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When you strike at a king, you must kill him — the danger of a wounded leader

When you strike at a king, you must kill him — the danger of a wounded leader
From left: Former South African president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Leila Dougan) | Former US President Donald Trump. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Justin Lane)

When a president — or a former president — comes under attack, does the right advice to the would-be assailant come from a TV criminal?

The circumstances of two former presidents — Jacob Zuma and Donald Trump — as well as those of incumbent leaders like Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu, led me to contemplate some sage advice from Omar Little, the charismatic robber of the TV series The Wire.  

Little’s lesson was, “If you come for the king, you’d better not miss.” But surely this idea is more universal than just a fictional Baltimore hood’s streetwise life guidance. As a corollary to Little’s injunction, there is also the late Fred Trump’s advice to his son, recounted by columnist Maureen Dowd, who quoted the elder Trump: “You’re either a killer or a loser.”

But such deep, meaningful advice could not have originated, newly minted, out of a fictional antihero’s lines on television. In fact, this phrasing traces back to the 19th-century US transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had written, “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” Not something that would immediately be seen as a statement from a philosopher, but who knows…

Emerson was an influential essayist and philosopher — and a close friend of another, Henry David Thoreau. Some people believe Emerson paid Thoreau’s fine for failing to pay his taxes when he came out in strong opposition to the Mexican War of 1845. Arrested for his failure to comply with the tax, Thoreau then spent the night in jail for his refusal, thereby giving birth and structure to the modern concept of civil disobedience. Emerson saluted his friend for having taken concrete steps to oppose the government over something both he and Emerson had disagreed with. Emerson wrote that Thoreau had acted, even if just for a night.

It seems this idea from Little and Emerson has a cousin in Hamlet’s whispered aside in Act II of the eponymously named play, when he said, “The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Truthfully, Prince Hamlet was planning to do much more by the end of things than just make his uncle feel bad, although the plan went seriously pear-shaped, given all the deaths by the time Fortinbras arrives at the end.

Machiavellian manoeuvres

But the trail goes back further, inevitably leading to Niccolo Machiavelli, the 15th-century diplomat and theorist of realpolitik. In his famous handbook for benevolent despots, tyrants and others, The Prince, Machiavelli wrote, “Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.” Or, in another, more modern translation, “Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries — for heavy ones they cannot.”

If we spent still more time on such textual research, we might well be able to trace this concept back to some ancient Tang dynasty, Sumerian, or Harappan courtier or seer who had said something very similar. This is because, to be fair, it really does sound like really good advice for someone taking aim at gaining power. There is, after all, no point in challenging a ruler if you only cause a glancing flesh wound — metaphorical or otherwise. Otherwise, you’ve made a mortal enemy out of a now-wounded, once-challenged ruler. Inevitably he will come for you. And he will be unlikely to offer much forbearance to you over your predicament and your actions.

And so, this brings us to today’s lesson. In light of this concept, first consider the cases of two former presidents: Jacob Zuma and Donald Trump.

In Trump’s circumstances, his opponents tried twice to impeach and convict him, failing when a handful of Republican senators chose partisan loyalty over duty to country, despite the near-thing insurrection that took place on 6 January 2021 with Trump’s willing connivance. 

Now, together with his failure in the 2020 presidential race, these events have allowed him to portray himself to his faithful cult as a near-martyr, hounded and pursued by the evil deep state, the left-wing media, and other dastardly elites with their politically charged indictments. And yet, miraculously, he has been able to rise again for one final run for the presidency.

The temporising, foot-dragging, and dithering in the judicial processes have allowed this “wounded” king to swear he will wreak vengeance upon his enemies, once he, the true king, reclaims his throne. Meanwhile, his enemies within his party are being hounded into silence or irrelevance, before Trump straps on his armour for the greater struggle with the usurper king. Or, as he has said to his supporters, “I am your retribution.”

As for Jacob Zuma in South Africa, the increasingly desperate opponents in his party — after the dreadful years of State Capture in which Zuma and his cohort were in league with various shady or worse characters — finally managed to remove him from his office, but without ever succeeding in extracting him from his connections with his core supporters. Instead, the moment he was arrested for the way he disrespected the courts, his supporters effectively encouraged the revving up of a near-rebellion and extensive looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng that cost hundreds of lives and billions of rands before it was quelled. 

His trial marathon (reaching back to the original charges of bribery arising from the Arms Deal) still seems to have much distance in it before he may ever be convicted of anything. While it is extremely unlikely he could ever make a run at leading his party again, he (and his supporters) may still have the ability to give the incumbent president (and the nation) real trouble in the months and years ahead. Wounded by circumstances, yet not out of the game entirely, revenge against those who have done him wrong remains a favourite dish on the dinner menus at the Nkandla ex-presidential estate.

The incumbents

And as for incumbent leaders, let’s think about the circumstances of those like Netanyahu and Putin. The former has also been the subject of a long-running court drama over a corruption scandal. Nevertheless, he has managed to hang on — except for one short interregnum — as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. His tactic has been to build a coalition — no matter how slender — that draws upon some of those small, ultraright and ultrareligious parties. Such alliances have, so far, outpaced any conceivable opposition coalition. 

At present, Netanyahu’s supporters have been ramming through the national Parliament a measure that would make it much harder for the courts to deal with his behaviour. This has been despite unprecedented, truly massive demonstrations opposing this move, with the sense that this measure, along with an ongoing suppression of Arabs in the West Bank, may well be putting near-automatic US support for Israel in the US Congress at increasing risk. So far, though, Netanyahu’s actions — and his opponents’ — have yet to result in more than a glancing blow to his power. An only slightly wounded king continues to hang on.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Putin has survived a potential political near-death experience. His lovingly curated mercenary army, the Wagner Group, had attempted to make a run at upending the leadership of Russia’s army (and thus hollowing out Putin’s own power) in their dash to Moscow from the Ukrainian front. While Putin remains president, he is now increasingly diminished, a man who could not tempt the fates (and potential activation of an ICC arrest warrant) by risking his attendance at a five-nation BRICS leadership summit this month in South Africa.

Politically wounded yet still in power, Putin succeeded in bearding Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin — and, in so doing, has presumably issued a warning to other would-be opponents who might try to fatally wound the Russian president politically — at least for the time being. It might be recalled, however, that it took less than three years after his humiliation in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis for Nikita Khrushchev to be edged out of power.

The lesson in all of this is, just as Omar Wills has observed (along with Emerson and Machiavelli), that to kill the “king,” one must never miss, lest a wounded and now angry and vengeful king hunts you down. At a minimum, he will put you in a place where you can never harm him again if he is a particularly humane fellow.

As our final expert in all of this, who else should we call upon other than Richard Nixon, a president actually brought low — permanently — by his attackers. His famous advice was to keep one’s friends close, but one’s enemies even closer. Ultimately, Nixon seemed to forget his own advice, and, instead, listened too much to his courtiers and lackeys — and the rest was history. DM

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  • ian hurst says:

    “The temporising, foot-dragging, and dithering in the judicial processes have allowed this “wounded” king to …..” The slow US justice has allowed Hunter Biden to escape paying tax on the millions he earned from being an unregistered “Foreign Agent”, peddling access to “The Big Guy” Joe, through prescription. Funny isn’t it? The judicial process throws up multiple late charges to the detriment of Trump, and to the benefit of the Biden Crime Family. And we thought South Africa was corrupt!

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