Bonhomie but no brotherhood: The authoritarian bloc that never was

While their domestic autocracy is real, as a group – including Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi and others – their coherence is overstated

Bill Hicks, the late comic and grouch, dreamt of a political party for "people who hate people". He just couldn't get them to come together in the same room. The great egoist movement was undone by its central principle.

I think of the skit whenever the world brotherhood of jingoist authoritarians is talked up. US president Donald Trump is in this group, with, among others, the leaders of China (Xi Jinping), Russia (Vladimir Putin), India (Narendra Modi) and Brazil (Jair Bolsonaro). Trump and Xi are superpower rivals, America cancelled India's preferential trading status, and still the idea of a Nationalist International survives.

It should not survive the coronavirus pandemic. Recent months have further teased out the differences between these conflated governments. Their domestic autocracy is real enough, but their coherence as a bloc is overstated. Liberalism is not confronted by anything like a unified opponent.

The most vivid case in point is the US-China blame-game. It is also the least surprising. Relations were dire before the virus, and it should not be news that nativists feud more easily than they collude across national lines. World war allusions have flowed too cheaply of late, but it is hard not to think of the autocrats who mercifully failed to act in concert for long in the previous century.


Leaders who believe in the separateness of nations above all else will always have trouble co-ordinating. As long as this is true, the position of liberal democracy is less exposed than it sometimes looks. What its enemies have in numbers and geographic spread they lack in togetherness. At present, they cannot agree on the efficacy of the World Health Organisation. The prospect of a new world order built around their shared preferences seems far off.

As telling as the diplomatic schisms between nationalists is their range of antivirus policies. Mainstream governments have converged on much the same strategy, couched in much the same language. It is true enough that some were quicker than others and some were better prepared to begin with. As lives are at issue, the stragglers should be held to eventual account.


But as time passes, what distinguishes the approaches of, say, France, Canada and Ireland, lies in the details. Given how many countries fall into the non-populist category, true outliers such as Sweden, with its minimal lockdown, are amazingly few.

Compare this with the free-for-all inside the populist world. Modi has kept the second-largest population on Earth at home for a month. Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, took measures against the virus relatively early. At the opposite end, there is the laxity of Trump and Bolsonaro. The crisis has exposed how little connects these leaders beyond a surface bonhomie. Some pretend to be serious about the business of government, some do not. A club that encompasses them all is likely to be meaningless.

Notice, too, how gaping are its exit doors. By embracing a shutdown, however tardily, and not talking up a relaxation, Boris Johnson is viewed ever more as a "normal" leader. At least before his illness, the UK premier was counted unambiguously among the nativists. Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, after tackling the virus seriously, has undergone a similar reassignment. The nationalist team roster has thinned in a few weeks, which tells you how much rigour the idea ever had.

And this is not just about personalities. There are theoretical contradictions within populism. This is a creed that cannot decide what it thinks about personal freedom. It resents technocratic bossiness while brooking no checks and balances in the protection of the homeland. Trump claims “total authority”, yes, but to loosen restrictions on people, not to tighten them (except for would-be immigrants).

If this tension is evident in one leader, imagine its permutations for policy across several governments across several continents across several issues. Even according an “-ism” to such a disparate bunch is to flatter them.

It is understandable that we do. We are a pattern-recognising species, and sometimes a pattern-inventing one. It is consoling to detect some kind of shape to the world. But the point is to not make the pattern itself more frightening than anarchic reality.

No doubt, the momentum has been with authoritarians in recent times. The question is whether they add up to a cohesive front against democracy. An empire of illiberalism, on which the sun never sets, assumes more unity than could feasibly exist among national egoists. It just took a crisis to show it. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020