Former US president Donald Trump and his successor Joe Biden. Photos: AFP / Jim Watson and Saul Loeb

How did the US end up with a choice between two geriatrics, as Joseph Epstein’s July 22 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled “Biden and Trump are both bums” notes? 

Here was my take on how this can take place written 25 years ago (published in August 1998), titled “Canada – failure of a promised land.” It described circumstances when geriatric – or dynastic – leadership happen, surrounding themselves with mediocrities. 

Unfortunately, such history-rhyming is occurring now both in the US and in Canada – and in too many other parts in the world too – Middle East, Asia, Russia etc. 

Here is the 1998 text:

“The pattern was established early in the life of the Soviet state by Lenin and Stalin, neither of whom arranged for proper succession. To the contrary, they both wiped out the competent people around them out of paranoia, replacing them with non-threatening mediocrities. 

“Under the threat of death or life in the gulags and mental institutions, Russia’s talented people opted not to jeopardize themselves, resigning themselves to lives of sad, safe obscurity. 

“Nikita Khrushchev was the first product of this system to rise to the top. He was neither educated nor intelligent, though energetic enough to commit one devastating domestic and international blunder after another. The Politburo, fed up with Khrushchev’s mistakes, threw him out in 1964 – only to replace him with a second mediocrity, Leonid Brezhnev.

“There were no better choices: The party purged good thinkers at lower levels or such potential thinkers cowed long before reaching senior positions. Reflecting the system that formed them, successors Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, too, displayed only rigid political orthodoxy and typical career-bureaucratese.

“Only the urgency of political and economic near-bankruptcy motivated Mikhail Gorbachev to face down the inertial bureaucracy that protected the USSR’s geriatric leadership.

“However, by then it was too late. Hastened into bankruptcy by [US president Ronald] Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ missile-defense program and awed by the supply-side economic boom in the US, the fabric that bound the old Soviet empire disintegrated in a flash. This generally happens when companies or governments lose access to credit.

“With its best and brightest avoiding domestic politics opting for either business, finance and technology or moving to the US, the quality of Canadian political leadership has witnessed its own creeping mediocrity for the last 10 years. On the federal level, Canada produced the likes of Kim Campbell, Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, and Sheila Copps, each about as bold, inspiring and discerning as the geriatric Soviet leadership of the last four decades of communist rule.

“This trend toward mediocrity in Canada’s political life, combined with rigid party discipline and the loss of accountability, explains all too easily both the disappearance of serious policy debate and the constantly increasing federal taxes.

“In the provinces, only Alberta and recently Ontario have generated the political creativity to attempt diminished spending and taxes but as we noted above, these tax cuts are minimal. There simply is no national level public discourse acknowledging that the key to Canada’s long-term success lies in restoring government accountability at all levels.”

Briefly, the cases of Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi – or young Justin Trudeau (whose sole work experience was as substitute art teacher for six months and who has surrounded himself with a vice-prime minister, serving as finance minister too, and a foreign minister both with mediocre journalism as backgrounds) – are not unprecedented, and reflect political systems that went awry, with accountability lost. 

When will change come?

When the government coffers are empty, and the country is leapfrogged by others. 

Reuven Brenner lived under communism until the age of 15. His books include History – the Human Gamble (1983), Force of Finance (2002), and A World of Chance (2008).

Reuven Brenner

Reuven Brenner is a governor at IEDM (Institut Économique de Montréal). He is professor emeritus at McGill University. He was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, was awarded the Canada Council's prestigious Killam Fellowship Award in 1991, and is a member of the Royal Society.