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09.06.2020 Opinion

The Rise Of Donald Trump: An African Perspective

By Joseph Cruickshank, Ph.D.
The Rise Of Donald Trump: An African Perspective
LISTEN JUN 9, 2020

In order to understand fully the driving forces behind American political life and the political environment that has led to the rise of Donald Trump, one first and foremost, needs to grasp fully the fact that race is the ever-present, but not often visible formwork that shapes and has shaped American domestic political discourse since the end of the American Civil War. Race or racism is what animates large swaths of American society, very often to the exclusion of any other factors.

The irony is that the racial diversity of America also makes it an amazingly vibrant society with a culture that has become the default global culture. The sad truth, however, is that unless carefully controlled and contained as it has been until now, the centripetal forces that this diversity embodies hold the possibility of ultimately fracturing this great nation. The rise of Donald Trump may be proof that such a possibility is no longer to be dismissed as pure fiction.

The fact of the matter is that the issues of race and slavery that led to the first attempt at tearing apart the American union resulting in the Civil War were never fully resolved despite the defeat of the forces of the Confederacy. These forces, intent on preserving slavery and its attendant racial animus were vanquished militarily but not ideologically or psychologically. For reasons that we will not delve into here, they were allowed by the victorious Union forces first to simmer, and then ultimately to flourish. It has been said that the long arc of history eventually bends towards justice. This may be true as a general statement of historical fact, but in the particular case of the United States the sinuous tendons of racism have pushed and pulled at the arc of American history for so long so as to succeed in bending it in directions that appear to defy this dictum: in directions that have now led, I believe, to the rise of Donald Trump.

“Trumpism” unlike other political movements such as fascism, socialism or communism is best described as "chameleonic." Anybody who has followed its progenitor's public persona will know that Donald Trump can best be described as a shape shifter. He has been all over the map on the major issues of our time. Trump was for abortion until he was no longer for it. He employs “illegal immigrants” then threatens to build a wall to keep them out. He sells clothing made in China while berating other companies for outsourcing American jobs. The changes in his political positions are too numerous to list here. So the question that arises is why Donald Trump appears to have so many followers, at least, as evidenced on his campaign trail.

To answer this question, we need to go back in time to the beginning of the 1960s. The political base of the Democratic Party of the United States at that time consisted of an alliance of the Northern industrial states with their large, powerful and politically active labor unions and the states of the old Confederacy whose allegiance to the Democratic Party was based on the sole fact that it was the Republican Party under Abraham Lincoln that freed their black slaves and defeated the Confederacy. It was a strong alliance that allowed the Democrats to control the Congress for decades at a time much to the frustration of the Republicans.

In the late 50s, we saw the coming to fruition of the independence movements in black Africa. First, of course, was the independence from British colonial rule of the former Gold Coast, now Ghana. This was followed by waves of new African countries freshly minted from the fracturing of the European empires. This period of African independence happened to also coincide with the Cold War between the then Soviet Union and the West, led by the United States. Each side needed allies in the existing international institutions such as the United Nations, but allies were also necessary if for nothing more than as indirect proof of the supposed superiority of one social/economic system over the other. Thus began the ideological scramble for the loyalty of these newly formed African states.

In this new scramble for Africa, the United States had certain advantages. It was a western country with a culture and language that was familiar to most of the new African countries. Its cultural exports such as pop songs and movies were well-known and well-received in the African countries. American cultural figures such as Elvis Presley and Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong were as familiar to most Africans as the local African entertainers, if not more so. With the coming of independence, African students and African ambassadors had started arriving in the United States. In spite of the positive advantages that familiarity with American culture gave to the United States in its competition with the Soviet Union, there was one huge obstacle that, if not addressed, could derail this budding relationship with Africa.

This was the institutionalized racism that was endemic in America, especially in the southern states. It had to be clear to the bureaucrats in the U.S. State Department that it was only a matter of time before some Sherriff in Alabama or Mississippi would arrest and or beat up an African ambassador innocently familiarizing himself with his host country. There was also the embarrassment these ambassadors might run into if or when they were turned away from a local motel because of the color of their skin. It was also going to be difficult to sell the wonders of American democracy as the desired governing methodology to these Africans if it became apparent across the continent that their fellow blacks were not even allowed to vote in this bastion of democracy.

