Opinion: The difference between real leaders and thugs

Days before Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died in prison, Tucker Carlson gushed over Vladimir Putin, saying, “Leadership requires killing people.”

Well, I’m sorry, Tucker. You’re wrong.

Real leadership is the opposite of thuggery. The world’s greatest leaders help their societies deal with their hardest problems. They have moral authority. Alexei Navalny was more of a leader than Putin will ever be.

The same distinction holds for American presidents.

So far, we’ve had 46 of them. A few were thugs. Andrew Johnson (#17) blocked rights for freed slaves and undermined Reconstruction. Warren G. Harding (#29) took bribes. Richard M. Nixon (#37) arranged illegal break-ins and covered them up. Trump (#45) used his office for personal gain and encouraged an insurrection against the U.S. government.

A few of our presidents were great leaders. George Washington (#1), Abraham Lincoln (#16), and Franklin D. Roosevelt (#32) all focused America on its most important challenges. They strengthened the capacities of the nation for self-government and elevated the common good.

Zoom out from American presidents and we can see that the world is today better off because of the leadership of people such as Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), Volodymyr Zelenskyy (1978-), and Alexei Navalny (1976-2024).

All summoned their societies to cope with their largest problems.

Not all of them were heads of state — which shows that true leadership does not depend on formal authority. It depends on moral authority.

The so-called “strongmen” of the current era — such as Putin, Donald Trump, and Benjamin Netanyahu — are not leaders. They can manipulate public opinion and sustain their bases of power, but they have no moral authority.

All have repeatedly put their personal interests over the interests of their respective nations. All have appointed people to key positions based on loyalty rather than qualification. All have taken credit for every success while never taking responsibility for failure.

All have a chronic aversion to telling or hearing the truth.

All three have fought against democratic norms and institutions. They have undermined whatever capacities their citizens have for self-government.

They have thereby diminished the resilience of their citizens and weakened their societies. As a result, they have made their nations more vulnerable — to external enemies, to economic upheavals, and to natural perils, including climate change and pandemics.

None of them can abide political opposition. One has apparently murdered his key opponent. Another has threatened vengeance on his opponents if he regains power. Another has stoked division and turmoil to weaken his opponents. All have spread outrageous conspiracy theories about those who speak out against them or challenge their power.

These autocratic thugs are not leaders. They hold authority through brute strength. They retain power by dividing the public, spreading baseless lies, and accusing opponents of being traitors. All have thereby weakened their society’s capacities to protect themselves from real threats.

They have undermined the public good, which is the wellspring of a society’s true strength.

America, Russia, and Israel are far weaker for having had these thugs at the helm.

— Robert B. Reich is a columnist with Tribune Content Agency.


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