Strongmen are making a comeback. Hyperlibertarian Javier Milei in Argentina and anti-immigration Geert Wilders in the Netherlands are among a growing group of recently elected leaders who promise to break a few rules, shake up democratic institutions and spread a populist message.
Is this a reaction against the failures of liberal democracies, or is there something else behind the appeal of these misbehaving men with wild hair? Four New York Times Opinion writers discussed the issue on a recent episode of the Times podcast “Matter of Opinion.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.The full conversation can be heard on the “Matter of Opinion” podcast.
Michelle Cottle, “Matter of Opinion” co-host and domestic correspondent:
I want to talk about strongmen, not so much of the physical variety, but of the political kind. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as the Republican presidential primary heats up and we’re looking at Donald Trump trying to make his return with an increasingly disturbing, dark authoritarian rhetoric.
Looking at this globally, Javier Milei and Geert Wilders have both have been compared to Trump. Why are we seeing this trend toward these kinds of leaders? But first, who do you think of when you hear the term strongman?
Carlos Lozada, “Matter of Opinion” co-host and Opinion columnist:
I think we need to define more precisely what we mean by a strongman. Is it an attitude, a set of policy positions? A style of politics? Trump is the caricature of the strongman leader and the us-versus-them rhetoric — the ‘them’ being immigrants or political elites.
Milei is a rabble-rouser right-winger. His us-versus-them rhetoric is less about immigrants than it is about the federal government of Argentina, which he wants to slice in half.
Ross Douthat, “Matter of Opinion” co-host and Opinion columnist:
I think there’s a distinction here between style and substance. Milei is a kind of hyperlibertarian, grown in a laboratory by Reason Magazine and the Ludwig von Mises Foundation. That’s quite different from Trump running as an economic populist against the neoliberal elites, and quite different from Geert Wilders running as mostly just an ‘immigration is out of control; we need to do something about it’ candidate in the Netherlands. I don’t think the term authoritarian is right. I think some of them have authoritarian impulses and some don’t, and some it remains to be seen.
There is, I think, a way in which a male braggadocio, this performative masculine rebellion against liberal politesse, shows up again and again, from Silvio Berlusconi to Trump. Even Boris Johnson had some of this. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you get these misbehaving men with wild hair as particular avatars of populist rebellion.
Lydia Polgreen, “Matter of Opinion” co-host and Opinion columnist:
They’re not all men, right? We have Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France. A lot of these leaders are promising a past-oriented politics. It’s both a cult of personality, that ‘I alone can solve this problem,’ and also that ‘I am going to take us back to when things were good.’
And that notion of, there was this glorious past in which more people had jobs, more people spoke the same language as you, more people looked like you, the economy was growing. I think what’s at the core of this appeal is the sense of deep disappointment with modern life and a sense that something’s got to be done about it. They’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore, and willing to roll the dice for people like Milei.
When I think of strongman, I think more in terms of authoritarian impulses. They’re willing to use the tools of government to consolidate and expand their power. I tend to think more along the lines of Viktor Orbán, the ultra right-wing prime minister of Hungary, or Donald Trump, than I do just the performative machismo. Otherwise, then, we get down into Robert F. Kennedy taking off his shirt to do pushups on social media.
But I think Kennedy fits this. I think part of his success is that he fits into this category, too.
And it’s also just disruption for disruption’s sake, a way to get attention.
I don’t know about disruption for disruption’s sake. The style alone is not the appeal. There have to be a set of conditions that enable this kind of politics to not just exist but to thrive. So you can look at outcomes, and you can look at ideas.
The outcomes, in recent years, have not been great. Look at Russia, where Putin does combine the take-my-shirt-off, ride-horses and fight-judo style with the policy substance. Look at Russia: Growing poverty during the post-Soviet experiment made people think back to an era where someone strong was in charge.
Are we seeing a global embrace of a different kind of politics? And if so, what does that mean for the U.S.?
In Europe, you’re seeing a normalization of populist critiques of the liberal consensus as the new normal form of opposition politics, which, in most places, will cease to be interpreted as a kind of existential threat to democracy itself and will be understood more as politics as usual.
For instance, you’ve just seen in Poland an election that turned the populist party out of power and returned the kind of center to power. What you see in Italy with Meloni has been a candidate with roots in Italy’s fascist movements becoming prime minister and ending up operating within the normal paradigm of European politics.
What you might see in France is Marine Le Pen actually becoming president and not being able to rule France as a far-right dictator, and operating within the normal confines of French politics. Geert Wilders is not going to become dictator of the Netherlands.
That is, I think, the likely future of Europe. We will see less talk about populism overthrowing liberal democracy and more talk about democracy divided between, let’s say, liberals and populists.
I’m interested in how the consensus came to be that liberal and democracy are conjoined words that go together like peas and carrots. You can have illiberal democracies, and we’ve had them in the past, and we’ll have them in the future. How did we get to a place where we thought that it was inevitable that liberalism and democracy would go together?
And I’m talking about liberalism in more of the classic sense, that there’s a certain rationality to human behavior and to markets. And perhaps it’s because that has produced a large technocratic state that has not necessarily delivered for people in the way that was promised and foreseen. Carlos, why do you think liberalism and democracy have become unyoked?
I think part of it is that it seemed like the only game in town for a while, and therefore, it seems inevitable. When it’s all you have, it seems like it’s all there should be. There’s a minimal definition of democracy, which is a system that selects leaders through fair and competitive elections that are voted on by a majority of the people, who will be governed by those leaders.
