The “strong man” talk started well before Donald Trump’s election.
When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in May, comparisons with GOP candidate Trump instantly arose — although Duterte had 30 years’ experience in government.
Just as Trump caused shock waves by calling Mexican border-crossers rapists, Duterte made a widely denounced joke about gang rape. Both men criticized the Pope. Both nurtured a strident populist image.
And after the two spoke by phone earlier this month, Duterte said Trump had told him that his controversial drug war — replete with summary executions — was “the right way” to handle the problem.
The president-elect’s team never confirmed that assurance, and only said the two men “noted the long history of friendship” between the nations and would work closely on “matters of shared interest and concern.”
Like high fashion, politics and governance undergo global trends and fads. Similarities have been noted among elected leaders of a certain period. A generation ago, there was President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. During World War II, Hitler, Mussolini and Franco formed a coalition in fascist Europe, while the Western democracies had Roosevelt, Churchill and de Gaulle.
Leaders on the “strong man” list of today, of course, include Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with China’s president, Xi Jinping. Chinese officials in October hailed him as representing the “core leadership” of the Communist Party, which sounded to some like a revival of Maoist style.
There is also Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has invited the U.S. president-elect to Ankara. He also said he thought the two nations would now cooperate more on Syria.
Erdogan seems to have other things in mind as well. He wants to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who now lives in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. Erdogan blames Gulen for a failed coup against him last summer.
Which brings up an interesting tilt from Trump. On Election Day, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, his top national security adviser, published an Op-Ed column arguing Gulen shouldn’t enjoy safe haven here. (In July, Gulen, during a meeting with reporters, praised Hillary Clinton and was seen as a supporter of hers.)
Then there’s India. Trump drew vocal support from a faction of conservative Hindus in America. The president-elect’s strategic adviser, Steve Bannon, calls current strong man Prime Minister Narendra Modi “the Reagan of India.”
All the top leaders mentioned share a rhetorical theme. Generally, they invoke nationalistic defense against a hostile world.
The obvious question is how the strong man concept fits with democracy. British journalist Gideon Rachman wrote a few weeks ago in the Financial Times of London: “The fascination with strongmen spans autocracies and democracies.
“Strongmen bring a distinct style to international diplomacy. They tend to want to sort things out man-to-man, rather than relying on institutions or international law.”
Take that as a method for understanding political news in the months ahead.