Trump and Zuma are worse than liars

I was tempted to laugh at Americans over the past few days for the madness of Donald Trump but then I remembered that one Jacob Zuma is still our president.

They are both dangerous, devious demagogues that show us the limits of democracy. We know, for example, that Trump is addicted to bullshit. No, no, I truly mean that choice of word, and do not want it to be replaced by something like “alternative facts” or “post-truthiness”.

Many commentators have already opined, based on philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s analysis of “bullshit”, that Trump is worse than a liar. Liars understand the value of truth and fear being exposed for peddling lies. That is why they cover up their falsehoods. They get the social cost of lying and aim to pass as truthful.

Trump isn’t a liar. Trump doesn’t value truth. He therefore doesn’t fear being exposed for peddling lies. He, quite literally, peddles bullshit, where bullshit is aimed to create a buffet of nonsense so long as it brings certain outcomes the bullshitter wants.

That’s why Trump isn’t fazed by a lack of evidence for millions of “fraudulent voters” or being shown up for lying about his claim that “thousands and thousands” of Muslim-Americans cheered the 9/11 attacks. When pushed on the latter claim, he brazenly asserted that 9/11 happened so long ago that the evidence has been destroyed.

Zuma is also a bullshitter. He too is worse than a liar. A liar would not dare to tell us that a swimming pool is a fire pool. Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, by contrast, isn’t a bullshitter. Nhleko is – gasp – “merely” a liar.

That is why Nhleko sweated while lying because he knew that his lying is transparent and he could feel the effect of his lying while we watched his pitiful performance.

Zuma, by contrast, shows no evidence of fearing lying. That is why in Parliament, for example, he simply giggled when claiming he knows nothing of the costs of upgrades to his Nkandla homestead, and that is also why he no doubt sanctioned the bullshit about a swimming pool being a fire pool.

In that regard, Zuma is our Trump. Neither leader values truth; neither fears being exposed for lying.

This makes them dangerous and devious. Dangerous because no country can be successfully governed by a president who doesn’t value truth. Devious because citizens have no basis for trusting their judgment, and ultimately their leadership.

They also share a penchant for demagoguery. Democracy doesn’t always, if ever, deliver justice for every marginalised and oppressed group. Trump knows this. Which is why he can say awkward true stuff – without valuing the truth – in order to be popular with those on the margins of society.

In the United States that means breaking through the politeness of elite politics, and selling working-class people the dream of jobs and prosperity. Of course he didn’t win the popular vote. But that fact is repeated one time too many, thereby obscuring the reality that he won in accordance with the rules of the game.

The rules may suck but Trump is the de jure president of the US. How did he do it? Demagoguery. And demagoguery, we know, is most effective when it affirms the worst fears of people and taps into their biggest dreams.

Zuma too is a demagogue, although his rhetorical powers are, mercifully, waning now. Still, he tries his luck by retreating to KwaZulu-Natal when he needs to perform a song and dance away from the critical eyes in the country’s urban centres.

Zuma pretends that if he speaks in his native tongue somehow the English media houses won’t hear him – despite the fact that black journalists who are multilingual don’t become monolingual once they arrive in Johannesburg.

And that is why you hear demagogic refrains such as tortuous repeats of the phrase “white monopoloy capital” as a substitute for owning up to lost economic growth opportunities since he has been at the helm of the state. Only a demagogue says the ANC will rule until Jesus comes.

Demagoguery thrives on bullshit. It is harder to be a populist if you value truth. It is easier to be shameless on a podium in rural KwaZulu-Natal if you do not fear facts. That is our Zuma, our very own Trump.

Obviously both men might be insulted by the comparison. Trump has made and lost millions through a combination of luck, effort, skill and a “small” loan from his dad of about $1-million. Zuma has no such business pedigree. His wealth is courtesy of political office and odious relationships with wealthy families. Trump may object to the comparison.

On the other hand, Zuma, for what it’s worth, has a decent political past and, had mortality visited him before democracy’s temptations showed up his darker side, his biography would have been a less embarrassing read. Trump has no such glorious credentials of helping to fight an evil state. Indeed, Trump is building an evil state.

But these differences aren’t salient. Spare a thought instead for citizens who are subjected to the nonleadership of these dangerous, devious demagogues. We must push back with haste.

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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