Last week, at a Fox News town hall (where else?), former President Donald Trump called China’s despot, Xi Jinping, a “brilliant” guy who “runs 1.4 billion people with an iron fist.” Lest anyone doubt his admiration, Trump added that Xi is “smart, brilliant, everything perfect. There’s nobody in Hollywood like this guy.”
Trump is not alone. Many in the United States and around the globe see the allure of a dictator who gets things done and makes the trains run on time, no matter the rules or laws that stand in the way. According to repeated polling, roughly one in four Americans agrees with the statement that a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress and elections” is desirable. A much higher proportion of citizens agrees with that sentiment elsewhere, including in some of the most populous democracies: 55 percent of Indians, 52 percent of Indonesians, 38 percent of Nigerians, and 31 percent of Japanese.
This grass-is-greener view of authoritarian rule tends to emerge most often where governments are failing to meet popular expectations. When democracy delivers, dictatorship doesn’t seem like a rosy alternative. Only 6 percent of Germans and 9 percent of Swedes are seduced by strongmen.
Admiration for autocracy is built on a pernicious lie that I call the “myth of benevolent dictatorship.” The myth is built on three flimsy pillars: first, that dictators produce stronger economic growth than their democratic counterparts; second, that dictators, unswayed by volatile public opinion, are strategic long-term thinkers; and third, that dictators bring stability, whereas divided democracies produce chaos. [Continue reading…]