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Opinion We thought we elected leaders. We got man-children instead

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is pictured during the commemoration ceremony of the National Volunteer Day, at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on Aug. 28, 2019.

EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.

Oh, where are the he-men of old, the thugs and mugs and strong-arm artists? Where have all the tough guys gone? Are we now a world of whiners, of thin-skinned authoritarian social climbers, touchy playground bullies, narrow-eyed resentful hoods, flashy insubstantial spivs?

Indeed, it is hard these days to avoid the conclusion that the international order is dominated by chippy power-holders, rat-faced agitators and querulous feebs with recurrent cases of the vapours. Old-school authoritarians, confident in their power and range, have been swept aside by a new crew of hypersensitive, defensive, passive-aggressive, apology-demanding nitwits who combine snivelling weakness with braggadocio – the oldest jerk-move in the sandlot.

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The master of mendacity, U.S. President Donald Trump, and his British counterpart in the puckish proroguing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, are the exemplars here. But please take note of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right nationalist who has allowed, perhaps abetted, the raging wildfires currently destroying thousands of hectares of Amazonian rain forest, often referred to this week as the “lungs of the world.”

After the recent Group of Seven Summit in Biarritz, the concerned leaders of the world’s largest and most prosperous free countries offered US$20-million in aid to the firefighting efforts. Now this is a paltry sum by any measure, given the actual economic might and scope of environmental disaster currently in play. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Earth Alliance pledged US$5-million for the same effort, just on the strength of goodwill and global consequences. Twenty-million dollars from seven free-world leaders is a drop in the bucket.

Perhaps this was why Mr. Bolsonaro bristled at the slim offer? No. Instead, he refused the gift because he thought French President Emmanuel Macron had insulted him. Yes, it’s true: Mr. Bolsonaro felt slighted by the French President, who he said had called him a liar. Unless Mr. Macron retracted that insult, the relief money would stay on the table. He then accused Mr. Macron of having a “lamentable colonial stance” about the aid, suggesting that it was rooted in condescension and belittling. (For the record, France has had no actual colonial dealings with Brazil since the 17th century.)

Mr. Bolsonaro’s piqued refusal of aid was actually the second part of an out-of-hand exchange conducted, no surprise, on social media. After the idea of G7 aid to Brazil was first raised at the summit, Mr. Bolsonaro expressed his approval for a Facebook post that suggested his spouse, Michelle, was better looking than Mr. Macron’s wife, Brigitte. In response, Mr. Macron noted that this unheralded dis-the-dance-partner move was “extremely disrespectful” and “extraordinarily rude.”

“It’s sad, but it’s sad most of all for him and for the Brazilians," Mr. Macron said at a news conference on Monday. “I think Brazilian women will probably be ashamed to read that from their president.” But Mr. Macron couldn’t resist getting a little more personal than that. “As I feel friendship and respect towards the Brazilian people, I hope that they will soon have a president who is up to the job,” he said.

Rude, yes. Sad, absolutely. Also just ridiculous. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, sure, but Ms. Macron, at 66 years of age, looks pretty darn elegant to most people. Ms. Bolsonaro, 37, is of course quite beautiful, too. How did we get to the point where comparing their looks was a diplomatic incident? The spat prompted, among other things, tweeted apologies to the Macrons from the Brazilian people over the hashtag #DesculpaBrigitte (“Sorry, Brigitte”). One tweet was short and sweet: “Sorry about our president, he’s an idiot.”

More to the point, the whole affair is comprehensively petty, undignified and small. Mr. Macron’s mien of superior comportment slipped when he indulged the temptation to biff back at Mr. Bolsonaro. (Insults about other people’s bad manners are still insults – and hence are bad manners.) Not since street-gang trash talk has so much depended on the shade thrown on some man’s girlfriend or wife. This is the stuff of misogyny and arrested-development pissing contests.

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Mr. Trump, meanwhile, as nobody can forget, thinks any refusal to indulge his whims – like, say, buying Greenland – is “nasty” or, his favourite word, “unfair.” He sets the tone; the rest of the world’s preening mini-martinets just act it out.

It almost makes you wish for a real strongman, a Manuel Noriega brandishing his machete, or Vladimir Putin riding bare-chested on horseback. Only almost, though: The first was a madman and the second is a self-parodying fool. Where, in the end, is real leadership, forthright and actually tough, instead of febrile and neurotic?

It might take a grown-up woman rather than another spoiled, smug, over-privileged man-child. Bring it on!

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