Opinion

Why did Trump pick on SA? Because we got in the way between him and his nemesis, Obama

26 August 2018 - 00:00


Donald Trump, mired in scandals that could upend his presidency and increasingly running out of friends abroad, this week trained his guns on SA - a soft target - zeroing in on our vulnerabilities to deflect attention from his problems at home.
As far as duels go, this would be a Goliath vs David encounter. We wouldn't stand a chance. The cards are heavily stacked against us. We shouldn't even try to go toe-to-toe with him. He'd eat us for breakfast. To say so is not being cowardly or unpatriotic, simply realistic. Those beating their chests and calling for war are talking through their hats. That's not bravery. It's rank stupidity. This is a time for cool heads, not foolishly shouting from the rooftops.
But why has Trump decided to dip his dirty toe in our murky affairs? The answer is: because he can. In fact, even before becoming president, as an ordinary businessman, he had shown morbid interest in the country, variously describing it as a mess, crime-infested, going the same way as Zimbabwe, et cetera. Maybe as one of the doomsayers he's miffed that the predicted racial war never came to pass.
But why now? Trump has had a terrible week. Michael Cohen, his longtime lawyer and fixer, pleaded guilty to eight felonies in federal court, and Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign manager, was found guilty on eight counts of financial crimes this week and both are likely to spend years behind bars. Cohen's plea especially may suggest that Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, is getting too close for comfort. Trump, understandably a vocal critic of the investigation, has dismissed it as a witch-hunt and ploy by his political foes to delegitimise his victory over Hillary Clinton, and thus his presidency. The inquiry could lead to his downfall. SA with its toxic politics offers a convenient distraction.
But the trigger for this fusillade is - has always been - Barack Obama. The Fox News item that Trump quoted had a clip of Obama and President Cyril Ramaphosa in a jovial mood at the Nelson Mandela lecture in Johannesburg last month.
Obama's speech, his first of consequence since leaving office, was seen as a denunciation of Trumpism, without mentioning his successor by name.
He gave a ringing endorsement of a free press - which Trump has dubbed the enemy of the people - as the bedrock of any democracy, and slammed the "utter loss of shame among political leaders when they're caught in a lie and they just double down and lie some more" - an allusion to Trump's predilection for falsehoods. "People just make stuff up," Obama said to raucous laughter.
That did it for Trump. Obama has always been a red rag to the bull that is Trump. It may be a bit of a stretch to say his intense dislike of Obama was the reason Trump decided to run for the presidency, but it is true to say that the campaign he waged against Obama's nationality, the so-called birtherism - falsely claiming he was born in Kenya and therefore did not qualify to be US president - contributed significantly to Trump ultimately attaining the top job. And, of course, calling Mexicans rapists and drug traffickers didn't do his cause any harm.
Trump doesn't seem to have any fixed ideological abode. Since becoming president, however, his single-minded aim has been to undo Obama's legacy. He's pulled the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation deal to slash tariffs among members. He's withdrawn from the Paris climate accord, and has scuppered the Iran nuclear deal, which took years of painstaking negotiations.
It's not easy to locate the source of this hatred. Maybe it's that Obama is intelligent, has class and is a black man who dared to be president. Maybe that, in Trump's mind, is an unforgivable sin. SA's sin is giving his nemesis a platform to criticise him.
But Trump's purpose is not only to change the Republican Party and America but to empower and embolden white supremacists around the world, which is where organisations such as AfriForum come in. Steve Bannon, his former strategist, has been touring the world, especially Europe, in a campaign to unite right-wing forces. The new anti-immigration Italian premier, Giuseppe Conte, was invited to the White House immediately after taking office. Incidentally, Peter Dutton, the Australian minister who suggested fast-tracking white South Africans' immigration to his country, came close to being made prime minister this week.
Trump is an unthinking bully with an arsenal of deadly weapons at his disposal. Look what's happening with Turkey when it attempted to take him on. And we're suffering collateral damage when we're not even in his cross-hairs.
But SA has been caught napping, or gazing at its own navel. When AfriForum went to the US, the reaction back home was to dismiss or laugh at them. But their message, replete with falsehoods and racist innuendos, fell on fertile ground in right-wing circles. There was no attempt by the government to counter their propaganda. Now they have a sympathetic ear in the White House. Their cause has also been assisted by the shambolic manner in which the land issue has been handled. We're closer to Zimbabwe, and were the most fervent defenders of Robert Mugabe's lunacy. Like it or not, that's the prism in which this issue is seen.
So what is to be done? We need friends. But first, get our people on side, and stop treating those who disagree with disdain. A house divided cannot stand. And sell the policy to the outside world. Has there, for instance, been any attempt to assemble the diplomatic corps and genuinely explain expropriation without compensation to them?

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