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It could happen anywhere

A sketch of the modern strongman.

The president. CC-by-SA-2.0: Gage Skidmore / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
He set a different tone with the press, from the day He announced He was running for the elections. Soon, He set its agenda. Their criticism could cause a dent or two; they’d tease out stories about His alleged corruption, favours for friends — His private life, too. Impressions and mockery were applauded on late-night talk shows, which were, in turn, praised for “eviscerating” him. Everyone needed an opinion to recycle in public, and He was such a ghoul that mocking him was easy. Perhaps too easy; it was a comedy of catharsis.

The pundits revelled in proving Him wrong to the point where it became a habit. And though they decried His narcissism, the febrile and underfunded media gave Him the spotlight. He was a brute, but He was their brute — he garnered the clicks and the viewers. They loved to hate him so much that, imperceptibly, he became their primary occupation.

Every half-baked tweet or flaccid excuse at a press conference was picked over and over by his detractors. They usually succeeded in proving him wrong. But after He won the election, politics was clearly no longer a Republic of Letters — if it ever was — and nobody cared. Because He wasn’t saying the truth. He was saying what would need to be said in order to do what He’d planned all along. 

Of course, there were critical newspapers and dissenting voices on the airwaves. But they gradually withered away — the papers of record needed an understanding with the president, the press conferences, sources and leaks for their hot takes. As the ice thinned beneath their feet, they began to throw Him softball questions. Harder questions were risky; you’d never be invited back. You never got to follow up on His insipid, meaningless responses. And without his latest tantrum (to praise or to pick apart), nobody would read you anyway.

He wasn’t saying the truth. He was saying what would need to be said in order to do what He’d planned all along 

The big media owners understood the new realities. Media is a loss-making business at the best of times. One day, a magnate saved a large opposition paper of record from the financial doldrums. Unfortunately for the staff, he understood the way things worked. So did the new state media regulator, who oversaw the state’s lucrative advertising contracts. They were invariably won by certain papers which “broadly understood” the president’s position. 

The tabloids blossomed. The president would start a sentence, wondering aloud about the loyalties of opposition politicians, or the real motivations behind corruption allegations. The gutter press would finish it to its logical conclusion, in personal attacks or smear campaigns. If you attacked them, they’d accuse you of censorship. The president’s apologists had masterfully appropriated the language of civil society, with a wink and a saccharine smile. And the new government kept its distance, calling for calm on both sides. 

There wasn’t censorship per se. Not exactly. It was still prohibited by the constitution. Crusading criticism appealed to small cliques of readers in the capital and large cities — gobby activists and students, NGO types, academics. Not “real people” per se. There were still a couple of newspapers for them, always teetering on the brink. Their editors were well-linked in the corridors of power, which was the only way to survive. The government could point to them, as evidence that journalism thrived. Still, there was always the lifestyle press. That’s where some of the journalists went. Others gave up. 

A president (or a prime-minister) for real people. CC-by-2.0: EPP / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ours was a fading empire. It felt embattled and surrounded by forces of violent destabilisation and globalisation. It had been brought to its knees by the crash, which, as savings were wiped out and mortgages sold on debt markets, fed a familiar feeling of lost grandeur — and a need for a strong hand. 

“Why do they want to come here?” the newspaper headlines scanned, a reference to the people fleeing armed groups, bombs, economic downturn, famine, religious and ethnic persecution, who came to our borders in search of safety, jobs and new lives. He was similarly dumbfounded, echoing His audience’s lack of comprehension and compassion. 

When terrorist bombs took innocent lives two years into His reign, in response, He passed legislation curtailing the rights that terrorists love to abuse — speedy trials, fair trials. The national security leadership whispered in his ear that more was necessary — electoral reform, an end to gubernatorial elections, curbs on public assembly and “extremism”. After the constitutional court started to call Him out for informal pressure, His press team called the national news editors for their annual public conference, and, on national television, the president discussed how unpatriotic the judges really were — those liberals, they don’t love their country like “us”. 

What the latter referred to was increasingly referred by left-wing intellectuals as the “patriots”, a network of bloggers, journalists, activists and concerned citizens who knew what was best for their country. After all, they loved it more than anyone. Their postings on social media were often taken as the voice of the people, and the patriots were responsible for a climate of maximalism that could, in certain cases, be as powerful as legislation rubber-stamped by parliament, which had been weakened in its pursuit of federal grants and subsidies. Careers in politics had to be made, after all.

Something seismic had happened, and those sitting on the fence found they had moved too. Possibilities shifted, imperceptibly at first

The bloated security services had expanded under previous governments; the few fail-safes which existed couldn’t withstand him. Compromising material and salacious video recordings could now be leaked to the press on an unforeseen scale. A mild but favourite tactic was to leak the personal phone numbers of maverick members of parliament or journalists — the harassment and belligerence towards them was then denounced by the government. Which, as always, called for calm on both sides. 

