‘Twenty-first century strongmen are a global phenomenon that come in many shapes and forms,’ write Ulrich Bröckling, Dorna Safaian and Nicola Spakowski in their introduction to an issue of Mittelweg 36 on an all-too familiar figure for our times.
Political strongmen might be democratically elected charismatic leaders of populist movements and parties who, if they don’t succeed in disabling the opposition via electoral manipulation or constitutional amendments (Erdoğan), are voted out again (Trump, Bolsonaro). But they may also be rulers in autocratic systems (Putin) or one-party regimes (Xi).
‘Even if not all of them show the same characteristics to the same degree, what unites them is a disruptive style of politics that upsets historically formed alliances, and that breaks with existing routines of self-representation and political custom as well as sowing distrust of state institutions. Strong men politicians stand for a distinct personalization of the political field, which is given a heroic accent. Transgressive violation of norms belongs to their repertoire as much as the polarization of the social-political discourse and the narrowing of political processes down to a single decision-maker. They portray an antagonistic world full of enemies, in which only those who master all the tricks and ruthlessly follow their interests have a chance. And, with a few exceptions such as Marine Le Pen or Giorgia Meloni, strong men politicians are indeed all men. They do not leave the slightest doubt about this fact and perform an aggressive-sexualized masculinity with misogynistic and homophobic elements.’
Cultural sociologist Bröckling describes strong men as ‘personal points for the coalescence of social energies’, tracing the contours of macho politicians via study of their relationship networks. Referring to Paul DiMaggio’s and Walter Powell’s concept of mimetic isomorphism, Bröckling understands the reciprocal imitation that forms this global social figure in terms of the copying of a successful political model.
The strongmen, including the wannabees, ‘closely observe one another and have their spin doctors analyse which topics and media appearances, which techniques of mobilization and repression, and which transgressions they can adopt … Most of all they like to copy the transgressive moments, what sets off a spiral of radicalization, in order to attract public attention.’
Political scientist Fabian Burkhardt describes how democratic institutions in Russia have been replaced by Putin’s personal networks. Insofar as he was able to order the attack on Ukraine without any internal resistance, Putin has proved his strength. But the concentration of power on which this strength is based goes hand in hand with poor government and erratic decision making. The war has not gone to plan and has revealed weaknesses in the Russian system.
And yet, there are no signs of an erosion in Putin’s power. Even a defeat in Ukraine may not necessarily damage him, as is generally assumed. Research based on past examples shows that autocrats are highly likely to remain in power after military defeat. Given the possibility of nuclear escalation should the US or NATO attempt regime change, the chances are high that Putin will remain in power regardless of the outcome of the war, argues Burkhardt.
Xi Jinping’s rule in China is an example of the personalization of a one-party regime, writes sinologist Nicola Spakowski. Xi’s self-presentation is adjusted to the image of the nation, which occupies an increasingly important role in the regime’s claim to legitimacy. Drawing on Confucian and social Darwinist traditions, Xi plays the role of the fatherly leader and representative of the ‘strong nation’. Yet despite the many admirers of the Russian leader in China, Xi does not adopt Putin’s hypermasculine style, which would undermine his win-win diplomacy worldwide.
‘In the Ukraine war, Xi has not stood by Putin unconditionally,’ writes Spakowski, ‘and it can be assumed that unlike Putin, Xi rationally weighs up his country’s foreign policy options rather than blindly following the affects of the ultra-nationalist camp. Conclusions about the geopolitical alliance of “disruptors” as well as the personalised “bromance” between Xi and Putin are thus superficial, since they overlook the differences, rivalries and asymmetries between China and Russia as well as between the two strongmen Putin and Xi.’
Le Pen’s calculations
Political sociologist Dorit Geva discusses the issue’s sole woman among the strong men. Conveying a traditionally maternal yet anti-patriarchal image, Marine Le Pen is mainstreaming far-right politics in France and beyond, writes Geva.
‘Since her election to party leadership in 2012, Le Pen has decisively moved her party’s formal platforms away from reactionary conservatism regarding gender, sexuality, and women’s rights. While she is reluctant to label herself a feminist, like Italy’s far-right Giorgia Meloni, she decisively articulates an image of a strong woman leader, an unmarried mother with unbridled ambitions for herself and her party, and a political leader who authentically cares about women’s “liberty” and needs. Whereas far-right parties in post-socialist Central and East Europe espouse patriarchal and homophobic views, Marine Le Pen has made a very simple calculation that in order to attain power in France, it is necessary to remake the far-right from a men’s club to a party that attracts women voters.’