It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that strongmen now rule the world. The days are long gone when The Economist fawned over Angela Merkel as the “indispensable European” and the Financial Times hailed her as “the leader of the free world”. In Washington, as the recently honoured chat radio star Rush Limbaugh observed, Donald Trump is “Mr Man”, he of the three wives, in contrast to his potential rival for the presidency, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, whose only marriage is to a man. Fans of the British author Roger Hargreaves’s Mr Men series will have enjoyed this, for in many ways the president is an almost perfect Mr Man.
In London, Boris Johnson has just purged his cabinet, losing — perhaps rather earlier than intended — his chancellor of the exchequer and several other independent-minded ministers. Meanwhile, in Beijing, Xi Jinping has already begun pinning the blame for the coronavirus epidemic on provincial officials in Hubei, instead of on the excessively centralised, repressive and compulsively mendacious political system over which he presides.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman still rules the roost in Riyadh, despite having apparently ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Nicolas Maduro shows no sign of fleeing Caracas, despite having caused the Venezuelan economy to implode so disastrously that more than four million people have fled the country.
The strongmen are all around: from Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia and Rodrigo Duterte in Manila to Narendra Modi in Delhi and Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang — and not forgetting Viktor Orban in Budapest.
At the top of the authoritarian guild sits Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who (I am told) lives the private life of one of the more lascivious Roman emperors. Wealthy beyond the dreams of Croesus (some say the wealthiest man on the planet), the master of all he surveys in Russia and far and away the most skilled player of the great game we call geopolitics, Putin is the capo dei capi. Only the other day he almost mockingly announced a reshuffle that makes Boris’s recent effort look like tinkering with the placement at a smart London dinner party. The Russian president forced his entire government to resign.
There are three problems with being a strongman. First, the stronger you become, the more paranoid you must become, as your rivals can hope to supplant you only through dark conspiracies. Second, the more paranoid you become, the less reliable the information that you receive. Who really dares to tell the boss the truth? Third, at some point you are quite likely to die a violent death, because only when you are dead as a doornail can your enemies feel safe. As the Dutch historian Frank Dikotter makes clear in his brilliant new book, How to Be a Dictator, a peaceful retirement tending to a rose garden is seldom an option for the strongman.
Benito Mussolini found this out the hard way. In April 1945, he and his mistress Clara Petacci were summarily shot and their bodies later hung upside down from a girder in Milan. Two days on, Hitler died by his own hand as the vengeful Red Army closed in on his Berlin bunker. To avoid ending up dangling from a girder, he ordered that his body be cremated, along with that of Eva Braun, his long-term mistress, whom he had married a day earlier. (Being a dictator’s girlfriend is also extremely hazardous.)
Joseph Stalin won the war but died in March 1953, at the age of 74, partly because members of his own entourage were too terrified to order prompt medical action after he suffered a stroke.
It is sometimes said that a majority of dictators die in their beds. That may have been true in the 1970s. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier died peacefully in 1971. Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 was from natural causes. So was Mao Tse-tung’s in 1976. “There is no [personality] cult without fear,” writes Dikotter, an authority on the tyranny of Mao. The Chinese strongman succeeded in terrifying a fifth of humanity.
However, bad things nearly always happen to strongmen who lose or relinquish power, as many dictators did in the 1980s and 1990s. Nicolae Ceausescu fell before a firing squad in 1989. Saddam Hussein went to the gallows in December 2006. Colonel Muammar Gadaffi was shot in 2011 while trying to escape the revolutionary wave we misname the Arab Spring.
To see just how hazardous absolute power can be, consider the causes of death for Roman emperors and British monarchs. Of the 18 emperors who ruled the early Roman Empire (27BC to AD193), according to a fascinating article on the subject, 10 died of natural causes, six were murdered and two committed suicide. The top job did not get safer; quite the reverse. Of the 59 emperors of the late Roman empire (193-476), 15 died of natural causes, 32 were murdered or executed, five committed suicide, five died in battle or from wounds sustained in battle, one died in captivity and another drowned while fleeing the scene of a military defeat.
Of the 105 monarchs of the British Isles, 19 were murdered, assassinated, executed or euthanised by their doctors; 15 died in battle.
Ottoman sultans were supposed to enjoy higher levels of security than their west European counterparts. Nevertheless, a surprisingly large number met violent ends. Of the 36 Ottoman sultans, by my reckoning, 11 were murdered, killed in battle or otherwise came to a premature end.
The key to survival as a strongman, aside from inaccessibility (on which subject see the outstanding Chinese film Hero), is to have an intimate circle of people who know they would also be for the chop if you were overthrown. However, you also need to deter any potential successor from getting impatient. One way of doing that is to have multiple sons and play them off against one another. Another option is to have no heir and project your longevity so credibly that no one dares aspire to succeed you.
Looking at our present crop of strongmen, you might be tempted to conclude that the democratically elected ones — Trump and Johnson — are more vulnerable than the authoritarians. After all, they have to face the voters every four or five years. I am not so sure. If I were Boris, my main worry would be that by promoting Rishi Sunak to the chancellorship, I had inadvertently nominated my successor.
History suggests that a significant proportion of the undemocratic strongmen will be gone within the decade — and it will not be the coronavirus that carries them off. Unless, that is, the Wuhan epidemic proves to be Xi’s Chernobyl, which it may yet. After Maduro, who soon won’t have a population left to plunder, and the Saudi crown prince, whose plans to reform Saudi Arabia are doomed to fail, Xi seems to me the most vulnerable figure.
Come to think of it, didn’t The Economist once call him “the most powerful man in the world”?
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford