Magical Authoritarianism

How authoritarian personalities construct a magical reality for their audience.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting a Russian airbase in June 2010. Alexei Druzhinin/RIA-Novosti/Pool/AP/File

What is magical authoritarianism? Unlike literary magical realism, magical authoritarianism fortifies rather than critiques state power and social hierarchy. Yet magical realism and magical authoritarianism share a common wellspring of irreality. Magical realism is central to Latin American literature, yet the same cultural and political milieu that produced authors like Márquez and Borges also gave rise to caudillismo — strongman rule.

Caudillos did not appear as a stage on the road to democracy, but rather took democrats as their dance partners, with South American governments alternating between dictatorship and democracy for most of the 20th century. Arguably, in Latin America, the spirit of literary rebellion against reality cannot be fully disentangled from the strongman’s own rebellion against reality. However, this is not an essay about Latin America in particular. Rather, we are concerned with the personalities of magical authoritarian leaders and their relationship with truth. Just as the magical realist presents us with an intersection of the real and the fantastic in the world of fiction, the magical authoritarian mixes the two in the world of politics.

It is tempting at the onset to lump magical authoritarians in with authoritarians of the more traditional stripe. For instance, foreign correspondents have noted how their experiences in Russia and China prepared them to deal with Donald Trump’s Washington. But one of these things is not like the other. While Trump shares magical authoritarian DNA with Putin, China presents a whole different set of circumstances.

In her 2014 book Dictators at War and Peace, Jessica L. P. Weeks notes that the institutions of Chinese authoritarianism are deep and broad, producing conservative decision-making, whereas Putin’s personalized dictatorship enables and encourages him to engage regularly in brinksmanship. Weeks’ book was written before the Chinese government moved in a more personalist direction under Xi Jinping, but Xi’s China remains a technocratic modernizing dictatorship at heart.

Taiwan’s Chiang Ching-kuo visits the troop on Kinmen Island, February 1975. He did not follow in his father’s footsteps.

While Weeks does not focus on it in her book, history suggests that more personalized the regime, ceteris paribus, the less focus on modernization. Chiang Kai-shek’s regime in Taiwan, for instance, maintained a war footing and a personality cult around Chiang; his son Chiang Ching-kuo’s government, conversely, moved away from personalization towards a modernizing dictatorship. Something similar happened in Mainland China, where the stagnant, personalized regime of Mao Zedong was replaced by the dynamic pragmatism of Deng Xiaoping. We see the effects in Russia today, where Putin’s government clings to a fragile petro-economy, its imperial ambitions married to a GDP smaller than California’s. Even in Latin America one found a clear divide between the severe caudillism of a Pinochet and the magical caudillism of a Chavez, with Castro somewhere in-between.

If a magical authoritarian leader is not trying to modernize their country, what are they trying to do? In short, to entertain. To be sure, magical authoritarians, like other personalist regimes, are interested in the trappings of power and personal enrichment, but as they loot their country they are also consciously performing for the audience. Magical authoritarians do not rule in totalitarian countries or one-party states, but come to power in weak democracies like the Philippines or so-called “electoral democracies” like Zimbabwe and Russia.

What distinguishes magical authoritarian propaganda from totalitarian propaganda is the interactive storytelling employed by the regime. Totalitarian propaganda is deeply ritualized and calls on the audience to share the same politics of bad faith and ideological telos as the speaker. Hitler leveraged postwar German grievances and historical anti-Semitism as the foundations of Nazi propaganda. When Mao purged his enemies in the Party or attacked his enemies in Chinese society, cadres carried out his orders with historical certainty on their side. Neither Hitler nor Mao gave any indication that their beliefs were simply stories for the audience to consume. Magical authoritarians, conversely, tell their big fish stories with a wink, and their audience is in on the joke. They are less “Big Brother” than they are your “truth-telling” crazy uncle.

Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez hosting his tenth year of Aló Presidente.

