So many people have told me it is really not important who’s president of any country. They are puppets anyway, they would claim conspiratorially. The puppet-mastery part of the scheme would come courtesy of the dollar/rand billionaires, arms dealers/manufacturers, secret cabals (some of them institute/think-tank-based, some as old as Knights Templar), military/intelligence elite, party leaders, government bureaucracies, or Deep State, as the Fox News pundits like to call them.
Some of these indeed are powerful in many countries beyond what their official position, or the country’s laws, should warrant. But the influence should not cloud the reality: it is not not important who’s president of a country – quite the opposite. It is crucial – and bad choices can ruin countries for generations.
If you are looking for proof, here it is: Jacob Zuma. Donald Trump. Rodrigo Duterte. Vladimir Putin. Recep Erdoğan. Jair Bolsonaro. Victor Orbán. Narendra Modi. Should I go on?
All of them have altered their respective fiefdoms in profoundly damaging ways that, for some, may take generations to correct. Almost all of them were democratically elected. All of them are strongmen. All of them are populists.
I often imagine a democratic society as a long heavy bag of sand hanging from the ceiling, with a big zip running along the length, and see a president as a top pin designed to hold the whole structure together. If that pin doesn’t hold, due to incompetence/ corruption/ moral depravity/ insanity (sometimes all of the above), the zip will tear open and the bag will soon empty.
The key to the whole structure of a state is that the president’s character should be within the bounds of decency, or the damned closest to that. And for the thing to stand, the framers of constitutions all over the world had to assume that a democracy would always elect a top candidate who would act in good faith. No laws, statutes and rulebooks, however, can withstand a president supported by a majority party and discharging their duties in bad faith.
Some might disagree, but the laws and contracts are only as strong and good as the people and institutions whose job is to protect and enforce them. No ink on paper can withstand a concentrated attack from powerful players acting in bad faith.
Witness the Trump/GOP’s record-breaking instalment of Amy Coney Barrett in the US Supreme Court. Nothing in their move was illegal, and yet everything about it was against the spirit of law and democracy.
Or here in South Africa, where corrupt politicians and their enablers have turned “innocent until proven guilty” into “innocent until the last option of appeal has been exhausted”. While still not illegal, this stance enabled people under serious clouds to remain in power, with consequences we may never shake off.
If you are Zuma, or Trump, or any other from that list, the nation’s decision-making system can be centralised and personalised, checks and balances sidelined, your enemies are dealt with harshly and everything will revolve around you.
Today is the 2020 US presidential election. The world’s richest nation is groaning under the twin crises of the pandemic and an economy on the brink of depression. America’s alliances, which took decades to build, now lie in ruins. America’s long-term adversaries are Trump’s BFFs. Armed militias are patrolling the voting booths in many swing states, while just months ago the biggest race riots in 50 years left cities burning, large and small. MAGA rallies are superspreader events not only for coronavirus but also for racial hatred and attacks on democratic norms that made America such a successful experiment. Media is seen as an enemy of the people.
All over the world, where for decades journalists and activists could have counted on the United States as an ally and ultimate protector, now local strongmen are seizing the moment and pushing back, mostly brutally. Even if you look at the EU nations, the rise of neofascism and hatred is staggering. Even in Germany, the rise of the QAnon conspiracy with a strong anti-semitic hook is posing a potent danger.
It took Trump only four years to set the US back for decades and destabilise the world. It took Zuma slightly less than 10 years to bring South Africa to its knees. Similar applies to the rest of that list.
America now has a chance to self-correct and elect a decent man instead of a con man. But it will take years, possibly decades, to undo the damage.
One can only hope that the people of the world learn something from this terrible period and never again think that presidents’ identities don’t matter and that they can’t destroy democracy itself. Because, it is now obvious: Yes, They Can. DM168