Donald Trump and the Global Politics of “Strongman Leaders”


Habibah Hermanadi,

Research assistant of ASEAN Studies Center UGM


Donald Trump has been elected as the 45th President of the United States. As predicted, the result triggered massive reaction from all over the world including Southeast Asia. Previously, the scenarion of “Trump’s Triumph” has been unimaginable among academics and political commentators, for he was seen merely as an anecdotal figure with bleak chance of winning. Even media has forecasted the failure of his campaign, which is now proven to be wrong.

This is clearly a global situation. However, it is not unpredictable. I argue that “Trump’s Triumph” reflects the rising trend of ‘strongman leader’ in world politics, which is reflected upon the current leadership trends in many parts of the world, including in Southeast Asia.

Strongman Leaders

Financial Times described the condition as the rise of “Strongman Leaders”. Their argument is simple: the world is witnessing the rise of tough leaders, paired with assertive approach, strong rhetoric, and, most importantly,put great emphasis on the strength of greatness based on national unity. A classic study from Anthony Birch nationalism has been the most successful political doctrine to promote a political agenda, particularly in electoral campaign. The concept of national unity itself is contrasted from Rousseau’s vision of nationalism, which highlights how a community living based on shared customs and a single way of life, could be expected to feel affection from their own societies. Moreover, national unity also poses constant exposure to conflicts and internal fragmentation that could drive society to elect a ‘strongman leaders’.

It is against this backdrop we could understand how Trump won in the recent US General Election.

This is also the case in Southeast Asia. Rodrigo Duterte, the current president of Philippines, shows how a “strongman leader” arouses from the practice of democratic politics. Even though he was democratically elected, he also confront international society by embracing a tough war on drug dealers, which became an international human rights concern.

On the regional level, the recent 36th ASEANPOL Conference last July was marked by powerful remarks from leaders, such as from Malaysian current Prime Minister Najib Razak, who deemed that national security is a paramount issue in which he will not be apologetic. The trend also includes Thailand, whose currently undergoing the military government has been showing potentials of shifting its constitutions.

In the recent referendum, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the Prime Minister of Thailand, even has legitimacy to exercise some sorts of ‘martial law’, for he is given a permanent super-crisis powers and  maximum power to the army to resolve political crises in the countiry.

Indonesia, on the other hand showed a different demands in terms of what the society demands in a leader. During the 2014 election, he beat , Prabowo Subianto a former charismatic general who promised a turn for ‘developmentalist politics’ characterised by strong leadership. Known for his straightforward, down-to-earth, and populist politics his popularity declined in 2015 as he was seen as an indecisive leader unable to take decisive actions. Even though he could survive Indonesian politics (with his unexpected maneouvre in some political occassions), there has been some criticisms from Indonesian for his inability to challenge strongmen and oligarch in the .

A Cold War Legacy

“Strongman leaders” is in fact a Cold War legacy. It is a trend where transparency endless and democratic politics are not a common practice in world politics. At the end of the War, endless political revolutions and internal reformations has been resulted by this trend. It was a time where popular demands rise and challenge the politics of oligarchy in many states, including Indonesia.

Strongman leaders relies upon popular demand from their followers/voters. They tend to neglect a more technocratic view in doing diplomacy and foreign policy.

Take Phillippines as an example. The Cold War has brought Phillippines under the shadow of US Foreign Policy, placing the nation as the pivot of the power politics against the Communists. But it also witnessed the popular protest, when, for example, President Marcos has been toppled down by people’s protests in 1986. It since then witnessed the emergence of strong leaders from different political factions.

More interestingly, when Duterte strongly call for the end of the country’s special relationship with the United States, he insisted that Phillippines do not fear foredooming wars. The Diplomat observed this condition as ‘Duterte effect’, in which other ASEAN member states could replicate Duterte’s tones in doing diplomacy in the region.

Implication for Regional Politics

What does this “strongman leaders” imply for Southeast Asian politics? I suggest that this trend could lead to a US-China re-balance in Southeast Asia. Even though we shall also need to wait for upcoming events, particularly following Trump’s administration, we could assume that this trend could lead to the re-emergence of ‘national interest’ in Southeast Asian politics, followed by the rhetorics of strong leaders in each ASEAN member states.

Therefore, ‘strongman leaders’ could start a new trend of putting ASEAN aside and putting national interest first, for it constitutes the way e strongman leaders deliver their messages to be acknowledged in world politics.

If it is true, then the rise of strongman leaders could revoke the strong state’s vision in ASEAN. It could probably strengthen ASEAN, but not in the ‘people-oriented’ way. It could, to some extent, revive ASEAN’s ideal of planned unity, backed by strong national ego. It could also means a revival for ‘non-interference’ doctrine in the region.

We could nonethelessly learn from Donald Trump’s strategy that takes him to the White House. Trump’s triumph is not a surprising event. In the current tumultous world, it is likely that society demands the type of leaders who could speak louder than the others. Strongman leaders, therefore, is a very product of the world that we currently live in.