In the UK, across Europe, in Australia, and in the US, there are many who bemoan the simply terrible set of leaders the world has been saddled with at the moment. Trump in the US takes debasement of office, and sullying of discourse, to new lows; Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK offer voters the electoral choice between metaphorical cholera and the Black Death; Malcolm Turnball in Australia delivers disappointment with the same generosity as his immediate predecessors in a country of such wealth and stability it is hard to know how it could be misruled in the first place. Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi at least offer superficial order – but imposed, we all know, at what is likely to be a shocking price, racketing up each day.
All of this is happening while the impact of climate change is scorching the believers and doubters in equal measure, with temperatures soaring across the world. The UK and America in their domestic politics remain divided, often bitterly so, with Brexit looming like a nightmare no one in the UK will ever escape from even after it happens, and Trump steering what was once the world’s most admired and influential country towards a new iteration of culture wars that threatens to be even more intractable than those of the past. All of this is vividly mapped out in the fractiousness of social media. From all of this, the world seems to be in a sorry state, and its leaders look like they have never been more mediocre, more clueless, more benighted.
An inspection of the great `Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ by Edward Gibbon however serves as at least a philosophical corrective. In fact, as the almost endless list of leaders competing with each other for greed, cruelty, ignorance and savageness Gibbon gives shows, appalling leadership has been the norm, not the exception. In his annals, Augustus and Constantine the Great were about the only ones in a four hundred year span that made any impact. The rest were at best mediocre; at worst, they were catastrophically bad. And in the latter category, there were many, not a few.
In British history, only one monarch since the seventh century had earned the label `Great’ – Alfred, who battled with the Danes in the ninth century, fortified urban Britain, and made the hugely important, rational move of establishing a navy – rational because the greatest threat at that time was from the sea, and not land. His successors were either insane (George the Third), murderers (Richard the Third et al), or paranoid psychopaths (Henry the Eighth). William the Conqueror, despite his grand title, was an illiterate (he signed the charter designating Canterbury as the chief religious site with a cross rather than his own name), whose murderous rampages through northern Britain would constitute genocide today. Edward the Second had famously costly perversions that reportedly ended in his own savage death; John’s reign was so bad it haunted the next eight hundred years. Even the saintly Oliver Cromwell visited unimaginable cruelty during the campaigns of his armies in Ireland. Only since the British royalty have been robbed of all power have they become bearable – as entertainers, rather than rulers.
As for China, the record is longer, and as bad. The first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi may have unified the disparate states that existed in the territory now occupied by part of the People’s Republic in the third century BCE, but he also had a memorial erected to him so vast historians believe it bankrupted the Qin state he had created only a couple of decades after it was founded. According to one study I looked at recently, of the sixty or so imperial leaders of China over 2000 years, by far the most common form of death was murder or assassination. Zhu Yuanzhang (the Hongwu Emperor) visited a purge on his elite when he rose from being a beggar to celestial Son of Heaven so cruel it is hard to face even today, nearly seven centuries after he ruled. The Yongle Emperor, his successor, repaid the doubts about his rights to being emperor (he had usurped an older brother in contentious circumstances) by the scholar official Fang Xiaoru by annihilating his family to the tenth degree, and having him executed by surgical dismemberment. There were thousands more who had similarly horrific fates. We need not dwell on the list of those equally brutal that followed, right up to the era of Mao Zedong. The record is so powerful it even gave rise to the idea of `oriental despotism’ – though, to be honest, despotism is a universal phenomenon – nothing Oriental about it.
It’s progress of sorts, in view of this record of leadership across cultures and times, that the most it seems our current batch can do is be disappointing, crude, clueless and mean-spirited in their words. The sad fact is that compared to a vast majority of leaders from our written history era, Trump is no more than a lightweight. One cannot imagine how Qin Shi Huangdi, William the Conqueror or Genghis Khan would have regarded him, before they embarked on another extermination campaign that left territories barren, wiped out whole communities, and added another scar to the wounded body of humanity.