LONDON – The dictators of the 20th century — Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong — were all products of a personality cult designed to depict them as the leader and savior of their countries. Hitler took the title of “Der Fuehrer” and Mussolini “Il Duce” — both mean “leader.” Despite the horrific legacies of these ruthless and criminal despots, the personality cult with its emphasis on leadership shows no sign of declining in the 21st century.
President Xi Jinping of China has not yet achieved the pre-eminence in China that Mao enjoyed, but seems determined to ensure unchallenged dominance of the Chinese Communist Party, and through the party of China in its aspiration to superpower status.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia harasses and tries to destroy all who oppose his corrupt and chauvinist regime. He surrounds himself with sycophants and cronies who encourage him to pursue policies in Eastern Europe and in Syria that are designed to boost Russian influence and distract the Russian people from their economic problems.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a referendum that authorized the establishment of a presidential system. (We should remember that referendums and plebiscites have so often in the past been misused by dictators to justify their usurpation of power.) He has purged his administration, the courts, the police and the press of anyone who might challenge him, and has adopted autocratic measures that make a mockery of Turkish aspirations for democracy.
North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Un is determined to ensure the continuance of a hereditary dictatorship in a country inured to hardship and autocracy. North Korea is a caricature of the personality cult.
The personality cult holds sway in many other parts of the world. In Africa, President Robert Mugabe clings to power in Zimbabwe despite his apparent senility. Syria is widely seen through images of President Bashar Assad despite his reputation as the perpetrator of crimes against humanity. In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro clings to power by overriding the parliamentary opposition by force and promotes himself as a defender of socialism. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte flouts the law in his campaign against drugs.
Parliamentary democracies are not immune to the personality cult. Elections in presidential systems inevitably focus on the personalities of the candidates. In the last U.S. presidential election, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had to defend themselves against personalized attacks on their honesty and suitability for high office.
Since assuming the office of president, Trump has strutted and posed on the world stage in ways that are a gift to the caricaturist. He does not disguise his liking for autocrats, inviting even Duterte, who insulted U.S. President Barack Obama, to the White House, where he had already received President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the strongman of Egypt.
Trump has constantly condemned the media for their portrayal of him and his perversions of truth. Fortunately the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution, against which he has fumed, seem so far to have restrained his autocratic populist tendencies.
Japanese culture does not encourage the emergence of charismatic leaders, although there have been some exceptions in business such as Akio Morita of Sony and Soichiro Honda. In politics, few Japanese leaders have become well known in the world outside Japan, although this is changing as international diplomacy is more and more conducted personally by prime ministers and presidents. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe likes to depict himself as one of the world’s elder statesmen.
Leadership is needed in government, administration and business, but “leaders” should remember that success can only be achieved by a team effort and leadership is not synonymous with autocracy.
In a parliamentary democracy such as Britain, where attempts to control the media have so far been generally rebuffed and the cartoonists enjoy free rein in poking fun at our politicians, personality cults are difficult to sustain for long. But Prime Minister Theresa May is trying hard to make the forthcoming general election focus on her personality in contrast to that of Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party.
May bangs on endlessly about the need for “strong and stable leadership,” which she, and almost as an afterthought the Conservative Party, can exercise in dealing with Brexit and the multifarious other problems that will beset Britain in the next five years. She attacks Corbyn for his lack of leadership qualities and for the irresponsible economic and defense policies he espouses. But she has so far refused to take part in a party leaders debate, and in these days before publication of party manifestos, the election has been almost all about personality rather than substance.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher chose people she liked and trusted but enjoyed a good argument based on facts. May is reputed not to listen to arguments from people to whom she has taken a personal dislike, such as former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, or from ministers and officials who argue against her prejudices.
Democrats everywhere should remember their history. In war, Britain needed a leader like Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In peace they did rather better with the understated Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who led the first postwar Labour government. Leaders need to have colleagues and subordinates who will caution them against unwise and rash decisions, and who can think beyond party politics. They also need a strong opposition which will hold them to account for their mistakes.
A landslide victory for the Tories (the Conservative Party) is what May wants. It would be good for her and her party, but would it be good for Britain in the long run?
The cult of personality is likely to remain an important feature of political life in the 21st century. The media like it as it gives them lots of copy. The populists love it because it means that they can gloss over substance and stress the “leadership” their “heroes” can provide.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.