Donald Trump must rank as the United States’ worst president ever since the institution first came into being with the election of George Washington as the new country’s first executive in 1787 (you can check the 10 previous worst Presidents here). Trump’s actions have threatened virtually every aspect of what Americans like to hold up as exemplary in their society ranging from democracy to freedom of expression, but also basic compassion, a long-time tradition for helping others in need. This includes many so-called “International Geneva” issues such as refugees, migrants, human rights, humanitarian response, wildlife trafficking and conservation, fair trade and access to health.
Trump stands out as a menace to peace and the planet itself, not just within the borders of the United States but the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Arctic and beyond. Like some Third World tinpot bully, Trump has completely disrespected what democracy stands for. He has institutionalised official lying and contempt for the law, while at the same time vilifying the press which is seeking to hold him accountable. And we have allowed him to get away with it.
As journalists, we have an obligation to society. Our job is to report critically and fairly and to provide the sort of credible information that will enable people to make informed decisions about their lives and the futures of their children. For without trusted and independent reporting in the public interest, there is no democracy. Nor accountability.
A long line of abusers
Dogged reporting is crucial if we are to prevent abusers from abusing. This includes highlighting the actions of perpetrators such as the Burmese military with their ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas (See Global Geneva article on Cox’s Bazar), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s imprisonment of political opponents, the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the orders of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or Tanzanian President John Magufuli’s stifling of dissent through beatings, arrests and murder. The list is long and painful.
More consistent coverage by both local reporters and foreign correspondents is also imperative if we are to keep tabs on critical global issues ranging from climate change to the emergence of deadly viruses. Many newsgatherers are indeed striving to provide the sort of quality reporting that is needed, but it is an increasingly uphill struggle.
What happens when overall public interest journalism is no longer having an impact because it is being constantly subverted by self-serving political or commercial interests, or simply denied the necessary resources needed to fund investigative reporting? At what point should bona fide journalists stand up to sound the alarm bells? (See piece on the undermining role of social media giants, such as Facebook)
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Is this not what should have happened during the 1930s with the rise of Hitler and Mussolini? (As cartoonist and author Jeff Danziger, whose drawings illustrate this article, pointed out when Trump came to power: “We are now in Weimar.“) Or when McCarthyism in the 1950s sought to destroy the lives of so many American and foreign citizens by accusing them of being Soviet spies or communist sympathisers? There are also disturbing similarities with the way most Republican senators and congressmen were too cowed to speak out for fear of wrecking their own political bases to what is happening today in Congress with their reluctance to call out Trump.
As a foreign correspondent covering wars and humanitarian crises, I have encountered my fair share of dictators and abusers, a veritable Shakespearean cast of nasties. Many are now dead, in jail or in exile, or hiding out in oblivion. For years if not decades they arrogantly thought that they were god’s gift to humankind and could get away with anything. They lied and they abused.
For at least some abusers, there is poetic (if not physical) justice…
Fortunately, at least for some, justice tends to catch up in the end. Osama bin Laden, whom I met twice in the late 1980s in Afghanistan, was hunted down and killed by U.S. forces in 2011. UNITA’s Jonas Savimbi, a highly astute and brilliant guerrilla commander during Angola’s civil war, was the sort of person you could discuss colonialism with for hours. Yet he was not someone one would wish to cross. He had all those killed who threatened his leadership until he himself was bloodily shot dead during a government raid in 2002.
Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was another one of those intolerant abusers. A liberation leader who could have been Africa’s second Mandela, he was intelligent, charming and witty whenever I met him. Yet, with most fellow African leaders refusing to condemn him, he ran his country’s once vibrant economy and top-notch health services into the ground through his corruption and disdain for those who opposed him. He was also responsible for the deaths of thousands, such as the massacres by his notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of over 20,000 civilians in Matabeleland. Mugabe was finally ousted by his own people in 2017. He died a bitter old man two years later.
Then there was Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadžić, who with his thick, wavy hair and impeccable three-piece suit walked the halls of the Palais des Nations in Geneva during the Balkans War pompously lecturing journalists on his right to promote the rights of Serbs over other minorities. Dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia”, he was found guilty in 2016 of war crimes and crimes against humanity, notably the murder of over 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica. (See Kristian Skeie photo essay in Global Geneva). Vociferously unrepentant, he is now serving life imprisonment in The Hague as is another fellow abuser, Ratko Mladić. The irony is that they both despise each other and yet are forced to languish in cells only meters apart.
Abusers have a lot in common: Narcissism, arrogance and admiration for themselves
The world, of course, has no shortage of such abusers. Whether outright killers or brazen manipulators of the truth, what they all share in common is the same narcissism, arrogance and admiration for themselves. Trump is way up there. But so are Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Belarus’ strongman Alexander Lukashenko. All three populists are cut from the same cloth; they are devious, conspiratorial and fraudulent. They also lack any sense of integrity and empathy for others. Above all, however, they have abused their powers.
