The tendency towards absolute power has increasingly been defining rulers around the globe
A pronounced streak of authoritarianism defines the character of Donald Trump. He has proved to be singularly unfit to hold the office of president of the United States. But that has not held him back from hoping to hold on to the White House even if he loses to Joe Biden in November. He has hawed and hummed, but has given no clear sign of being ready to accept the judgment of American voters.
Nancy Pelosi has, of course, come forth with a telling response to what might be done about Trump should he refuse to vacate the presidency. He will be fumigated out of the White House, the speaker of the House of Representatives has publicly made it clear.
Joe Biden was slightly more polite than Pelosi. He reminded everyone that no trespassers were permitted at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. One can imagine the scenario: Trump being gassed out of the Oval Office or being bodily carried out of the White House by a bevy of security men and dumped on the street.
Trump’s eccentricities are revealing of the man. Had it been up to him, he would amend the constitution, as so many Third World leaders often do, and give himself some more years in office. One recalls here the thought, a rather passing one, which came to some Republicans in the 1980s about initiating moves for a constitutional change that would allow Reagan to seek a third term in office.
To everyone’s relief, the idea did not go further than that. Since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was elected to four terms in the White House, Americans have learned the good lesson that no more than two terms can be given to one who holds the presidency. That is as it should be.
Men of an authoritarian bent of mind are what we have observed operating in our times. And now that the Covid-19 pandemic, or call it malady, is upon us, the tendency towards exercising absolute power has increasingly been defining rulers’ psychology around the globe.
The biggest example of authoritarianism we have before us in these times is President Xi Jinping in China. He has had the constitution duly amended to stay in power for as long as he wants, which is quite a deviation in politics and particularly in communist terms. Not even Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping ever thought of themselves as individuals possessing the power to override the constitution, but here is Xi holding China in his grip for an unfathomable number of years to be.
But, yes, given the slow but sure march of history, it may well be that individuals as ambitious as Xi Jinping will arise in the Communist Party and compel him to relinquish power despite all that authority to hold on to it having been given to him to use for as long as he wishes.
But that is a thought. For now, Xi embodies China. That he is a strong leader is good. That his power will stretch for years is worrying. But, of course, with communism being by definition an unquestioned means of political governance, authoritarianism is but natural. Observe developments in Moscow, where the perennially powerful Vladimir Putin has very confidently had the law changed to ensure his occupancy of Russia’s presidential office till 2036. Thus, he has rendered it hard for a disciplined political system to emerge in Moscow. His grip on power, always hard, has become harder.
Instances of authoritarian leadership abound elsewhere around the globe. Mahathir Mohamad is properly credited with raising Malaysia to the levels of globally acknowledged progress, but that does not obscure his blatant attempts to undermine such younger and surely qualified politicians as Anwar Ibrahim.
Mahathir’s government subjected Anwar, his one-time protégé, to harassment on sodomy charges, leading to the younger man’s spell in prison. And yet Mahathir, outraged by the corrupt doings of Najib Razak, solicited Anwar Ibrahim’s help in electorally removing Najib from office. Meanwhile, he promised to hand over the prime ministerial office to Anwar in a couple of years. He reneged on his promise; and now he is out of office again. Hunger for power has caused a bad dent in Mahathir’s reputation.
Power, when exercised in authoritarian fashion, puts societies at risk for the good reason that authoritarian leaders are not too keen about ensuring a smooth succession or preparing people from taking over from them at a point in time. Authoritarian leaders have this bizarre propensity of identifying themselves with eternity, something that Jean-Bedel Bokassa did in the Central African Republic in his time.
He declared the country an empire and himself as Emperor Bokassa the First. He was duly ousted a few years later and driven off to prison. But, of course, Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al Sisi does not expect to be in jail at all. He has had his predecessor Mohammad Morsi die in a cage in court. And he has, through manipulating the law, ensured that he will remain in power till 2030. Meanwhile, all forms of dissent and democratic expression are suppressed. Politics is dead and Egypt is ailing.
Observe Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. The assessment is he lost the recent election but will not hand over power. For 26 years, he has held on to the presidency and yet has not had a surfeit of it. He has compelled his rival to leave the country; he has her husband in jail and his goons have just bundled another opposition politician into a van and driven off.
Men like Lukashenko have little time to study the lessons of history. Back in 1989, a rising crescendo of protest in Timisoara, Romania, forced Nicolae Ceausescu out of power. A few years before that, in 1986, the democratically elected president but increasingly authoritarian Ferdinand Marcos fled the Philippines in the face of people power.
Authoritarian rulers preside over a fraying of their reputations through their insatiable lust for power. Worse, when they are forced to quit office, it is wholesale chaos they leave in their wake. Donald Trump, if he is fumigated out of the White House next year -- assuming he loses to Biden -- or wins, improbably, a second term, he will have left American society with all its political and constitutional institutions, cracked and therefore badly damaged.
Not much of a difference is there between Trump and Lukashenko, in psychological terms.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.