The Cheat Sheet

Trump, and the misguided yearning for authoritarianism

| Updated on: Oct 12, 2016
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Does Donald Trump represent such a longing?

You bet. Trump’s political rise has mainstreamed a whole lot of sickening undercurrents — racism, misogyny and so on — but one of the most damaging is a yearning among a slice of America for someone who can wield the Big Stick. Even elected officials are clamouring for a bit of Trumpian “authoritarianism”: the Republican Governor of Maine, Paul LePage, said as much this week.


LePage said: “Sometimes, I wonder that our Constitution is not only broken, but we need a Donald Trump to show some authoritarian power in our country…”

Surely, it’s just frustration born of gridlocked politics?

Perhaps, but it overlooks the fact that it is Republican obstructionism in Congress that has caused much of the gridlock. In any case, I’m making a larger point.

Which is…

In many cacophonic democracies, including India, there are always sections that yearn for ‘authoritarian’ rulers to ‘fix’ a ‘broken’ system. It manifests itself in several ways, including in the glorification of the Emergency in India in 1975-77 on the frivolous grounds that trains ran on time. Much the same used to be said of Germany under Hitler and Italy under Mussolini.

But ‘authoritarian’ rulers can get things done, right?

In the short term, perhaps. Take the India-China comparisons that business barons frequently make: in 2006, Lakshmi Mittal’s son Aditya gushed about his interaction with Chinese officials who, he said, promised to displace an entire village “in 90 days” to help the Mittals set up a factory. In India, Aditya said, “setting up operations can be difficult.”

But isn’t he right?

Again, in the short term, perhaps. But China’s policy of land acquisition for developmental projects is, in large parts, a story of illegal and unjust land appropriation by local-level officials leveraging the might of the state and the powerlessness of peasants. It is a blot on China’s model of growth, and is hardly worthy of emulation.

Even empirical studies have established that in the long run, democratic societies catalyse economic growth far better than authoritarian regimes.

Tell me more.

In a 2011 research paper on ‘The Economic Effects of Democracy and Dictatorship’, political scientist Carl Henrik Knutsen establishes that over a period spanning 1850 to 2003, ‘democracies’ have on average had about equal or higher growth than ‘dictatorships’.

Other studies too bear this out. In their 2010 book The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace , Morton Halperin, Joe Siegle and Michael Weinstein review 40 years of data, from China and India to Chile and Iraq, to make the case that democracies beat autocracies in every economic measure.

Likewise, in a 2003 research paper ‘The Political Economy of Growth: Democracy and Human Capital’, political scientists Matthew A Baum and David A Lake argue that there are significant indirect effects of democracy on growth through public health and education. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

Hmm, interesting.

As the watchdog organisation Freedom House observed once, “democracies are playing a long game. Their enduring political stability creates conditions for decades and even centuries of steady improvement. Dictators, by contrast, are at least as likely to destroy as they are to build.”

The bottomline?

While the frustrations of gridlocks in a democracy are understandable, the yearning for Trumpian authoritarianism is entirely misplaced.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on January 16, 2018

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