All three, for example, are deniers or ‘minimizers’ of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump’s utter failure to respond properly to COVID-19 makes him at least partially responsible for the deaths of over 180,000 human beings (a figure which is projected to almost double by December, 2020 unless appropriate action is taken) who have died from the virus in the United States. The same goes for Bolsonaro (126,000 dead). Yet, while Lukashenko could be held legally responsible for the torture, kidnapping and even murder of political opponents, it seems doubtful that either Trump or Bolsonaro will ever stand trial for their failure to stem the virus in their own homelands. Both prefer to blame everyone else or completely ignore on-the-ground realities, such as science.
Trump must rank as the most unconscionable. More comparable to Mussolini in the manner with which he seeks to promote himself or intimidates those who dare question his behaviour, he cares little for history or culture. Forget moral values. Trump’s realityshow cyber abuse and deliberate misinformation (over 20,000 false or misleading claims since coming to power, according to the Washington Post) would turn Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda, green with envy. Plus the fact that an apparently solid base of Americans lap up whatever Trump dishes out, not unlike the millions of Germans, Italians and even Spanish during their countries’ fascist periods gullibly accepted everything that their leaders propagated.
Even more frightening, Trump’s self-centred lack of respect for others is fast emerging as an insidious threat to political stability. The possibilities of civil strife, or even war, would have seemed inconceivable three and half years ago. Today no longer. For decades, the United States has sought to promote respect for the ballot box across the globe, whether in the form of development aid and education, but also – on occasion – military might. After all, America’s post-war Marshall Plan helped create one of the world’s most credible democratic success stories, Germany. Ironically, people in many developing countries now seem to take democracy far more seriously than those in the United States.
The U.S. now has a president who not only condones violence and racial division but also false political advertising (local TV stations are by law not allowed to reject such commercials even if they promote misinformation during electoral campaigns). He also appears to be doing everything possible to prevent people, particularly minorities, from voting by undermining the US Postal Services and even voting itself. Since when does lying and illegality become the defining feature of a supposedly functioning democracy?
Trump: Constantly disparaging the independent press when criticism is too close
The same goes for corruption, something numerous institutions, such as the OECD, are striving to banish. Surrounded by criminal cohorts, some now in jail, others in the process of being charged, Trump has managed to get away with an erosive approach that, not unlike some Third World strongman, seeks to be above the law. He does this by denying well-founded allegations through his constant disparaging of the independent press. The Atlantic’s most recent article on Trump’s maligning of dead or captured American soldiers is only one of many examples. (The Atlantic piece was also confirmed by a journalist with the normally pro-Trump Fox News)
The reality is that whether people across the globe like it or not, including bitter critics of anything American, the United States does help set standards. When there are conflicts, humanitarian crises or mass-scale human rights violations, whether Afghanistan’s dragging war, the plight of the Kurds in the Middle East (See Jon Randal piece in Global Geneva), China’s persecution of the Uighurs or repression of political dissent in Hong Kong, and even Israel’s discrimination against Palestinians, people tend to turn to America for funding, solutions or at least public condemnation. It is what’s expected.
Unfortunately, over the past three and a half years, the United States has steadily lost both its moral imperative and respect. Trump’s constant criminal abuse of the law, including the U.S. Constitution such as his illegal use of the White House lawn and US Marines as part of the recent Republic Party Convention, coupled with his self-serving promotion of racism and political division have left American democracy in tatters. Trump has become an embarrassment both for America and the world.
Of particular concern has been Trump’s undermining of traditional alliances. His political counterparts ranging from Germany’s Angelika Merkel and Canada’s Justin Trudeau to France’s Emmanuel Macron regard him as an ignorant fool, but one who has to be tolerated as long as he is in power. Even Britain’s Boris Johnson, who politically needs the United States to somehow ease the UK’s divorce with the EU is known to despise the man.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, the World Health Organization and the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities have not only risked the well-being of our planet, but threatened peace and stability. And how many more human beings will die from coronavirus because of Washington’s failure to work out a global response through an already existing international organization, notably WHO, involving every other country in the world? This is coupled with Trump’s undermining of the once highly respected Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, which has now become politicized and has lost much of its credibility.
In the past, it has always been easy to dismiss the actions of certain tinpot dictatorships ranging from Uganda’s Idi Amin to even Belarus’ Lukashenko. But with America, we expect more, not just from its president, but also its voters.
Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent and author. He is also editor of Global Insights Magazine and its online counterpart, www.global-geneva.com
Attacks against press freedom are attempts to silence all civil society. Kasmira Jefford, Geneva Solutions. 5 September 2020. Freedom of the Press Event at UN Geneva. “Ninety per cent of the murders of journalists remain unresolved,” said the Swiss president Simonetta Sommaruga. “Threats and attacks against journalists have reached an alarming magnitude.” (LINK)
Note: no mention of Switzerland’s poor record in law and practice on protecting whistleblowers. UN TV video of President Sommaruga’s speech: Journalists at risk – Let’s protect media freedom (LINK)
See Global Geneva’s piece on whistleblowing in Switzerland and its failure to punish abusers.