A New Form of Autocracy?

23 November 2022

Review: Moisé Naím, The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century (St. Martin’s Press)


Less than a week before the recent mid-term elections in the United States, President Joe Biden delivered an address in which he declared that democracy itself was on the ballot in the upcoming midterm elections. Invoking both the assault on the United States Capitol on January 6 , 2021 and an attack the previous week on the husband of the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi by a hammer-wielding assailant seeking to kidnap the speaker herself, the president traced the violence in each case to what he termed the “Big Lie” of former president Donald Trump that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen. Biden’s immediate concern was the large number of “election deniers” running for state and federal office who would not commit to accepting the results of their upcoming electoral contests. He asked his fellow citizens to “make the future of our democracy an important part of your decision to vote and how you vote,” and darkly warned the American people that we “can’t take democracy for granted any longer.”


So, with (most of) the votes now tabulated, did democracy win in the 2022 American mid-term elections? The emerging consensus:  it didn’t lose. For Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times, the American constitutional system “looks to have come through — a little dinged up, but OK . . . [W]e may have just dodged one of the biggest arrows ever aimed at the heart of our democracy.” American democracy, Tom Nichols wrote in The Atlantic, “now has some breathing room.” Likewise, in the view of a commentator for Vox, there is “no question that the forecast for American democracy is looking better today than it was heading into the election.”


But no one seems ready to pronounce the United States’ democratic crisis over, and with good reason. The United States remains one of a startlingly high number of nations around the world where democracy is ceding ground to various forms of authoritarianism. This global trend toward autocracy includes both established and more fragile, emerging democracies. At their core, however, all of these democratic crises involve the same challenge to liberal democratic pluralism. As President Biden put it, this is the “opposite of democracy. It means the rule of one, one person, one interest, one ideology, one party.”


It should therefore be no surprise that an ever-growing number of books seeking to explain this global trend are competing for bookstore shelf space. Among the most imaginative and wide-ranging is Moisé Naím’s The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century, which places special emphasis upon how 21st century autocrats differ from their 20th-century predecessors. One of the many strengths of Naím’s account is that it draws upon a broad array of autocrats from all points across the political spectrum and from all parts of the globe to support its thesis. And like so many books in this genre, The Revenge of Power supplements its analysis with proposed solutions for checking the rise of autocracy and strengthening democratic institutions.


Naím brings extensive and varied experience to this all-too-timely subject. He is presently a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. Previously, he served as editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, was an executive director at the World Bank, and a cabinet minister in Venezuela, his native country. Although he writes in a breezy, informal style that will appeal to general readers, Naím also brings an unmistakable sense of urgency to his subject. Free societies around the world, he declares at the outset, now face an “implacable new enemy” which he describes as “power, in a malignant new form” — a form of executive power which arises in democratic contexts but “mimics democracy while undermining it, scorning all limits.”


This new form of power relies upon a “compact core of strategies to weaken the foundations of democracy and cement its malignant dominance.” Naím reduces these strategies to what he terms the “3Ps”:  populism, polarization, and post-truth which, working together, enable what he terms “3P autocrats” to “gain, wield, and keep power.”  Although 3P autocrats arise in different political contexts, “their playbooks look uncannily similar,” and their innovations have “deeply altered the way power is conquered and retained in the 21stcentury.”


Contemporary autocrats frequently wield power by stealth rather than openly and brutally, Naím argues, in a manner that might be termed the “boiled frog” approach: according to popular understanding, a frog dropped into boiling water will jump out immediately, while one placed in lukewarm water gradually heated to a boil will fail to realize what is happening. Although “zoologically suspect,” the boiled frog approach has “real psychological underpinnings,” providing a cogent analogy for the process of modern autocratic power consolidation. 3P autocrats “cloak their autocratic plans behind walls of secrecy, bureaucratic obfuscation, pseudo-legal subterfuge, manipulation of public opinion, and the repression of critics and adversaries. Once the mask comes off, it’s too late.”


The 21st century autocratic all-star team

Whilst many think of autocracy today as predominantly a phenomenon of the reactionary right, Naím’s wide-ranging perspective accords ample space to left-wing autocrats, particularly the regime of Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro in his native Venezuela. He returns frequently to such familiar names as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Turkey’s Recept Tayip Erdogan. Autocratic practices if not their practitioners from countries as diverse as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Argentina, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, along with China and multiple African countries, also buttress Naím’s points. But the most regularly cited practitioners of 21st century autocracy are Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, and Vladimir Putin.


Berlusconi and Trump exemplify how 21st century autocrats exploit modern entertainment techniques to advance their political fortunes, blurring the lines between celebrity culture and politics. Orbán offers a textbook example of the boiled frog approach, which he proudly terms “illiberal democracy,” pursuing in small steps, often cloaked in stealth, “some of the most comprehensive programs of 3P autocracy in recent memory,” with the effect of undermining Hungary’s fragile democratic institutions. Orbán, however, is merely the star pupil of Vladimir Putin, who represents 21st century autocracy in its rawest and most brutal form. Writing before this year’s invasion of Ukraine, Naím contended that more than any other 3P autocrat, Putin has turned his country into a gangster state.