Liberal democracy, of course, far transcends voting. It’s protection of basic liberties, of freedom of the press, of religion, robust adherence to the rule of law, independent judiciary, a strong civil society — all these things that we say we like. The problem with liberal democracy is that it’s a procedural system that is judged not by its processes, but by its outcomes.
A democratic government doesn’t have to be virtuous, or successful, or noncorrupt to still count as a democracy. But when democracy fails to deliver, say, sustained economic growth or social stability, people may sour on the party in power, which is a nonsystemic issue, or they may start to sour on the system itself. If we think about the risks to liberal democracy, that’s where it is.
That’s the idea Vladimir Putin has been pushing. It’s past its prime. It’s over. He’s gleeful about any signs or any opportunity to just trash the whole system.
The issue that’s specific to European and American politics in the last 25 years is that liberalism as a system takes certain issues off the table. It says, look, no matter what public opinion says, you cannot persecute people for being Baptists. You cannot discriminate between races.
Especially since the end of the Cold War, political liberals have wanted to place more issues somewhat outside normal democratic contestation. And in Europe, that’s particularly meant immigration. There’s been this sense that migration is a human right.
European elites, from the perspective of a lot of their own voters, have conspired to make it impossible to criticize immigration. And the populist parties have emerged as critics of immigration. But there was never a formal agreement that open immigration was somehow actually fundamental to liberalism. It just sort of became assumed by elites.
The reason folks are souring on a liberal democracy is in part because it’s not delivering on outcomes, whether it’s economic growth or stability. But you can also think that liberalism bought its own hype and that it lapsed into extreme versions of itself. So on the right, that was the worship of free markets. And the free movement of peoples, globalization, that was liberalism to a certain extreme.
On the left, you could say it’s the worshipping of group identities and denigrating individualism, emphasizing the solidarity aspects. And so liberalism ceases to be attractive to a broad middle. I don’t know how to rally the middle.
It’s interesting because I think that our political systems are not designed to necessarily produce moderate choices. I don’t know if any of you have been following the upcoming election in Portugal —
Every day, Lydia.
Every day. There was a really great article in HuffPost that was a deep look at the Chega party — Chega is Portuguese for enough. And they’re in the wake of a big corruption scandal involving — and this is just so on the nose, it’s like something out of “House of Cards” — there was a scandal involving backroom dealing over green energy deals with the socialist government.
That is sexy.
Everyone is corrupt, no matter what.
So in marches this guy named Andre Ventura, who is, of course, a former sports commentator, a media star like Trump, and there’s a lot of talk about political correctness. And in this case, it involved the Roma people. What you’re seeing is, and I don’t think I necessarily am ready to call this authoritarian now, but the rise of a kind of alternative to the center-right, and center-left, consensus.
And people might say that they want moderation, but I think that there is something fundamentally underlying it, which is a mistrust. And this came up in the case of Argentina, that the casta, the political caste on either side, is capable of delivering the type of pathbreaking change that is needed. That’s where I think moderation fails; there’s just a lack of trust in the establishment parties that represent the ideological points of view that might address one side or the other of these problems, which I think creates, then, another lane for somebody like this Andre Ventura and his Chega party to march right in. And let’s see how they do in the election in March.
That lack of trust is completely warranted. Because I sort of believe that everyone is a latent authoritarian, because democracy is this very, very fragile bargain. And it’s not always based on a consensus over shared values, but a recognition by the various sides that they can’t achieve dominance. Democracy is not what partisans want; it’s what they settle for.
This is actually a question I have for all of you. One of the things that makes me quite nervous in the U.S. in particular is, there seems to have been a real devaluing of the whole idea of pluralism, of the idea that different groups should be expected to live together and abide by certain agreements. There’s just this move that the other team’s values or beliefs, and certainly their candidates and political wins, are illegitimate. And that seems, to me, a bad road to go down. And I don’t know how you come back for that. If you can’t embrace this kind of pluralism, where does this take you, other than just bifurcated extremes?
One of the arguments in Martin Gurri’s book, “The Revolt of the Public,” is that the internet and media culture create a constant cycle of discrediting of elites. Nobody can believe in elites anymore because we know too much about them at all times. Society needs a little bit of room for elite hypocrisy and self-dealing in order to function. And that’s been taken away.
But then the other thing the internet does is collapse distance. Nothing can happen in a left-wing city council meeting, or a right-wing homeschooling collective, or whatever, that can’t become a national story. And I think it’s really hard to have pluralism under those conditions.
Ross, are you saying we’ve always been this way, but now we all know it?
Well, to your point about people being natural authoritarians, to some degree, yeah, people are always intolerant of the out-group. And the internet gives you constant contact with the absolute worst thing that the out-group is doing today. That seems like a problem for democracy.
I think there’s another aspect to this. Human nature is that we tend to either idealize or demonize over time. We’re very good at idealizing the past or seeing the past as being incredibly bad. And we’re also always looking to the future as either the promised land or the road to hell.
There is something in this human tendency to always be caught in this netherworld between memory and fantasy. And none of those things help us deal with the present. But the reality of how we actually live our lives is, we have to deal with the present. We don’t have any choice. I think that combination of the internet and our weird relationship with temporality creates this particularly toxic moment right now.
Between memory and fantasy is a great short story collection title, or something.
The discarded alternate title for Vladimir Nabokov’s memoirs.