The myth of the strongman

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. Russia’s Vladimir Putin. China’s Xi Jinping. And, of course, our own Donald J. Trump.

The world is in the grips of the strongman – tough, reactionary and taking no prisoners. Part of this is a response to the terrible, fascinating transition in which we find ourselves – a backlash to the global, multicultural, digital age to which so-called “feminine” energies (communications skills, sensitivity, a sense of service) are better suited. Part of this is the envy, rage and resentment, particularly in this country, of white, blue-collar males, who lacked the courage, intelligence, industry and imagination to confront their greedy employers and, failing that, reinvent themselves when manufacturing jobs began to dry up in the 1970s.

And part of this is the systemic failure of Alexandrian leadership – leadership from the frigging front – to engage these males (and the women in their lives, who apparently derive their sense of self and status entirely from them). Where, oh, where are the infrastructure jobs that would’ve put many of these people to work and would’ve shored up our bridges and roadways, which are badly in need of repair? Why hasn’t infrastructure been a priority in this country and in the Trumpet Administration?

Instead, it’s all about huffing and puffing. My button’s bigger than your button. I’d rush into the besieged school, even without a gun, and you didn’t. And now, we have the long-awaited tariff war, alias, my tax on your exported goods is bigger than your tax. Wanna bet?

Already, France, the European Union and Canada’s Justin Trudeau (the anti-Trumpet) have pushed back. Perhaps not so surprisingly, Republicans who represent segments of the economy that stand to lose, like Sen. Ben Sasse of agriculturally rich Nebraska – a big exporting state – are with them.

But here’s the thing:  The “strongman” doesn’t care. He’s not, after all, an actual strong man. A strong man includes everyone in his success. He’s first among equals on a team in which he serves others. The strongman plays a zero sum game. It’s not just that he has to win. It’s that you have to lose. And if you have gained something that must mean that he is somehow diminished.

As Karen Tumulty, a political columnist for The Washington Post, noted on PBS’ “Washington Week,” Trump right now is picking winners and losers:

 “And I think he’s also operating with an eye to a special election in Pennsylvania 10 days from now, where there is going to be a big – it’s a lot closer than it should be for the Republican candidate.  And a lot of these voters are going to be people like steel workers and coal miners, who will actually be cheering these tariffs.”

They don’t care if you have to pay more for everything from a can of Coke to a new car. They don’t care if the overseas market for American farmers’ crops dries up. They don’t care about whether or not your 401k plan or retirement savings suffer. They assume everyone in the stock market is rich, just as they assume everyone who is poor or an immigrant is gaming the system. They want government to do for them but not tell them what to do. They are so blinded by prejudice and consumed by their own corrosive hatred that they don’t understand Wall Street is the tide that lifts all boats. If the markets fail, the economy will as well. (See President George W. Bush – another strongman who’s looking good right now, ever since he went all Churchillian and took up painting. He raised tariffs in 2002 to shore up his base, too, only to have to rescind them a year later.)

We would do well to remember Winston Churchill here. He was strong and plenty tough, too. He had the leader’s sense of self but not the Trumpian sense of selfishness. He knew who he was and what he stood for, wherease Trump’s lust to be liked means that he reflects whatever the last person says to him. So, he’s for DACA, then against it; for gun control then against it. Ironically, Trump’s narcissistic core means he has no core values.

Chillingly, that’s just the tip of the global iceberg. There’s Rootin’ Tootin’ Putin’s new nuclear arsenal, which, he says, can counter anything the U.S. has. (How comforting is that.) And Putie’s passive-aggressive game in Syria, condemning Assad one moment and supporting him the next as he annihilates his people (with an assist from weapons-exporting Kim Jong-un) and the world rails and does – nothing. Give Putin this:  He took a second-rate world power and put it back on the map, but he did so by exploiting others’ weaknesses not by using his country’s strength.

No one, however, compares quite to Xi Jinping. He’s the Iron Panda, the equivalent of the iron fist in the velvet glove, smiling benevolently via video at the PyeongChang Games’ closing ceremonies all the while angling to be China’s ruler for life. The poised Xi, so different than the unglued Trumpet, may prove the ultimate winner of the strongman contest.

The question is, Do we want his and the others’ brand of absolutism in an age that is still blessedly about democracy?