trump, Putin are all of apiece and their continued efforts to inherit a power they are too weak to lift aloft is to the detriment of all those being crushed beneath.