Much more is at stake in the impeachment proceedings in the US than has been acknowledged in the public discourse in SA. It is easy to see the political events in the US as entertaining theatre and just the next escalation of reality TV.

In SA we should know better. Setting the example in corrupting a political system at the top filters through all corners of a nation and beyond as an implicitly acceptable way of operating that soon permeates all aspects of society.

America is the first and most powerful country that had a properly formulated system of checks and balances that protects the rights of individuals and the people as a whole. For centuries it has attracted people from all corners of the world and in return has set a standard for the world on how democracy can work and what can be achieved in and with a democratically ruled country.

This is not to hide the shortcomings of the US to live up to the ideals of democracy both internally and with regards to its foreign policy, but to show that despite such shortcomings it has still acted as a role model that has effects far beyond its borders. A failure of democracy in the US would therefore be catastrophic not just for the US itself, but for democracy around the world.

When Donald Trump came to power it was for the first time in US history that testing and hollowing out the democratic system from the top became the stated approach. He does not care about norms and traditions that are vital for such a system. He has made it the official method to lie, manipulate and cheat. Democracy requires people to make informed choices and no democracy can survive when its leaders systematically misinform and mislead their own people.

In the Ukraine scandal, Trump took this to a new level. While this way of operating has long been plain to see, it now has come to the fore with unprecedented clarity. Not only was Trump using a foreign power to discredit legitimate internal political challengers, he also proposed that even China, his stated main adversary to the US, be included to achieve such ends.

Trump’s main strength is his ability not only to generate consensus for the denial of scientific truths, such as climate change, but to twist and manipulate societal realities, such as the problems with his conversations with the leaders of other countries. In dealing with the Ukraine scandal, the first is his claim that his way of operating is legitimate and the second is that he now portrays himself as the victim of a coup.

Both of these claims are more horrendous than the scandal itself. For the president of the US to be employing a foreign power against legitimate political players in his own country and accusing those who fulfil their roles as prescribed in the constitution as coup plotters is mind bending.

The media outlets that are on his side, such as Fox News, and his supporters in the now largely spineless and opportunistic Republican Party are willing collaborators in promoting lies until they become accepted reality in large parts of the US populous and around the world. Trump is normalising a complete lack of integrity — integrity that is required to hold a democratic system together.

The outcomes of the impeachment proceedings are far from certain. Never before since the long ascent of democracy has this way of governance been under more threat. This is not only a problem for democracy in the US itself; it encourages and legitimises right-wing populists around the world in doing the same.

SA relies much more on an international order in which democracy is the aspirational model for large parts of the global community than most people in SA would care to admit. The impeachment proceeding against Trump will probably be the turning point for the future of democracy, not only in the US but globally. And it is a vivid reminder that we should never take democracy and a truthful public discourse for granted at home.

• Heil, a visiting senior lecturer at Wits Business School, is a partner at Hewers Communications.