Consider our rogue’s gallery. Before his death, Hugo Chavez enjoyed running the Venezuelan government on his live television show Aló Presidente. Chavez’s antics included berating his cabinet ministers in front of the nation, directing his army to prepare to invade Colombia, and repeatedly joking about turning down dates with then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In Zimbabwe, nonagenarian despot Robert Mugabe regularly throws himself lavish birthday bashes, has told reporters that he is the Hitler of our time, and has reportedly claimed that Hitler is Donald Trump’s grandfather. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, who is also fond of comparing himself to Hitler, and has called other heads of state “son of a whore,” has bragged about personally throwing drug dealers out of helicopters and executing others with an Uzi. Looking to the United States, President Donald Trump and his associates have made “alternative facts” a fixture of most public statements since the inauguration, have attacked the media as “enemies of the people,” and have promoted an atmosphere of irreality in Washington.

While the rise — or rather, the persistence — of magical authoritarians is a truly global phenomenon, the king of magical authoritarianism remains Russian President Vladimir Putin. A recent piece by Keith Gessen in The Guardian brilliantly explored the myriad Western theories about President Putin. Putinology — the study of Putin — has increased leaps and bounds since unabashed Putin fan Donald Trump became President of the United States.

As Gessen writes,

[W]hat does Putinology tell us? It turns out that it has produced seven distinct hypotheses about Putin. None of them is entirely wrong, but then none of them is entirely right (apart from No 7). Taken together, they tell us as much about ourselves as about Putin. They paint a portrait of an intellectual class — our own — on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Rather than try to understand Putin directly, it might be preferable to look at the image that Putin himself tries to project. This is the magic of magical authoritarianism: Putin dons his judo uniform to show his martial prowess. He takes off that uniform for shirtless countryside strolls. He befriends tigers. He goes hunting — also shirtless, of course. He goes diving and “discovers” ancient pottery. He pilots submarines. He dates gymnasts. He appears in Beijing as Xi Jinping’s guest of honor at a World War II victory parade. He hosts Edward Snowden. He schmoozes with minor celebrities — including now-disgraced US national security advisor Gen. Mike Flynn and Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein — at parties for RT, the television network that the Kremlin controls. Putin wants Russians to see him as James Bond and Westerners to see him as a Bond villain. Neither of these identities is really who Vladimir Putin is, but while we’re watching the Putin Show, we’re not really watching him.

For President Trump, the convergence of politics and entertainment is a natural extension of his role on The Apprentice, but that program was merely the penultimate iteration of a persona first cultivated in the 1980s. Trump, like Putin, has always used storytelling, rather than truth, to appeal to the everyman. Even in China, the gaudiness of Trump’s offices and homes speaks to a common man’s idea of a rich man’s life. More so than any other American entrepreneur, Donald Trump represents the get-rich-quick spirit, despite the fact that Trump was born rich. Trump’s oft-branded image, his insults, his “alternative facts,” his swagger, his put-downs, his worship of “strong leaders” — all of these are core to the irreality at the heart of Trumpness.

The belief that Trump personally — magically — created a real estate and media empire gives hope to his supporters that he could indeed make American great again. But that’s not Trump’s only appeal. Trump’s many outrages are calibrated to anger the critics who, lest we forget, are also part of his audience. One reason the political establishment has been unable to rally a decisive majority against Trump is that Trump’s supporters enjoy provoking the so-called “elites.” (Remember, they’re in on the joke.) That said, as the president’s own comments about Saturday Night Live suggest, he cannot abide mockery. Yet it is exceedingly difficult to satirize Trump well, since satire in the age of Trump is simply news that hasn’t come true yet.

During the 2016 campaign, reporter Salena Zito popularized the idea that Trump’s critics take him literally but not seriously, while his supporters take him seriously but not literally. Zito didn’t mean it as such, but perhaps what she was really saying is that Trump, far more than Secretary Clinton, understood that Americans want to be entertained. They want a larger than life figure who can make their lives feel larger. A face in the crowd, in the Oval Office. Like most magical authoritarians, Trump reached the presidency by seizing the public’s attention with spectacle. That spectacle will continue, with Trump constantly taking his performance to new extremes, ever conscious of the fact that when the show ends, so does his presidency.