Defend Truth

Opinionista

Presidents do matter

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Branko Brkic is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Daily Maverick.

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.

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

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • David Turner says:

    I agree with your title – everything rises & falls on leadership.
    My problem is that this article does what Daily Maverick as a whole has done consistently during the build-up to the election, ie, only present the one perspective of the story – which happens to coincide with the liberal main stream media. What about the other perspective of roughly half of all USA citizens? I may have missed them, but have not seen any pro-Trump articles by DM. There are one or two neutral ones, but just everywhere are the anti-Trump articles. Like yesterday’s DM168 cartoon of the lies, today it’s the above article, one by Anita Vorlicek and the list goes. Defend Truth – or is there only one truth?
    The above article takes Trump to pieces on his character – something that does not require much skill – but has nothing to say about Biden’s business dealings as exposed in the Hunter Biden laptop. Of course, DM provided no article about that, just like the US media who tried to cover it up.
    It seems the editor’s personal preferences have influenced a whole platform to far great a degree. As subscribers who believe in your project, I think we deserved a little more balanced journalism!!!

    • Valerie Graham says:

      But this article was *about* character, and, as you say yourself in so many words, Trump’s is abysmal. He may have done some good things in his presidency with regards to the economy, but what he hasn’t done and what he’s undone are all the important things that underpin a proper democracy and the right to consider a country as a world leader.

  • Erika Suter says:

    This article should be printed on every cereal box, precede every Netflix show, hang over every shop till, appear on every restaurant menu and installation instruction etc etc etc…

    Theodor Adorno (& others) hundred years ago already bemoaned our propensity for entertainment at the expense of being informed and involved. Hence the prevalent ignorance. A terrifying quality of human nature…

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Limiting power of presidents / politicians never had more relevance than in a state of emergency/ disaster. Decent choices are few in any country. SA is doomed after CR. There’s no decent choice in ANC . There’s no other party worthy /capable of winning trust.

  • Coen Gous says:

    David, there are very few media, worldwide, whose editorial is “balanced” as you put is. Some try, but not very successfully. Many articles written for Daily Maverick are by people that do not work for them, but are regarded as so-called insiders. They write on invitation, but their views are their own. If someone wishes to write an article favouring Trump, I am sure it would have been published by DM. Even you say you agree with Branko’s title, and the article was about that, and about Trump’s character. Personally, I think this is a brilliant article, and is worthy of being published in any credible news medium anywhere in the world.
    That being said, your concern regarding “balanced” editorial remain. But that applies to all media. What I can tell you, is that if Branko wrote an article “defending Trump”, I likely would not have applauded him for “balanced” reporting, but would have been extremely critical, and possibly stopped any further reading of any article in DM

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Great article, thanks Branko. There is something I would like to add not directly to do with this great article. Please Branko select articles for publication THAT SUPPORT DEMOCRACY IN SA. We seriously need a strong opposition party and the press, not only DM, slags the official opposition at every turn, seldom giving facts, only snide remarks. Fox does that in the US. I am not saying everybody must support the DA as I do, but democratic opposition parties should be given their honest air-time. That is the only way that the ANC can be given the boot. If the ANC is your choice then the others must be given honest coverage. I worked with Russian/ Ukrainian/ Polish crews for over 15 years and not one of them wanted to go back to a totalitarian government. Poynal?

  • Anton Louw says:

    David, you’re right about balance, but Trump is so awful, that it’s not a policy discussion and you’d struggle to defend him without having a very entrenched agenda. You can argue whether more left or right policies should be pursued, but Trump’s agenda is deliberately (and obviously) not in the long-term interest of his country as a whole, but in shoring up support from a narrow base to keep himself in power – and he doesn’t care what they actually think, only that there are enough of them cheering him on. 4 years ago I said: “Oh, you’ve elected a misogynist, philandering, corrupt demagogue. I can tell you how this will go.” It turned out to be prescient well beyond expectations. If you’re still looking, The Economist had an article discussing his achievements, ‘his promises kept’, but they’re pretty modest by comparison.

  • David Turner says:

    Thank you, Valerie, Coen & Anton for your comments.
    My point is just that if Trump is as bad as the variety of DM articles have made him out to be, then how does the average DM reader understand how roughly half of the USA electorate could be voting for him, if we have never heard the other side of the story. For example, one of the most surprising trends to come out has been the support of African American & Latino’s for Trump, who is supposed to be such a big racist. Wouldn’t an article by one of those high profile African American’s who have come out in support of Trump helped us to understand why? That does not mean the editor has to agree with them, but at least the readers get to see the other side.
    Also, how about the huge support that Trump has got from the big Christian vote because his pro-life & pro-family stance as evidenced by his “record-breaking instalment of Amy Coney Barrett in the US Supreme Court.” There have been no articles about these issues to help us understand why Trump has even half of the vote.

  • Erika Suter says:

    David Turner, you are to be commended for subscribing to as well as supporting this platform, holding the views you do, since they are not reflected in DM’s content (you made that point already).

    In reply, however, I would just like to point out that “mainstream media” is not a couple of media houses owned by one or two families who might have an agenda, but a very large and diverse group with very different ownerships. Even if some of them tow a particular anti-Trump line, for whatever reason, why are “all of them” so critical of him, in the US and (nearly) everywhere else? Even our own DM? The media wants attention, no matter the story. Look how some readers are reasoning with DM to leave the DA “alone” so that it can “get the” ANC. The point is that if there was any truth to that laptop story regarding the Bidens, it would have been picked up by at least some of the mainstream media. Surely? I want to know when the DA does wrong, no matter what. The DM would fail their mandate if they “protected” this party, or for that matter, Jo Biden if he was corrupt in some way and it was not investigated and reported on.

    Then regarding “half the US electorate supporting him” (which is quite incorrect, but never mind), I, and many journalists, psychologists, historians, academic and Christian leaders (since you mentioned Christians – see Rev Rob Schenck) have grappled with this question and found sobering answers in topics such as confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, moral collapse & Faustian deals (apart from racism and the host of ultra-right reasons why Trump has support). Popular support does not automatically lend justification to a leader’s actions.

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