George Washington knew when to relinquish power. But many of today’s world leaders find it much more difficult to leave the stage, and they can do so with a dose of humility from the first US president.
Some don’t want to quit. Others are desperate to regain their former power. The result is an era of stagnation in already repressive nations like Russia and China, and déjà vu in democracies where former leaders seem to be putting narcissistic considerations above national interests.
“I’m probably going to have to do it again,” former President Donald Trump — of two impeachments and a U.S. Capitol rebellion — told supporters this weekend as he bids for a second term. Boris Johnson (once referred to by the former POTUS as “Britain’s Trump”) made his own comeback project and failed, even though he believes he has refused to emulate his hero, Winston Churchill, who returned to the prime ministership six years after losing. The 1945 election is surely wrong.
Democracy is hanging by a thread in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has signaled he may not accept defeat in the weekend’s vote to seek a second term. His rival is another retiree – Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a two-time ex-president known as “Lula”, whose return to the limelight came through a partial prison sentence (his conviction was later overturned).
Since the 1990s, some of today’s comeback kids are on the world stage. In Italy, former three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has returned to parliament after a tax fraud scandal, although his attempt to become kingmaker in coalition talks collapsed after he boasted of his ties to former Russian President Vladimir Putin. Another scandal-prone leader trying to recapture past glories is Benjamin Netanyahu, who served as prime minister where he was dubbed “King Bibi.” He is leading the polls ahead of another Israeli general election.
Of course, an alternative to making a comeback will never go away. Putin himself has been in power since December 31, 1999, although he had to “step down” to prime minister for a few years as the power behind the throne before returning as president. And in China, Xi Jinping has just established a third term rule.
Exhausted after two terms, and frustrated by bitter and partisan politics, Washington accepted a third term in 1796. He told the Americans that “he was convinced that any partiality for my services could be sustained, in the present state of our country. You will not disapprove of my decision to retire.”
These are not words you hear many days.