Like those who stop to gawk at a car crash, people around the world have developed a perverse fascination with Donald Trump.
Americans have never experienced the personality-driven strongman politics they’re seeing under him. And it has rattled many of them.
But he is only one of a new breed of strongmen who combine seductive talk about re-invigorating their countries with threats against their opponents. Many of the new breed are seeking power in Europe, unsettling people used to decades of democracy.
Part of what’s rattling people in the West is that these new strongmen are rejecting reality, replacing it with their own creation of half-truths, fabrications, distractions, and fear-mongering.
Although many Westerners think the rise of Trump and other charismatic strongmen is new, it isn’t. They’re using tactics straight from the Soviet playbook.
They fan the flames of external enemies, expel, imprison or punish domestic opponents in other ways, undermine the rule of law, attack non-state-controlled media, and share the spoils with their supporters.
When you add the power of the Internet and big money to the old Soviet approach, you have a modern recipe for autocracy. If the Soviets had had access to these tools — data analytics, troll farms, alternative facts and fake news — you can be sure they would have weaponized them without hesitation. In fact, Russia, whose leader Vladimir Putin is a child of the Soviet system, is doing just that.
The good news for Americans who believe Trump poses a palpable threat to their democracy is that he’s still learning how to become an authoritarian. While he continues to dominate the headlines day in and day out, he hasn’t nailed the nuances yet. If he ever does, many Americans worry: Watch out!
During the Cold War, Latin America had more strongmen than a Mr. Universe contest. Today the Middle East and Asia are seeing the emergence or re-emergence of Trump-like firebrands intent on seizing or consolidating power.
Academics, journalists and political commentators are already connecting the rise or entrenchment of nationalist strongmen in the Middle East with Russia’s political, economic and military return to the region.
While a lot has been made of Russian involvement in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, Russia has begun supporting strongmen elsewhere as well.
Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is a prime example. The former mayor campaigned for president on a platform of defeating crime by killing tens of thousands of criminals.
His appalling rhetoric inspired official and unofficial death squads to roam urban and rural areas, killing thousands with impunity — more than 3,600 since the middle of last year.
Duterte views the media as corrupt. It is the enemy, he says flatly, and journalists should not be exempt from the wave of assassination that has enveloped the Philippines.
Duterte is persecuting pro-democracy critics such as Senator Leila de Lima. He has made good on his public threat to destroy her by arranging for trumped-up drug trafficking charges to be filed against her. He must be chuckling inside over the irony of filing such charges against one of the most prominent opponents of his bloody war against drug purveyors.
Many of Duterte’s heavy-handed tactics are eerily reminiscent of those Trump has used against the media and political opponents.
A lot of political observers view what Duterte is doing as a crude attempt to silence all opposition. Undermining the rule of law, creating domestic enemies, and imprisoning opponents are classic tactics of authoritarians trying to consolidate power.
In some Asian countries, a strongman has emerged that Russia would love to co-opt, but has had no opening to pursue. In strategically important Thailand, it’s a case of a collective strongman — a junta — rather than one figure.
The justification the military used to seize control in 2014 was that it needed to stop the turmoil between political parties that had spilled onto the streets.
The tools the junta has used against opponents of its rule include one that few countries have in their tool kit. It is lèse majesté, or insulting the monarchy, a crime that is wide open to abuse.
The military has used this tool, along with traditional authoritarian tactics, to create an atmosphere where people are afraid to criticize the government.
Thailand’s fusion of the military and monarchy have long given the elite an insurmountable advantage over the rest of the country — and that continues today.
The military’s 2014 coup and subsequent crackdown against political opponents has led to 1,800 civilians being tried in military courts. Many of the politicians, business people, activists, and journalists who were arrested were simply supporting basic democratic freedoms.
International human rights organizations say Thailand has charged 68 people with lèse majesté, mostly for posting social media messages. Thirty-people who oppose military rule are facing sedition charges.
Some of those who have been charged are prominent. The internationally renowned human rights lawyer, Sirikan Charoensiri, faces up to 15 years in prison on charges of conspiracy and sedition.
Nopporn Suppipat, one of Thailand’s most successful entrepreneurs and known among prominent Thai academics for being pro-democracy, fled to France after being charged with lèse majesté. People close to the junta snatched his company when he did so.
While Trump distracts Americans with presidential tweets, Moscow and Beijing are asserting their influence in many parts of the world, and looking for openings in places like Thailand where they’ve never had footholds.
Former allies are turning away from the United States, seeing Trump as a potential threat instead of a champion of democratic principles.
The Soviet playbook is back, thanks to his rise. And it’s finding some eager new pupils.
Armine Sahakyan is a human rights activist based in Armenia. A columnist with the Kyiv Post and a blogger with The Huffington Post, she writes on human rights and democracy in Russia and the former Soviet Union.