As a youth in my late teens, I joined a strict religious cult and spent seven years of my life deeply involved in it. The leader was an autocrat who ruled with absolute authority. In our world today, many countries are moving toward one-man rule. Among them are Russia, China and Turkey.
By studying these three nations, we can learn what factors drove these nations to autocracy and perhaps understand similar tendencies in the United States.
Russia: After the fall of the Soviet Union in early 1991, this empire broke into parts with Russia emerging as the largest remnant. For a time, Russia became a representative democracy with competitive elections. Vladimir Putin took over the government in 2000 and has ruled the country since, either as president or as prime minister. Over time he has amassed greater and greater power by killing or imprisoning his political opponents.
Putin’s key to remaining in power for so long is his skill at convincing the Russian people that he will make Russia great again. Russia has a weak political hand, but Putin has played upon Russia’s powerful past to stay in power.
Putin sees the collapse of the Soviet Union as a great tragedy. He blames Europe and the United States for taking advantage of Russia’s weaknesses after the collapse. He has taken on the mantel of a victim, which has played well in his country. Putin’s takeover of the Crimea is an example of making Russia great again, as is Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.
China: Xi Jing Ping has also portrayed his country as a victim of European imperialist powers. This “Century of Humiliation” began in 1839 with the first of the Opium Wars waged against China by Great Britain. The British government, to make a profit, forced China to buy British Indian opium. Millions of Chinese became addicted to the drug.
A great deal of Chinese expansionism into the South China Sea and claims against Japan over two small rocky islands are examples of Xi’s desire to make China the great empire it was before the 1800s when European and Japanese powers divided up China into “spheres of influence.”
Xi was just recently made a “dictator for life,” not because he was strong, but because China is weak. The country, to continue to grow and prosper, must make the very difficult transition from an export economy to a consumer society. President Trump’s trade war has been seen by some as a way to hinder China’s rise. It is more than just a maneuver to make China play fair economically.
Turkey: RecepTayyip Erdogan (pronounced Erdowan) is the duly elected president of his country. He, too, wants to make his country great again. He is amassing autocratic power.
In Turkey’s case, the desire is to return to the era of the great Ottoman Empire. It began in 1299 and dissolved in 1922. The Ottomans ruled southeastern Europe, western Asia and North Africa, including Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina.
The last Muslim Caliphate (successor to the Prophet Mohammed) resided in the Ottoman Empire, but died after World War I. The political party that Erdogan leads, the Justice and Development Party, is Muslim, a source of much of Erdogan’s strength. Part of the reason Turkey fought against ISIS is that Erdogan sees Turkey as the rightful heir to Mohammed, not the ISIS leadership.
The supposed 2016 attempted coup to overthrow Erdogan has allowed him to become more autocratic, more Muslim, and more aggressive in the region, especially in Syria. More recently he has spoken out against Saudi Arabia, a rival Sunni Muslim power, over the Khashoggi assassination. Erdogan has blamed Europe and the U.S. for much of his nation’s woes.
As you read the descriptions, repeating patterns have emerged in the rising autocracies: A desire to return to past greatness and a sense of victimhood at the hands of the West.
Autocracies grow because of rapid change. In our era, globalization and technological developments have created a sense of uncertainty in many people. Traditional religious values have been challenged. Leaders in many countries have used being tough as a proof of their confidence and ability to lead. People become nostalgic over supposed lost greatness. They crave certainty, both religious and political. Autocrats push the themes of nationalism and tribalism to increase their power and support.
I joined a cult as a youth because I wanted safety and certainty. I was frightened and confused and afraid of failing. I chose to blindly obey my cult leader because he could do my thinking for me, relieving me of the burden. The same is true today in the rise of autocrats around the world and in the U.S.