Something had to be done and done “sharp-sharp” as we would say in Africa. The Democratic Party was in power at the time, and it fell to them to solve this problem. The Democratic Party, despite their long history of alliance with the Southern segregationists, took the risky political move of addressing these issues. Issues of discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels and motels were addressed in Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and voting rights for black citizens of the United States were dealt with in the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Now, I do not mean to imply by any stretch of the imagination that the arrival of African ambassadors and students in the United States in the late fifties and early sixties were the ONLY motivating factors driving the need on the part of American legislators to address these longstanding issues of racial injustice. Black, and lots of white, Americans had been agitating for a repeal of the segregationist laws for years before the arrival of African students and Ambassadors. Indeed, many Americans (of both races) had been bitten by dogs or had bravely faced multiple arrests and police brutality; some had even given their lives to end the system of racial injustice that was endemic in the land.

Dr. Martin Luther King's speeches and marches were exposing to the world the hypocrisy that had been hiding in plain sight all these years. It is my thesis, however, that the fact that these various civil rights laws passed the American Senate and House of Representatives only in the early 60s was not coincidental or simply fortuitous. We are naïve if we ignore the fact that, in politics, nothing rarely happens by chance and divisive legislation, such as the civil right laws typically do not grow out of the soil of unalloyed goodness of heart.

It is not that difficult to maintain an oppressive state of affairs domestically if one is happy to live with and accept the resulting international opprobrium and its consequences, moral and or economic that comes with that territory. North Korea is a shining example of such equanimity, and for decades South Africa was quite happy to defend its brutally enforced policy of apartheid with all the power at her disposal as long as the rest of the world, especially the West, looked on unconcerned. In the case of South Africa, indeed, it was only after the western countries applied the external threats of economic and other boycotts aimed at upending the South African economy in the late 80s that the die-hard racists down there decided it probably was no longer in their best interest to continue going down that path. The cost of maintaining apartheid had become too high.

I am suggesting therefore that, in spite of her self-proclaimed virtuous nature, America might well have kept its system of racial oppression to this very day but was forced to change when external forces, interacting with the domestic ones made official segregation no longer acceptable. This is not to say that the internal pressures were secondary or insignificant to forcing this change. They were not. But clearly, even the presence of an armed guerrilla group in South Africa such as the armed wing of the African National Congress was not enough to deter the apartheid regime. By comparison, the mostly peaceful marches and demonstrations in the U.S., embarrassing though they may have been, could have been easily dismissed and were for decades. After all, Jim Crow had been around for decades if not centuries and the relevant American authorities knew well how to handle "them uppity niggers." In the U.S then, and as would happen in South Africa later on, it is my thesis that the internal and external pressures reinforced and magnified each other. It got to a point where the problems attendant to Jim Crow could no longer be ignored or swept under the legislative rug. In the case of the United States of America, it is my thesis that it was this coming of African nations on to the international scene and their potential for recruitment as allies in the Cold War against the Soviet Union that was the external factor that helped force the changes in domestic American racial policy.

Indeed, current events such as the unending shootings of black Americans with very little, if any legal consequences soon after the tenure of a black President, tends to support this hypothesis. We can all agree that the potential for Africa as a force on the international scene has diminished considerably since the heady days of the 60s when domestic policy in a country like the U.S might be modified to assuage African sensibilities. The Cold War with the Soviet Union is a dim memory, current skirmishes with Russia notwithstanding. Africa and Africans' desires, wishes or feelings carry very little to no weight in the halls of power in the West these days as they might potentially have been in the 60s when Africa was being wooed by the West.

Thus, was removed over time this one external force that might have kept America on the path of keeping the forces of oppression that hounded and continue to harass black Americans, in check. In short, there is no doubt in my mind that the weakness and lack of influence of Africa on the world scene, politically, economically and militarily has helped to lift the foot off the brake and given free rein to the latent forces of darkness previously hibernating under America's ugly underbelly. If one doubts the soundness of this hypothesis, one only needs to ask oneself what might happen if Chinese-American citizens were being shot down on the streets of America with abandon. I feel quite comfortable in asserting that the relevant authorities in Washington would hear some not-so-comfortable noises from Beijing and they would be doing their very best to control the excesses of the American Police Forces.

There is proof for this. The American state of Alabama decided in a fit of xenophobia to institute laws that allowed local police to stop and check for the immigration documents of people who looked like they did not belong in town. This law was supposedly aimed at the illegal Mexican population in the state, but among its early victims were some Japanese executives of the Honda Automobile Company who were visiting their massive assembly plant in Lincoln, Alabama. It does not take much imagination to figure out what happened next. The law was quickly redrafted, and I would not be surprised if the Governor of the state of Alabama personally apologized to the Honda executives. This is the power which Africa currently lacks. Black people all around the world are paying, in my view, for Africa's economic and political weakness. I would dare suggest that if the Governor of Ohio, for example, had been in the middle of negotiations with an African multinational company for the construction of a multi-billion dollar factory in Cleveland, the Cleveland Policemen who shot that twelve-year-old Tamir Rice playing with a toy gun in the park would not have been allowed to go scot-free.

So, at the very least, Africa's emergence from colonial rule and its potential to impact the international scene in the 60s, converged with the civil rights movement in the United States to emphasize and magnify the potential damage that leaving the issue of unbridled racism unaddressed could create and was creating for the United States. The problems were not only in its relationship with Africa and the colored peoples of the world, but also in its own domestic peace and tranquility. It was also producing a propaganda windfall for the Soviet Union. Somewhere in the State Department and the halls of Congress, somebody or a group of somebodies most likely must have decided that this problem needed to be solved and not necessarily for its immorality. The Democratic Party went ahead, in fairness, with some Republican support in some cases to pass the necessary legislation. This was against the strong wishes of some, if not all, of their southern Democratic cohorts, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina being a prime example.

Richard Milhous Nixon, a Republican President, came into power following the passage of these laws. He sensed an opportunity to shift the political allegiances of the people in the southern United States by indicating through coded language and various actions and inactions that his Republican Party was "sympathetic" to their plight and "understood" their grievances. This strategy was meant to loosen the grip of the Democrats on the southern states. It was called "The Southern Strategy." If it was a secret plan, it was not very well kept, and it worked strategically well for the Republican Party. Within a generation, there were very few Democratic office holders, Senators or Congressmen left in the states from the old Confederacy. The Republican Party became the home of the segregationists and die-hard racists. The party that fought to free the slaves under Abraham Lincoln had turned overnight into the party of racist resistance.

The Nixon-inspired Southern Strategy never promised any particular social or economic programs for the South. The truth is it only promised a wink and a nod to let the South know that their racialist concerns would be "sympathized" with in a Republican controlled White House and within the Republican Party. That was apparently all the South and its less visibly racist allies in the mid-West of the United States needed to vote reliably Republican in almost all elections in the last quarter of the last century and so far in this one.
Almost all the worst social ills in the United States, from abject poverty, through high teen pregnancy rates to deaths from drug overdoses and more, are to be found in excess in this southern belt of the United States. Ironically, the very Republican Senators and Congressmen that the electorate in the South put in office have been the stumbling block to solving most of these crises that have afflicted them. The white residents of this region have, time over time, been willing to vote against what might appear to be in their best economic interests just so long as they could be assured by the Republicans that these minorities and in particular blacks would be kept “in their place." If one ever doubted the power of ethnocentrism, the election results over the past few years in the southern belt and certain portions of the mid-West of the United States should put any such lingering doubts to rest.

In the meantime, their support for the Republicans has allowed the Republican-controlled legislatures at both the Federal and State levels to enact massive tax-cuts for their wealthy supporters, which was always the real reason the Republicans sought power anyway. Their rich friends got hugely rewarded in this life, and their poor constituents got nothing except the assurance that the “niggers” would continue to be shown who the master race was. This was the race-fueled scam that the Republicans played and have been playing all these years on their core constituents.

Over time, this base of white non-college graduates came to realize that something was amiss. Their lives were not getting any better. In fact, it was getting worse by every measure. Furthermore, the presidency of Barack Obama was proof, if any was needed, that “the blacks” were not only not being kept in their place as promised, but were now dirtying the hallowed halls of what had been till then, the epitome of white male power, the White House! The so-called Tea Party, a stridently anti-Obama uprising of the Republican base was the result. It called for aggressive tax cuts and cuts in various social programs which they felt were only benefiting "those others."