Understanding 21st century autocracy

What unites today’s autocrats is that all “want power with no strings attached, and they want it for keeps.”  The ‘3Ps’ constitute Naím’s framework for explaining the strategies they employ in their quest for no-strings-attached power. Taken together, the 3Ps “sketch out a recipe for pursuing and maintaining power” that Naím describes as “fundamentally undemocratic, uncontained by constitutional principles or institutional restraint.”


Populism, the first of the 3Ps, is a versatile, anti-elitist strategy that champions the cause of the “people” – “noble and pure” yet “betrayed and aggrieved” — whose problems can be attributed to the decisions, invariably corrupt and often conspiratorial, of a venal elite. Rather than being an ideology like socialism or liberalism, populism can be made compatible with “virtually any governing ideology or no ideology at all.” Populism, Naím argues, fuels polarization through a politics of resentment and grievance, dividing the political realm into “us” and “them,” with little middle ground between the two.


But resentment, Naím argues, is only a euphemism for revenge, the “longing to hurt those you believe have wronged you,” making revenge the central source of modern political polarization (as well as the source of the book’s title).  As polarization advances, “political rivals come to be treated as enemies.” The enemy can be a rival political leader or party, or a social, racial, or ethnic group. Polarization generally feeds on the collapse of the political center, pulling societies apart and solidifying 3P autocrats’ grip over their followers. Both populism and polarization have long histories, “amply documented by scholars dating back to antiquity.” The third ‘P’, post-truth politics, by contrast, is a distinctly 21st century phenomenon, one that goes beyond traditional propagandizing and lying.


Post-truth politics centers on the uses that can be made of the internet and related technologies to sow misinformation that “deepens the polarization that divides societies.”  Rather than getting lies accepted, post-truth politics aims at “muddying the waters to the point where it is difficult to discern the difference between truth and falsehood in the first place.”  This “strategic use of confusion,” as Naím phrases it, makes post-truth politics:

much darker than the run-of-the-mill mendaciousness of the powerful. It is not about the spread of this lie or that lie but about destroying the possibility of truth in public life. By shaking our shared sense of reality, post-truth elevates populism and polarization from a normal kind of political nuisance into something different and more fundamental: an existential threat to the continuity of free governments and free societies.


Covid-19 as the 3P autocrats’ golden opportunity

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 proved to be itself an existential threat to the continuity of democratic institutions across the globe, offering autocrats an unparalleled opportunity to enhance their hold on power. For entirely legitimate health reasons, the use of emergency state powers increased during the pandemic. But as issued by 3P autocrats, declarations of a state of emergency “all but openly trumpeted their authoritarian intent.” In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s declaration of emergency was limited neither in time nor in scope, and provided a justification to shut down parliament and gain full control of the state apparatus, allowing him to rule by decree.


There were an unusually high number of election postponements in 2020. Some of course were motivated by genuine health concerns, precisely why the pretext is “credible enough to be useful to those exploiting the pandemic for political gain.” The early months of the pandemic also saw its own “global pandemic of censorship,” with autocratic governments around the world “cracking down on dissent under the guise of banning disinformation about the virus.”


In every case, Naím notes, governments “claimed to be moving in the interest of public health to snuff out untrue stories about the virus. In a suspiciously high proportion of cases, those ‘untrue stories’ happened to unveil the ineptitude of the government’s handling of the crisis.” Meanwhile, in the United States and Brazil, public statements made by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro were “riddled with scientific denial, appeals to magical thinking, and straight-up lies.”  Unlike the blatant falsehoods propagated by the Chinese and Russian governments, Trump and Bolsonaro “appeared personally convinced of some of the most far-fetched conspiracy theories they peddled.”


Politics as spectacle

More than their 20th century predecessors, today’s autocrats gain and maintain power by utilizing what Naím terms the “entertainment values of our age.” What is new in the 21st century, he argues, is the extent to which people now look at politics as spectacle, relating to their political leaders in the same way they relate to their favorite entertainers and sports stars. Politics as spectacle “devalues mastery of policy details, expertise, the ability to strike bargains and to move toward messy pragmatic compromise.” These basic democratic values “lose space to their opposites: invectives, demonization of opponents, maximalism, and intolerance.”


Silvio Berlusconi, who served three terms as Italy’s Prime Minister from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006, and 2008 to 2011, provided one of the earliest demonstrations of how entertainment values can be leveraged for political gain. Berlusconi first built a media empire, transforming Italian television into a “crassly commercial profit engine,” then “did the same to the country’s politics.” Once Italian voters had a taste for politics that shared the look and feel of show business, there was “no going back.” Italian politics were no longer boring, and “extreme positions and made-for-the-camera antics came to be the stock in trade of the political realm – just what the voting public expected.”


