Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, brutally cracked down on protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park last year, banned Facebook and YouTube, faced serious allegations of corruption, and, more recently, was caught on camera slapping a demonstrator. None of this mattered last week as a majority of Turks made him the country’s first popularly elected president.
A range of 19th-century thinkers from Alexis de Tocqueville to Jacob Burckhardt warned against putting rabble-rousers exalted by popular vote into power. The Turkish Teflon leader’s electoral triumph is only the latest instance of degraded democracy.
An indifference to civil rights and aggressive Hindu majoritarianism did not prevent — and probably helped — Narendra Modi’s ascent to India’s highest political office this spring. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has enjoyed higher approval ratings this year after annexing Crimea and threatening eastern Ukraine.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been impressed enough to declare that the new “wind blowing from the east” has swept away the tottering facade of liberal democracy. In an extraordinary turnaround, Orban, leader of a European Union member state, hopes to emulate the mini-Caesars of the east as they gratify a widely felt craving among their peoples for fresh energy and vigor after a period of stagnation.
Perhaps he should also get hold of the rhetorical toolkit of the original Teflon leader. In his new volume of US social history, “The Invisible Bridge,” Rick Perlstein describes how a has-been movie actor with Dean Martin looks and some good sound bites successfully lifted his countrymen out of their 1970s depression and into a new era of muscular assertiveness. “People want to believe,” Perlstein writes, and “Ronald Reagan was able to make people believe.”
Modi’s boasts about his “56-inch chest,” Putin’s judo moves and Erdogan’s tendency to get physical all aim to pull off Reagan’s confidence trick. Modi has revived the fantasy of an Indian Century after economic setbacks and political dysfunction had punctured it. Erdogan promised Turks an economically vibrant and internationally prominent nation after a long period of isolation, chaos and unrepresentative regimes. Putin, too, found his constituency among a humiliated and fearful people; Russia suffered a much bigger economic crisis and loss of political legitimacy in the 1990s than the US had in the 1970s.
All three leaders possess ideological bases like the one Reagan had among Christian fundamentalists and neoconservative intellectuals. Turkey’s Neo-Ottomanists, Russia’s Eurasianists and India’s Hindu millenarians assert their geopolitical ambition as boldly as the Reaganites did. Today, though, there is a greater danger in countries incubating their own version of the Reagan Revolution: Their political cultures might shift for the long term to the extreme rather than the center right.
Hungary’s Orban, who is backed by the openly anti-Semitic Jobbik party, echoes the fascist language of the 1930s when he says that “The Hungarian nation is not a mere pile of individuals but a community which needs to be organized, strengthened and built.”
Certainly, liberal opposition in Turkey and Russia seems helpless before such shrill assertions of national mission and destiny. Only India, with its social and political diversity, contains the possibility of a vigorous challenge to Hindu nationalists.
Perhaps economic hurdles — caused by sanctions in Russia’s case and fundamental weakness in India’s and Turkey’s — will impose limits upon the megalomania of the tub-thumpers. The specific mode of cultural politics and propaganda promoted by them will be with us for a long time, though. Indeed, the Reagan Revolution has endured even as the symptoms of American decline, first visible in the 1970s, have grown acute again.
But then, rich and powerful nations can afford their illusions for much longer, and they can shift the harshest consequences of their blunders — as in Iraq — onto other people. This is not an option for countries still far from true power and wealth. The elemental struggles of their peoples for food and water, dignity and freedom, can only be further complicated — and even thwarted — by sophisticated zealotry.
Local versions of the exasperated query “What’s the matter with Kansas?” are likely now to be posed in Anatolia and Uttar Pradesh. “It is a denial of the experience of our century to suppose that men will sacrifice their passions to their interests,” Raymond Aron wrote in the 1950s. The information revolution since then has hardly made for a more pragmatic attachment to self-interest. In our own century, elected demagogues can still seduce men into the large-scale delusions, and occasionally crimes, of passion.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist.