Last spring, the world was treated to the ghastly spectacle of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro exchanging soccer jerseys and back slaps in the White House. Practically speaking, their meeting amounted to little more than lunch and a photo opportunity. But it carried a great deal of symbolic weight. It represented the convergence of reactionary political trends in the Americas and around the world, and it reinforced the perception that democracy is retreating before a cohort of strongmen striding the global stage.
Hand-wringing over the “age of the strongman” has become a staple of mainstream punditry. There is, of course, much to be worried about. In addition to Trump and Bolsonaro, nationalist and authoritarian forces seem to have the upper hand in an alarming number of countries. Xi Jinping has abolished China’s presidential term limits, centralized power, and enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought” in the country’s constitution. Narendra Modi and his aggressive brand of Hindu nationalism won a huge victory in India’s elections earlier this year. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded to the recent coup attempt by cracking down on opposition parties and journalists, and his government has effectively suspended democracy in the country’s Kurdish regions. Viktor Orbán continues to consolidate his ultranationalist regime in Hungary; Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” has killed twenty thousand Filipinos and incited violence against journalists and critics; Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has cleared the way to hold power in Egypt until 2034; Vladimir Putin’s autocratic presidency has no end in sight. While claims of incipient global fascism are overblown, there’s no doubt that this is, as Gramsci’s famous epigram puts it, a time of monsters.
These developments, as well as the broader “populist moment” that spawned them, have made politicians, journalists, and scholars very anxious about the future. They have fueled a cottage industry of think pieces and books dedicated to diagnosing the “democratic recession” that is shaking elite confidence in the durability of Western-style liberal democracy. Indeed, a trip to any bookstore today will greet the visitor with an array of bloodcurdling titles announcing democracy’s impending doom. While anxiety about the durability of democratic government is nothing new, the breadth and depth of pessimism about its prospects marks a sharp contrast with the triumphalism of the post–Cold War years.