Gideon Rachman, Journalist: "Trump And Putin Have Marked The Political Environment"

Gideon Rachman, foreign affairs journalist for the Financial Times.

Gideon Rachman, a Financial Times journalist specializing in international politics, worked as a correspondent for 15 years in Brussels, Washington and Bangkok. In 2016, he was awarded the Orwell Prize for Journalism, and in the same year he was named the European Press Prize’s commentator of the year. Throughout these years, he has closely followed the rise of new authoritarian leaders who are the focus of his latest book.

The era of authoritarian leaders, recently published in Spanish, analyzes the characteristics of the so-called “strong men” and the causes of their power. Rachman presented the book in Madrid, where he interviewed before the resignation of British Prime Minister Liz Truss.


I think for many reasons. The first is that there has been a global resurgence of nationalism. There was a period when it seemed that globalization was some kind of unstoppable force, that most leaders would adapt to it, and that nationalistic rhetoric had disappeared. However, Putin changed that.

One of the main characteristics of these strongmen is that they are radical nationalists, be it Trump with his “American First” or Xi Jinping with the rejuvenation of the Chinese population. They discovered that the idea of ​​the nation is still a very powerful idea.

The crisis in the West also helped create the conditions for many people to seek out a figure like Trump. In general, for these strong men to come to power they need the idea that there is a crisis because that is what justifies them being able to say: “You have to give all the power to me, you don’t need a system of checks and balances”. Also, these crises can take many different forms, sometimes it is a national crisis, a migration threat or a threat from outside nations.

When leaders like Putin or Trump emerge, in the end they manage to change the political environment, and generate a political style that others begin to imitate. For example, this is the case of Bolsonaro in Brazil: his figure became more possible after Trump won the elections in the United States, being the line of that rhetoric of “there is a crisis and you need me.”

I believe that the strongest common point of these leaders is the cult of personality. All the “strong men” say that because there is a crisis they are the only people who can help people because they have unique qualities. In his 2016 speech, Donald Trump talked about the supposed crisis in the United States and then said “only I can fix it.” That’s more or less what everyone does.

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, members of Putin’s Duma team said “without Putin, there would be no Russia.” That is the identification of the leader with the State, and once you have said that the leader has those unique and unrepeatable leadership qualities, that is when that leads us to an undemocratic conclusion. For the followers of him it is too dangerous to let him go, since this leader is the only one who has those qualities, that’s why these strong men need that cult of personality.

I think it’s still too early to answer that question, clearly Meloni has some characteristics in common with them. Of course she can be described as an extreme right-wing politician, just look at who she sits with in Parliament, and her admiration for Orbán.

It is true that the masculine part of the strong man cannot be applied, for example what Putin, Erdogan or Modi do of posing bare-chested with a shotgun in hand… But I don’t know if this really matters at the level that it reduces their attraction with her followers, I think there are certain strong men who have that particular attraction that is not possible for her, but a part of the social program she does share with them, such as the defense of the traditional family and the attack against the LGTBI+ rights and immigration.

Then there’s also the question of whether she has the anti-democratic instincts, and I think if you’re an Orbán fan you probably have no objection to any leader who backs democracy. However, I think the political situation that she finds herself in makes it more difficult for her to move quickly to become an authoritarian leader because she is in a coalition. In addition, there is usually a fairly frequent change of prime ministers in Italy and you need a period of time to be able to take root as an autocratic leader.

Could be. The crisis in Ukraine works both ways, because curiously, some of those who could become “strong men” in Europe were explicit admirers of Putin – Salvini in Italy or Orbán in Hungary – and now it is more difficult for them to say that Russia is the model to follow. Marine Le Pen, for example, was quite embarrassed and said that she had never liked the man. So in that sense, the “strongman” style has taken a hit in the European Union.

But you’re right that if we get into this economic crisis, which Putin is forcing, then at a certain point it’s going to be much easier to say that the voter thinks “the one in power has failed, I don’t have a job, I can’t afford this house”, and there is someone out there who is going to come and solve my problems.

Well I think we’re still looking at it, but clearly she had a unique authority. First, she has been the longest-serving leader. Second, she governed Germany, which is the most powerful economy in the EU. And thirdly, for a time she became a symbol of the opposite of the strong man.

But I think that when he left, some people said “this would not have happened if Merkel had been there, she has taken advantage of the situation”. However, now, there is a reassessment of the former chancellor’s legacy because she left Germany in a very vulnerable situation, due to its dependence on Russian gas.

On the other hand, in terms of the balance of power in the EU we are in a somewhat unusual situation where Germany is weakened as a leader. Partly because of the war in Ukraine, partly because they have a new leader with a calmer profile and who is not a natural leader in Europe.