The Affordable Care Act or Obamacare (ACA) was in their thinking, the poster child, of this transfer of resources from them, to those "never-do-wells sitting on their porches all day smoking dope and having nothing but babies”, which they, the white working classes would end up paying for. The repeal of Obama's signature domestic program, the ACA, thus became the test of true Republicanism. And the Republican Party eagerly took up the cry of “repeal” even though the power arrangements in Washington at the time, consisting of filibuster-wielding Democratic Senators and a veto-wielding President Obama was never going to let that happen. The Republicans in Congress kept up the façade, assuring their base day-after-day that they were going to repeal the ACA. Of course, nothing happened which was no surprise to a Republican establishment well-versed in the power dynamics of Washington.
In the meantime, the industrial belt of the United States was getting hollowed out as businesses whose only objective is to be as profitable as possible, regardless of the impact of closing down the only factory in a small rural town, fled to Mexico or China. The white, mainly rural, working classes faced a dilemma. They saw what they perceived as the "takeover of their country" by the minorities, Obama's election being proof-positive.

The regular Republican Party appeared incapable of keeping their end of the bargain, while at the same time the jobs that their lower levels of education had afforded them had either left or were leaving. The dilemma they faced was this: The Democrats were the party of the working classes, more eager to fund unemployment insurance for those laid off when the factories moved and "welfare" benefits for the indigent. Over time, the Democratic Party had become, to a large extent, also the party of minorities as the white working classes abandoned it. Women, gays, lesbians, illegal immigrants and other “undesirables” were also now finding comfort under the umbrella of the Democratic Party.

The Republicans, openly and not so openly, played to the white working classes fears about these “others” and their increasing acceptability within the Democratic Party. These working-class whites were faced with choosing between their economic allies, the Democrats or their xenophobic allies, the Republicans. They chose the Republicans. The Republicans, of course, never planned to be their economic saviors, but simply used their votes to transfer wealth to the upper classes while stoking their fears of these "others." This was the situation the white working classes faced when the 2016 elections rolled around.

This Republican scam was working very well until Donald Trump came on the scene. He quickly saw through it and decided to get in on the act but only go bigger. No matter what one may think of “The Donald” as he is often referred to, he is a strategically-focused businessman. He has a knack for seeing any loopholes that can be exploited for financial or another gain. Until his election, the world of business was the world in which Donald Trump played his games. But like every ambitious person, having made billions (if we are to believe him) in the world of business, he decided to set his sights higher. I have no doubt that “The Donald” would have run as a Democrat and be saying the exact opposite of everything he is saying now if he thought he could wrestle the presidential nomination away from Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for President.

Seeing that avenue closed, he decided to launch a hostile takeover of the Republican Party and get his hands on its riches, metaphorically speaking. Being the good businessman, he is, he must have spent some time studying the major “shareholders” at the time. He must have quickly realized that they were all scammers and con-artists only less accomplished. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie and Scott Walker were like babes in the woods compared to what a tried and true scammer could pull he must have concluded.

He must have figured out secondarily that the way to overwhelm all these low-grade scammers was by going nuclear on the issues that animate the base of the Republican Party. He rightly decided that an overtly blatant appeal to racism along with a massive dose of Islamophobia, not the subtle approach used by the others, would be his passport to the nomination. This did not sit well with the establishment types in the Republican Party who preferred to accomplish the same objective but with a wink and a nod.

He, Trump, would combine a chameleonic transformation of himself into a Mussolini-type leader, to distinguish himself from the cerebral and black Obama that the base hated with a passion, with an appeal to these voters' existing and deep-seated prejudices that had been nurtured by the Republican Party for decades. “Trumpism” was the result. His slogan “Take back our country” needs no further elucidation. It meant, to those who heard it and took it to heart (the white working classes) that they would be getting back the levers of power, economic, political and psychological, from those "other" Americans if they were even to be granted that moniker.

The strident efforts by the establishment Republicans to derail Trump's presidential ambitions was thus very similar to a fight between drug dealers over turf. The Republican establishment thought they had the scam-artist market cornered and then along came this interloper. Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republican establishment were not amused and like all con-artists do when the jig is up, pedaled furiously to see how they could escape the fate that awaited them. In spite of their best efforts “The Donald” did win the Republican nomination and went on to win the Presidency.

The work that the Republican Party had been doing all these years, starting with Richard Nixon, finally bore this poisonous fruit. The more surprising thing is that it was Republicans who seemed the most surprised. The question we all need to ask ourselves is what this means for the long-term political health of the United States. The upcoming election will decide if there will be a rout of Trumpian Republicanism or the possible entrenchment of some type of fascism in this supposed bastion of democracy. We will find out soon enough.

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