The age of the strong man is back – but will it stay?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan surprised observers by winning the presidential runoff last month, extending his rule into a third decade.

Erdogan received more than 52 percent of the vote, despite almost every poll and despite political crises, including skyrocketing inflation, which topped 80 percent in 2022 – and harsh criticism for his handling of earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people .

Erdogan’s continued political strength reinforces a larger dynamic: the populist “strongman’s” remarkable resilience.

Around 2017, commentators noted a worrying rise in populist “strongman” politics. Time The magazine commented on this new leader archetype: “…changing times have increased public demand for more muscular, assertive leadership.” These die-hard populists promise to protect “us” from “them.” And “they” could refer to anyone from the corrupt elite, to racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, to gangs and cartels, or even to the cultural decay of the West.

A pattern was already emerging.

Support for Putin in Russia intensified after state media described the 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula as a “miracle”.

In 2016 we saw the populist victory in both the UK and US Brexit with the rise of misfit and troublemaker Donald Trump to the presidency. In the same year, the edgy, hard-line populist Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines. Also contributing to his political success was his vocal support for extrajudicial killings of drug users and other criminals, after repeatedly claiming to have personally killed criminal suspects during his tenure as mayor of Davao. He launched a controversial war on drugs, crime and corruption. His tenure sparked numerous protests and sparked controversy, particularly over human rights issues. Despite the criticism, Duterte maintained high approval ratings.

Jair Bolsonaro, a politician and retired military officer and vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, abortion, drug liberalization and secularism, was elected President of Brazil in 2019. During his tenure, he reversed protections for indigenous groups in the Amazon rainforest and enabled deforestation.

Photograph of Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Ronaldo Schemidt/Getty

In Israel, the right-wing trend towards Israeli nationalism and the divided opposition provided an enduring power base for the ubiquitous Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

During these years there was a clear rise of populist, nationalist “strongmen”, each with a strong enough support base to withstand criticism from the secular intelligentsia and the media.

However, things seemed to change abruptly. Within a year or so, it seemed like the era of the “strong man” was on the wane.

Former US President Donald Trump at his rally in Waco, Texas

Former US President Donald Trump

Brandon Bell/Getty

Trump’s presidency ended after just one term; For the first time since George HW Bush in 1992, an incumbent failed to win re-election. The system held up — just barely — as it was strained by allegations of voter fraud and the January 6 spate of violence.

Bolsonaro lost to a left-wing populist, becoming the first Brazilian president not to be re-elected. Bolsonaro disappeared to Florida to lick his wounds.

Netanyahu was finally ousted under a cloud of diverse investigations by a broad coalition of his opponents who had little in common other than a strong desire to remove him.

Duterte simply refrained from running for a second term.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – a “special military operation” intended to last only a few weeks – met unexpected resistance, faltered, generated surprising solidarity and determination in the West, brought heavy sanctions, and sparked the expansion of NATO.

Around this time, Turkish President Erdogan appeared to be on the wane, and his AKP party’s candidate suffered an embarrassing defeat in local elections in Istanbul.

And yet, just as this counter-narrative seemed to be solidifying and the populist “strongman” era seemed to give way to an emphatically secular democratic era, populist “strongman” politics proved remarkably resilient.

Even with two indictments, Trump remains well ahead in Republican primary polls. He’s even leading President Biden in a few hypothetical duels, fueled by an almost preternaturally resilient personal appeal from his base.

Bolsonaro returned to Brazil from exile in Florida and appears to be laying the groundwork for a political comeback, where he has a solid base of support.

In no time at all, the anti-Netanyahu coalition in Israel collapsed over their untenable differences and Netanyahu returned to power. The new Israeli government formed in late 2022 saw its conservative Likud party being backed by a rising generation of ultranationalist politicians. And while his current coalition is fragile, it was a remarkable feat of resilience for Netanyahu to find his way back into office.

Despite all the setbacks – and the impending Ukrainian counter-offensive in the spring – Putin’s domestic political support remains high and the Russian economy is quite resilient in the face of ongoing sanctions and isolation.

Photo of Turkish President Recep Erdogan visiting a city in Turkey after a major earthquake.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tours the buildings destroyed after an earthquake in southeastern Turkey.

Adem Altan/Getty

And in May, Turkey’s President Erdogan, who was written off in almost every presidential poll and most analysts had expected would not last even in the first round, retained power with a clear majority.

While it may have been a few years since the populist “strongman” peaked, we have seen a counter-narrative against the assumption that secular liberal democracy would be back in full force.

But can this populist moment last much longer?

Donald Trump may return to the Oval Office by the end of 2024, but he would be banned from running again. And if he loses, he won’t run again until he’s 82. And while nothing — impeachment, impeachment, or the disgrace of his failed coup attempt — has brought Trump down so far, time stands.

Netanyahu’s fragile coalition, under pressure from massive public demonstrations against judicial reforms, may not be able to save his skin forever. Bolsonaro’s flirtation with a comeback is hardly guaranteed. And a stalemate in Ukraine’s Donbass region and rising casualties could eventually unleash a wave of domestic unrest in Russia that poses a real threat to Putin’s rule.

This is the hopeful scenario of the old strong men disappearing and their movements with them. Equally likely, and far more worrisome, is the possible emergence of younger, hardened populist firebrands who will take up their mantles and promise to protect “us” from “them.”

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