Donald Trump picked up where Berlusconi left off in his improbable bid for the presidency in 2015-16 and the chaotic presidency that followed from 2017-2021. Trump’s world was “shot through with entertainment values” where “ratings are everything.” Having been “steeped for four decades in celebrity culture and the entertainment industry,” Trump had developed an “unrivaled sixth sense for what it took to get noticed, written about, talked about, covered.” Unlike other entertainers who entered politics, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Franken, Trump never saw a need to remake himself as a serious politician.


Less well known is the extent to which Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez also adeptly utilized the politics of fandom “in the service of full 3P strategy to grab and maintain power.” Usually treated as an archetypal 20th-century left wing strongman, Chávez’s political style owed more to Berlusconi than Fidel Castro, Naím contends. Chávez grasped that ideology matters less than celebrity status and that folksy television performances could create a world where style was substance. He used this star power to dismantle the checks and balances at the heart of Venezuela’s constitution.


Naím, who grew up in Venezuela and had served in its government in the pre-Chávez era, initially dismissed Chávez as “another populist demagogue, a clown too hapless to do any real damage,” failing to grasp how his fandom had “set the stage for the logic of tribalism that drives polarization.” Years later, he watched Donald Trump’s quest for the presidency in the United States with a “horror suffused in déjà vu… I had seen this movie before. Just never in English.”


Berlusconi, Trump and Chávez relied upon a “debased charisma emptied of genuinely political content,” propelled by the “same thirst for entertainment that saturates the rest of our culture.”  Where the line between power and spectacle “vanishes completely,” Naím warns, “freedom cannot hold out for long.” Mafia states, predicated upon a “criminal takeover of the state” may seem like anything but politics as entertainment. But they pose similar dangers.


Politics as thuggery

Mafia states are “designed to allow its leaders maximum latitude to enrich themselves with impunity.” Unsurprisingly, Vladimir Putin has created what Naím considers the world’s “most ambitious, ruthless, and effective mafia state.” In Putin’s Russia, the entire economy is for all intents and purposes beholden to him. “Criminality and racketeering aren’t departures from the norm: they are a central feature of the system that Putin built.” Democracy cannot work, Naím warns, in “mafia states that rely on organized crime’s strategies, tactics, and methods and have the backing of a sovereign state.” Even more perniciously, the mafia state operating out of the Kremlin uses relatively inexpensive online communications technologies to undermine and destabilize democracies abroad.


Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election was merely one in a long line of Russian online interventions outside its borders. The Russian government has also been accused of meddling in the 2017 Spanish elections and the Catalonian separatist movement’s ill-fated independence referendum of the same year, as has the government of Venezuela. Catalonian independence was “precisely the kind of social fault line the Kremlin loves to expose and exploit,” Naím writes. For Russia, “manufacturing reality is a tool of statecraft,” he observes. He terms this relatively inexpensive form of meddling abroad “sharp power,” which he considers perhaps the “most unprecedented and insidious” among the 21st century forms of disruption discussed in his book and one of the principal reasons that a mafia state “anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere.”


Is the invasion of Ukraine the logical next step?

Naím now needs to consider whether Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine earlier this year represents the natural extension of the autocratic tendencies he describes. Putin’s pre-2022 incursions into Ukraine were coated with what Naím terms a “paper-thin patina of pseudo-legal legitimacy to what everyone could see was a Russian military land grab.” In the 21st century, he argues, it is “diplomatically untenable for a country to project its military power into a neighbor’s territory openly.”


This year’s Ukraine invasion lacked even these thin pretenses, recalling Mussolini’s incursion into Ethiopia and Hitler’s attacks on Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1930s. The glorification of war and conquest was a key element of 20th century Fascism but until now has not been a central part of 21st-century 3P autocracy. Is naked military conquest the logical next step for autocrats once they have fully consolidated power in their own countries, or is Putin’s Ukraine incursion the result of one autocrat’s idiosyncratic megalomania working overtime? This is one of many Ukraine-related questions that Naím and other theorists of autocracy will hopefully address in future works.


Can the misinformation battle be won?

Naím cautions democrats to pick their battles carefully if they are to be effective in countering 3P autocrats. The most critical battle for Naím involves post-truth politics,  the battle against strategic uses of misinformation. Focusing intently on Donald Trump and his denial of the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, Naím argues that informed and responsive citizens are the “first line of defense against the Big Lie.” Any strategy to defend democracies and ensure that the political system works for the good of society “hinges on restoring the ability of citizens to differentiate truth from lies… No democracy can survive if the propagation of Big Lies is consistently rewarded with power.”


Most of the election deniers targeted by President Biden in his speech lost their bids for public offices in this month’s midterms. Can Americans now permit themselves to think they’ve turned the corner in this crucial battle to safeguard democracy? One suspects that Naím would answer that question with a definite maybe, to which he might add, as he does throughout The Revenge of Power, that democracy’s survival is never guaranteed.



Cover image: St. Martin’s Press, 2022 (Fair Use)

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *