Over the weekend, Mohamed El-Erian posted the cover of The Economist to his social media account.
The latest edition depicts an irritable Xi Jinping riding a dragon that’s also a snail. “Xi’s Failing Model,” it reads. “Why he won’t fix China’s economy.”
The replies to El-Erian’s tweet were predictable, unfortunate and instructive. Some called The Economist a contrarian indicator (a fair criticism, perhaps), while countless others parroted short versions of Party talking points, likely without realizing it (your neighbors are unwitting propaganda conduits for the world’s dictators).
Twitter (now “X”) was always fertile ground for counter-narrative, but under Elon Musk’s “leadership,” some worry the platform is little more than an echo chamber for propaganda and conspiracy theories seeded in many cases by authoritarian regimes. It’s part of an ongoing campaign to co-opt still more Westerners in a project that aims to chip away at the foundation of democracies by eroding social capital.
It’s never been more important for Western audiences to guard against those efforts. Vladimir Putin has resorted to bombing the planes of his own warlords to stave off armed rebellion, and I’ve argued (convincingly, I think) that Beijing might’ve finally met its Waterloo in terms of juggling competing priorities. In the US, it now seems inevitable that Donald Trump will be the Republican presidential candidate, even if he’s a convicted felon by the time the election rolls around.
Last week’s GOP debate (which Trump viewed as beneath him) suggested nearly all of his would-be challengers will support him for president even if he’s convicted of conspiracy and racketeering as part of a plot to overthrow America’s democratic system of governance. It was both astounding and completely predictable when, one by one, the assembly of preordained also-rans raised their hands to go on record in that regard, led by Bill Ackman favorite Vivek Ramaswamy.
Chris Christie, whose “campaign” is arguably more about revenge than about making a serious run for the White House, stated the obvious: “Someone has to stop normalizing this conduct.” He was referring to Trump, of course, but that assessment applies more broadly.
Over the past half-dozen years, I’ve looked on despairingly as an ever larger number of citizens across Western democracies expresses some affinity for, sympathy with and, alarmingly, willingness to try, authoritarianism and autocracy.
In the context of market observes and macro watchers, the allure of “likes,” retweets, positive affirmation and a sense of community with other self-described contrarians, probably goes a long way towards explaining this phenomenon. Spend a day or two on finance-focused Twitter (sorry, “X”) and you can make a fairly long list of formerly sane journalists, analysts and economists now in thrall to what they plainly don’t recognize as propaganda.
More generally, voters in Western nations seem increasingly open to the notion that because democracies aren’t so “innocent” themselves, as Trump famously put it in 2017, it’s ok to normalize authoritarians and autocrats.
But that misses the point. From a domestic quality of life perspective, the problem with autocracies has very little, if anything, to do with the moral high ground. The reason life is often miserable in autocracies isn’t because autocrats and authoritarians are everywhere and always evil people. Looked at from the opposite angle: People don’t risk life and limb to get themselves and their families into America because they think US presidents are inherently virtuous human beings.
Life under regimes like Putin’s and Xi’s is miserable because people’s opportunity set and capacity for self-fulfillment are limited by the state. And not in the same sense that Americans are limited by the pernicious legacy of endemic racism and misogyny, as well as pervasive inequality of opportunity and unforgiving capitalism. But rather in the very straightforward sense that in the event your quest for self-fulfillment runs afoul of the regime in any way, you can be hauled in for questioning and executed with no trial. Maybe that makes the regime “evil,” but that’s a subjective judgment. From a purely practical perspective, the problem isn’t wickedness, it’s people’s inability to pursue happiness.
To the extent you manage to confine your quest for self-fulfillment to state-sanctioned pursuits in autocracies, you can be taxed, and not in the same sense that Americans are taxed by the IRS so that the government can spend (or misspend, whichever the case may be) your dollars on public goods, defense or whatever else. But rather in the sense that if you run a catering company in Russia, for example, and you secure a lucrative contract, you might get a phone call the next day informing you that there was a mistake. The contract is going to Yevgeny Prigozhin instead. If that means you can’t pay your employees this month, well… better luck next time.
Americans (and, I assume, citizens around the Western world) used to understand all of this. Not so much anymore, though. Now, Westerners are among the quickest to defend Xi when his economic troubles land him on the front page of Western periodicals. American citizens still delight in memes of Putin riding bears, sharks and dinosaurs. And finance-focused, Western social media was littered last week with celebratory messages centered around an expansion of the BRICS, despite the expanded bloc’s preponderance of authoritarians and dictators (Xi, Putin, Modi, MBS, Khamenei, el-Sisi) who’d just as soon bury you as look at you.
In 2024, the US will probably have another opportunity to vote away its democracy. If Trump wins, there won’t be another free and fair US presidential election in his lifetime. If you’re inclined to suggest that’s hysteria, you probably also said Trump would peacefully transfer power in 2020.