It is also true that the turn towards the countries of the East, which are the most radical with respect to Ukraine, is being felt enough, laying the foundations for the debate on the war. While Germany is a bit on the defensive. That’s why the German leadership right now is not what it was, but I think in the long run it will come back, just because of the economic power that they have that naturally empowers them.

I think this has been a good moment for Emmanuel Macron, who was heavily criticized for trying to restore relations with Russia in 2019. But even with that, he is one of the only experienced European leaders, because he has been in charge for quite a few years. ; with the prestige of having recently won an election; and with many ideas for the new European Political Community.

We were talking about Meloni earlier, I think Macron has been strengthened by the fact that when Draghi was in power there was a natural link between Italy and France. Now that there is an Italian government that is more antagonistic towards France, I think it may lose a bit of traction in the EU.

I think there is no doubt that the war has increased Erdogan’s international power, and that it has been in a curious way because precisely Turkey did not join the sanctions that the EU was imposing on Russia. This puts him in a role that he can play as an intermediary.

It is also because Turkey is geographically on the side of the conflict. The Black Sea is tremendously important right now. So in order to reach an agreement with the grain, the countries at war had to talk about it with Turkey.

On the other hand, Erdogan has a complex relationship with Putin, but in a way it is also quite close. Although Russian and Turkish troops have been killing each other recently, the anti-American and anti-Greek rhetoric of the Turkish president – as far as I know – is not used with Russia. That’s why I think he keeps open ties to Russia, and although this may worry some Europeans and make them not trust him, maybe it can also be quite useful.

Well, he’s going to face an election next year, and he may lose it, and if he loses it he may have to relinquish power. The entire Turkish opposition thinks that if they win, he will be out. I don’t think they are right. He may find a way to declare a State of Emergency or something.

However, formally speaking Turkey remains an electoral democracy. Though I don’t think it has a free press or courts. For example, a friend of mine has been imprisoned in Turkey for 18 years, and he was the director of the country’s Open Society, a normal person who did no harm to anyone, but he was imprisoned.

Partly, I think it was because his project was founded by George Soros, someone who the Turkish president is quite obsessed with, and then because Erdogan after the attempted coup he kept seeing conspiracies. He ended up arresting many Turkish liberals. It is certainly not a remotely perfect democracy.

Boris Johnson managed to turn it around because the UK managed to develop the COVID-19 vaccine slightly ahead of the EU. He fell for other reasons.

However, Trump and Bolsonaro saw their image badly damaged by the management of the pandemic in their countries. Maybe Trump would have won the election if it hadn’t been for the pandemic.

However, the most interesting example is that of Xi Jinping and his decision to continue the lockdowns. Also in the West we had many libertarians saying that it was “sinister” that the Government could tell you that you cannot move from your house. I think most people just accepted a necessary evil, but in China you can see the implication of civil liberties, with such long lockdowns. The Chinese government has used the pandemic to generate a vast expanse of cyber surveillance of its citizens that seems endless in the hands of someone with no respect for civil liberties.

I think he’s already doing it. I used to travel to China every year, from 2012 to 2020, and I noticed how people became more and more nervous when speaking in public with Western journalists.

Xi Jinping has changed everything. There is no freedom of expression, even in private. In addition, there is a renewed emphasis on party control, also on studying the thinking of the current president. In that sense, Xi Jinping is quite a Maoist.

On the other hand, there is a climate of real fear, because they started with an anti-corruption campaign and a lot of people thought at first that that was a good thing, but clearly it is being used as a means of political control, and I think more than a million people have been arrested in the country, including some very powerful people like the former head of national security. Also, then there is the situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. In other words, the direction in which Xi Jinping is moving is very clear and I think he is going to continue on that path.

Yes, totally. Trump has provided the script for all these leaders, and I think Bolsonaro, more than anyone else, takes Trump as an example. He wanted to be the Trump of the tropics. That is why he adopted the language, the accusations of fake news, some things from the culture war and now he is borrowing the arguments that Trump used during the election results. This second round will be a great test for the Brazilian institutions, just as it was for the American ones.

It remains to be seen, I think if you are Trump it is a concern, and his rivals are hopeful that these cases will prevent him from running for election. If he has stolen federal documents, he is theoretically barred from holding a government job, which would include the presidency.

But some Democratic lawyers don’t think that’s going to work, because if you’re running for president you could make your case saying this is free speech and this is a normal democratic process. In addition, with these arguments the Supreme Court is going to support him, specifically this Supreme Court.

So overall I think people have been looking for something to come down from the skies and get Trump out of the political process, but that hasn’t happened, and I don’t think these legal processes will do that either. I hope I’m wrong.



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