Strength

When Mariano Rajoy, the primer minister of Spain, sent armed police to violently suppress the (admitted illegal) referendum on independence conducted by the government of Catalonia, he was following the standard playbook of a right-wing leader.

As I’ve written before, the main difference, in opinion, between left-of-center and right-of-center politics is that the former is based on hope and the latter on fear.

The hope is that things will get better for people. But to inspire such hope a charismatic leader is necessary, and nearly all electoral victories of left-of-center parties happen when such a leader is present. (I list examples in the cited post.) When, on occasion, a left-of-center party wins without one, its success is ephemeral, as shown by the French Socialist Party under François Hollande.

The fear is that the some “other” threatens the people. The “other” may be another country or set of countries, or some ethnic, political or cultural minority.

Sometimes the fear is factually based — that is, the threat may be real. As a popular button in the sixties had it, even paranoids have real enemies. In that case the people usually seek a leader seen as competent to deal with the threat (Churchill in 1940 is a good example).

But often the threat is manufactured, whether spontaneously or as a part of propaganda serving some special interest. It may be ascribed to a country against which there already exists a prejudice, to domestic groups associated with such a country (“foreigners”), or to groups somehow seen as suspects (Catholics, Jews, Muslims, freemasons, “radicals” of any stripe, and so on). In those cases the fear is wholly irrational, and mere competence is not enough; what people look for in a leader is an image of strength.

What conveys such an image may vary. High military rank obviously fills the bill: witness Eisenhower (when the threat was communism) or de Gaulle (Algerian nationalism). Without such a qualification, leaders must improvise. By virtue of his bullying personality, Donald Trump has convinced a significant portion of the American people that he has the “toughness” to protect their country from China, Muslims and immigrants.

What, then, is a mild-mannered civilian politician to do? Ronald Reagan provides an example: he earned his image of strength when, as governor of California, he sent the highway patrol and then the national guard to put down “radical” student demonstrations in Berkeley.  Later, as president of the United States, he refused negotiations with the the striking air-traffic controllers’ union and abruptly fired them.

Currently, Putin, Erdoğan and Duterte are examples of right-leaning leaders who earned their tough images by violent crackdowns against Chechens, Kurds and drug dealers, respectively.

Rajoy, who is now (like Reagan)  consistently refusing negotiations, is merely following their example. When the time comes for new elections, he can boast of his strength in putting down separatists.

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