Disillusioned from the constant spin of moral deficiencies of opposition leaders, current and aspiring, society retreated into itself. Folksy aphorisms of “the people and politicians not mixing” may well have become a motto of the ruling party. For too long, politicians had been otherworldly, technocratic and managerial. They held scripted doorstep chats with constituents, or at least it sounded as though they did. He said it like it was (or as it wasn’t, but at least He sounded realistic). 

He was a tabloid president; He occasionally admonished unpopular or corrupt magnates, ministers or mayors on prime time television, quenching the resentment of millions of viewers. The whole thing was staged — they’d bashfully concede defeat, sign the document, build the road, repair the school or reopen the factory. When living standards rose, He took the credit. When they plummeted, it was a reassurance to know that He was in charge. When everything immediate in life seemed a scam, He, at least, was beyond reproach. The self-mythologisation helped: “His advisors are corrupting him” went the refrain. 

He said it like it was (or rather, how it wasn’t, but at least he sounded convincing). CC-by-SA-2.0: Global Panorama / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

But it wasn’t just about Him. Something seismic had happened, and those sitting on the fence found they had moved too. Possibilities shifted, imperceptibly at first. At the beginning of His first term, the opposition’s pundits and talking heads had pledged never to accept Him. After four years, their smug, sanguine voices urged the opposition to become “sensible”, “realistic” and “rational”. They could reform things from within, lend a helping hand. Perhaps even explain where He was going wrong. The naysayers could shout from the sidelines; the serious politicians would take on the heavy lifting.

He enjoyed referendums, and they became more frequent in His second term. It’s not that they were falsified. It’s just that the questions were elastically defined. Supporters of His party, and a good helping of state officials who knew which way the wind blew, would usually take part. He’d have a mandate from the people (the real ones) to do something or other — including those who stayed home. 

One summer, His new slash-and-burn budget was passed. It wasn’t quorate (the speaker of the house held the vote at an ungodly hour), but that was the troublemakers’ fault for not showing up. One autumn, He declared war on drug addiction. He was always declaring war on something — often, but not exclusively, on abstract concepts. After all, everybody hates addicts, moping around the streets. In winter, He passed a constitutional amendment and extended his term, to get the job done.

Alongside the anti-NGO drives and public morality campaigns, the people were united in these grand exercises in democracy. As it turned out, society’s “civilisational moment”— the period in which we threw off the shackles of the old order and embraced the new — was a deeply national awakening. The “globalist” and intangible, vaguely identified as the non-profit sector, international law or supranational unions, was the perfect scapegoat. Human rights watchdogs met intricate bureaucratic difficulties (a fire exit in the wrong place, a problem with the tax returns), even bugging devices in their offices. Government-friendly media described these do-gooders as insufficiently rooted, even “pathologically liberal”, having “loyalties to nowhere”. Some blamed the Masons or the Rothschilds. 

Society’s “civilisational moment”— when we threw off the shackles of the old order and embraced the new — was a deeply national awakening

He’d become an arbiter in a complex web of intertwined interests, though He kept his own assets largely abroad. After a golden handshake or two, the biggest corporations got their tax breaks, capital fled overseas. Jobs, as always, followed it. Where ennui failed, exile took hold. Some naysayers found work elsewhere, where they gradually made new lives. One liberal politician who returned home, “to try and change things” in politics, was soon stymied. He’d become even more foreign, a castaways at the mercy of patriots, circling overhead. 

Standing up for anything was a diversion for the gullible and weak-minded; for most people, the first question upon seeing a pitiful opposition protest was simply: whose payroll are they on? 

Everybody believed the worst and took solace in cynicism. When an opposition newspaper finally and meticulously exposed His plundering of state coffers, all society could muster was a dry and wry smirk. They had known all along anyway, the people said. Of course he had lied. How naive are you? Part of them even admired his cleverness.

Now those who had been forgotten over the past 20 years were deemed to be “in power”, although their empowerment was a fiction. The identification of ordinary people with the elite was nearing completion. In response, that which had become the opposition presented “progressive” patriotism as the panacea to these ills. Discussions over the solution to this conundrum lasted years, and ultimately led nowhere. It didn’t really matter anyway. By the end of His second term, His style of governance seemed natural.

And everyone was pleased to be back in charge.

About the authors

Maxim Edwards is Commissioning Editor at oDR. He writes on nationalism, migration, minorities and memory, with a focus on post-Soviet countries. His articles have appeared in Al-Jazeera, Al Monitor, EurasiaNet and the Forward among other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @MaximEdwards.

Tom Rowley is Lead Editor at oDR. He is currently finishing a PhD on Soviet dissent at the University of Cambridge. Follow him on Twitter at @te_rowley. PGP: 10D1 CE78 A0F1 CEBD D21B F959 1091 389E B353 FAF9.


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