You’d better believe politicians’  hot air

Being charitable about what autocrats such as United States president-elect Donald Trump say is simply our way of dealing with our fears. (Christopher Aluka Berry, Reuters)

Being charitable about what autocrats such as United States president-elect Donald Trump say is simply our way of dealing with our fears. (Christopher Aluka Berry, Reuters)

Do you know who seems to be delighted with the election of Donald Trump? The white right. Over the past week, I have watched the likes of Steve Hofmeyr virtually exploding with glee, commenting with positively orgasmic satisfaction about the outpouring of “liberal tears”.

Of course, I get why Hofmeyr and Trump could share a beer together and not run out of things to agree on. I also understand why the likes of Hofmeyr were given a morale boost by Brexit, because the right to self-determination is what they’re constantly banging on about.

But there’s another side to these particular coins, and it’s one that I think Hofmeyr and the gang may be overlooking while toasting the ascent of Trump. What we are seeing in the West, as many commentators have observed, is a surge in ethnic nationalism.

There are other factors at play, too, but this is what’s happening in the United States, the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe: let’s batten down the hatches, kick out the outsiders and protect our own.

The problem is that, when you apply this particular paradigm to South African politics, you end up with an outcome that is the realisation of Hofmeyr’s worst nightmares. Note to Steve: sorry to ruin the party but a surge of ethnic nationalism in a majority black country does not lead us to the election of President Hofmeyr. If anything, it leads us to the election of President Julius Malema. 

Comparisons between Trump and Malema are foolish in several ways. Their economic policies are diametrically opposed, for one thing, as are many of their standpoints on social issues. I am also not suggesting a moral equivalence between Trump’s views and Malema’s.

When Trump talks about “making America great again”, he is speaking from a false position of victimhood. He basically means entrenching the status quo: making life easier for white Americans.

When Malema talks about social redress, he is referring to correcting a system that has been verifiably and brutally skewed against the majority of the country for centuries.

But what Trump and Malema have in common is a fluency in the language of ethnic nationalism — the discourse of reassuring people who look like them that what is rightfully theirs will be restored and extended. People who do not look like them — minorities and women, in Trump’s case; white people, in Malema’s case — listen to their words and quake, fearful of what the future could hold.

I believe there’s another similarity in the effect the two men have had on their respective political systems. It’s what filmmaker Michael Moore, when he predicted the victory of Trump, referred to as the “Jesse Ventura effect”.

In the 1990s, Moore reminded us, the state of Minnesota elected a professional wrestler as their governor. They didn’t do so because they were stupid, or because they thought Ventura was a secret political genius, he suggests. They voted for Ventura out of a sense of rebellion and mischief. “Voting for Ventura was their version of a good practical joke on a sick political system,” Moore wrote.

“In the same way, like when you’re standing on the edge of Niagara Falls and your mind wonders for a moment what would that feel like to go over that thing, a lot of people are going to love being in the position of puppet master and plunking down for Trump just to see what that might look like.”

I suspect that some Economic Freedom Fighter voters, especially initially, felt the same way. In fact, I know this to be true, because I have heard it expressed in various ways by middle-class friends who voted EFF. “To shake things up.” “To see what they’ll do in Parliament.” “To spite my stuffy white suburb.”

This is not to say that all Malema voters, or all Trump voters, are motivated in the polling booth by a vague sense of anarchy. For all the talk of how Trump commanded the vote of the working class, however, it is noteworthy that the very poorest Americans seem to have voted overwhelmingly for Clinton.

Perhaps the anti-establishment protest vote is the province of those who don’t have quite as much to lose. In South Africa, the poorest municipality in the country — Alfred Nzo in the Eastern Cape — returned the ANC to power this year with an almost 80% majority.

Like Trump, Malema also has a history of incendiary soundbites on public platforms, often later either denied or toned down. Many Americans are now hoping Trump is full of hot air, in the same way some South Africans urge charitable interpretations of Malema’s more out-there statements.

Russian dissident Masha Gessen, who has spent her life opposing President Vladimir Putin, wrote the following as advice to Americans in preparing for a Trump presidency: “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalisation.”

In this uncertain new world order, I’m preparing to start taking politicians’ words more literally.

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis has a master’s in English literature from Rhodes and a master’s in linguistics from Oxford University, UK. After a stint at the Oxford English Dictionary, she returned to South Africa, where she has been writing stories and columns for various publications, including the M&G. Her first book, Best White (And Other Anxious Delusions), came out in 2015. Read more from Rebecca Davis

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