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Vol. 32: Global villains, then and now
Are strongmen really so strong?
If, like so many Americans, you believe the world is going to hell, I invite you to stroll with me down memory lane— specifically, to the good old days of 1993.
That year, I suggested that U.S. public policy had largely degenerated into a continuing quest for a “Villain of the Year”— preferably somebody who’s foreign (usually), dangerous, and possessed of a face sufficiently recognizable to mount on dartboards and T-shirts. In the process, I compiled a list of 20 years’ worth of such villains— many of whom, I pointed out, were long since forgotten by 1993.
And the winners were:
Villain of the Year
1973— H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman (U.S.)
1974— Richard Nixon (U.S.)
1975— Fidel Castro (Cuba)
1976— Pol Pot (Cambodia)
1977— Idi Amin (Uganda)
1978— Leonid Brezhnev (Soviet Union)
1979— Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (Iran)
1980— Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (Iran)
1981— Hafez al-Assad (Syria)
1982— Wojciech Jaruzelski (Poland)
1983— Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua)
1984— P.W. Botha (South Africa)
1985— Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines)
1986— Muammar Khadaffi (Libya)
1987— Nicolae Ceaușescu (Romania)
1988— Michael Milken (U.S.)
1989— Manuel Noriega (Panama)
1990— Saddam Hussein (Iraq)
1991— Saddam Hussein (Iraq)
1992— Saddam Hussein (Iraq)
1993— Slobodan Milošević (Yugoslavia)
So, where are these guys now?
Of the 19 once-seemingly omnipotent heavies on this list, 15 were forced out of office against their will. Of those 15, three (Ceaușescu, Khadaffi, and Saddam Hussein) were executed; five (Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Milken, Noriega, and Milošević) were jailed; and two (Marcos and Idi Amin) fled into exile.
Two others (Nixon and Botha) escaped legal sanction via a presidential pardon and a suspended sentence, respectively. Only Castro, Hafez al-Assad, Khomeini, and Brezhnev died in bed and in power — and Brezhnev’s entire country expired just nine years after he did.
Only one man on this 1993 list exercises power today: Daniel Ortega, who was voted out of office in Nicaragua’s first free election in 1990 but won back the presidency in 2006 and remains president, albeit as something of a global pariah. (Two years ago, Biden banned Ortega from entering the U.S.)
Inspired by this morality tale, six years ago I compiled a new list of what I called “Global Goodfellas”— eight seemingly entrenched strongmen whose supposedly unchecked power, I felt certain, would soon plant the seeds of their own destruction, much like the mobsters in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 movie, Goodfellas:
Global Goodfellas of 2017
1. Donald Trump (U.S., since 2017)
2. Vladimir Putin (Russia, since 2000)
3. Xi Jinping (China, since 2013)
4. Kim Jong-un (North Korea, since 2012)
5. Bashar al-Assad (Syria, since 2000— yep, he’s Hafez’s son)
6. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (Egypt, since 2014)
7. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey, since 2014)
8. Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines, since 2016)
These eight leaders, I argued, share certain common characteristics: “All believe the function of government is not to protect the rights of citizens but to promote the glory of the state and its leaders. All believe the world would be a better place if only they possessed more power than they already enjoy. All prefer to silence their enemies rather than make friends. All are mystified when crackdowns against their perceived enemies produce even more enemies.”
With my customary optimism, I advised my habitually pessimistic readers to “1) Post these two lists on your refrigerator; (2) Check them daily; (3) Remind yourself: This too shall pass.”
Their theme song
How am I doing as a soothsayer, this time around?
First, the bad news. Of the eight autocrats on my 2017 list, six remain in power. Trump is gone from the White House but threatens to return. Only Duterte (whose vigilante death squads were said to have committed 1,400 extrajudicial killings) has been consigned to the dustbin of history, having voluntarily retired in 2022. (Be honest: You’ve already forgotten him, right?)
Now for the worse news: My eight autocrats of 2017 have been joined since then by a new crop of tyrant wannabees: Viktor Orban in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. The hopeful Arab Spring of 2011 came and went. And in China, XI eliminated term limits so he can rule the country for life. (Jair Bolsonaro enrolled in this despot club too, albeit briefly as president of Brazil from 2019 to 2022.)
If these men— and, yes, you may have noticed they’re all men— needed a fraternity theme song, it could be, “We’re the Very Best at Being Bad,”
from Alan Parker’s 1976 musical, Bugsy Malone. Stamp out one of these threats to democracy and another seems to arise somewhere else. Sort of like the moths in my closet.
‘Frequent fleers’ of the 1980s
But that wasn’t always the case. Remember the pro-democracy wave of the 1980s? Baby Doc Duvalier was overthrown by a popular uprising in Haiti in 1986. Ferdinand Marcos fled the Philippines that same year. South Korea’s military dictator Chun Doo Hwan was voted out of office in 1987, sentenced to death in 1991, and pardoned the following year only after relinquishing $203 million that he had embezzled in office. Idi Amin spent the 1980s fleeing from Uganda to exile in Libya, then Iraq, and finally Saudi Arabia.
Back then, the flood of deposed dictators and tottering tinpots assumed such epidemic proportions that the New York Times columnist William Safire proposed creating an island refuge (“Elba Estates”) catering to “frequent fleers” and their special needs, like historical writing rooms with as-told-to ghostwriters, community legal services to protect the tyrants’ ill-gotten gains, and, above all, the companionship of “warm friends and associates who have similar backgrounds and interests.”
Another such revolt against autocracy may be just around the corner. Bolsonaro was voted out of office in Brazil last year. Putin, judging from recent events, now clings to power by a thread. China’s once-meteoric economy has crashed, and consumers, businesses, and investors are losing confidence in Xi’s ability to fix the problem. Assad, who cast his lot with Putin, now wonders why the rest of the world hasn’t sent relief for Syria’s devastating earthquake earlier this year. ISIS has come and gone. Kim Jong Un scrambles to persuade the world that he’s not a joke. Donald Trump peddles T-shirts and drinking mugs bearing his mug shot.
Like the goodfellas in Scorsese’s film, today’s autocrats are beginning to realize that their pals aren’t the most reliable allies.
These days, I take my comfort from the economist Deirdre McCloskey, whose words appear on the opening page of my recent memoir, The Education of a Journalist:
“For reasons I have never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell. But pessimism has consistently been a poor guide to the modern economic world.”
Am I an incurable optimist? Sure. But just for hell of it, why not follow the advice I offered in 2017: Post my list of Global Goodfellas on your refrigerator, check it daily, and remind yourself: This too shall pass.
Enjoy Dan Rottenberg’s new memoir, The Education of a Journalist: My Seventy Years on the Frontiers of Free Speech. You can also visit his website at www.danrottenberg.com
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