Giving them back their nation

I live about 100 kms northwest of Washington in a leafy deindustrialised county of the same name which gave President-elect Donald Trump 62 per cent of its vote on November 8.

Back when I had reason to use his services, the guy who cut my hair out here was an affable Harley-Davidson rider called Pete. I’d ride to his shop in Boonsboro, Maryland, on my BMW and we’d talk bikes.

Not politics. From his conversation with other customers, I knew where that would lead. I had no wish to bandy words with a man wielding a razor. A couple of weeks before the latest election Pete hung a banner 5 metres across above his store front. It read: “We want our nation back. Please vote! It’s our country too.”

A coward about practicing journalism on my own doorstep, I suggested to a visiting colleague that she stop in and ask Pete and his clientele who they wanted the country back from.The short answer turned out to be Moslems of whom, in this neighborhood, there are approximately zero.

From our previous encounters, I am certain that chief among the alleged invaders Pete and co. had in mind was that well-known son of Kenya or somewhere else not America, Barack Hussein Obama. I am equally confident that what they have against him is less what they assume to be his faith than the color of his skin. But they are not about to say this in so many words to an outsider, or perhaps even to themselves.

Trump, who believes he can manufacture truth through the persevering repetition of lies, has tweeted that the only reason he lost the popular vote (by close to 3 million votes) was fraud and that he won the electoral college in a “landslide”. Actually, it was the 44th biggest such “landslide’ of the past 54 elections. As for the popular vote, there is no evidence of cheating. The margin that put Trump over the top in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — 78 000 votes all told — was well under 1 per cent in every case. Had she won those three states, the White House would by Hillary Clinton’s.

The narrowness of the mountebank’s win makes it difficult to say which of several factors was decisive. Any and all could have played a part. Did Putin’s hackers and their willing accomplice, Julian Assange, do for Clinton? Was it the shortcomings of her own campaign?

Statistician Nate Silver, who got things right in 2012 but whose reading of the entrails was not as felicitous in 2016, backs the theory that James Comey, the FBI director, queered Hillary’s pitch by publicly insinuating in the closing days of the campaign that his agents had found more incriminating emails from Clinton’s private server.

I attribute more agency to Trump himself.

When President Obama was elected on 2008, a lot of us naively imagined that America had at last exorcised its racial demons. A hundred years earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt was excoriated, North and South, for destabilising the Republic simply by inviting a black man, Booker T. Washington, to dine with him in the White House. Now a black man had been chosen to fill Roosevelt’s shoes.

In reality, the country that elected Obama had not come nearly as far as we, or perhaps even he, wanted to think. Out there, in a world we did — do — not feel comfortable engaging, lurked the undead ghosts of America’s original sin — the founding exception to Thomas Jefferson’s ringing assertion that all men are created equal. It has haunted the nation ever since.

Trump, a man driven to win solely for winning’s sake, sees White House as Everest, to be climbed because it’s there. Winning it was his way of getting even with the elites he correctly sees as judging him to be our own day’s equivalent of Trimalchio, the vulgar, hyper-rich parvenu invented by the emperor Nero’s arbiter of elegance Petronius, in his novel, the Satyricon.

Trump, unfortunately, is way cleverer than Trimalchio. He’s a marketer. He knows his suckers and what it takes to hook them. He saw political gold in the white working class left behind by globalization and automation in the deindustrialising hinterland. He saw, too, the resentments and propensities for racial scapegoating in the age of Obama that were awaiting someone as cynical as he to enable and fan into a movement. Accordingly he campaigned to prove Obama foreign-born and thus illegally president.

Where from here? Trump has promised the voters who gave him his electoral college edge things he cannot deliver however much he tries to jawbone companies like Carrier to keep production in the US. Assembly line jobs offering middle class incomes are not coming back. In any event, Trump is putting together a team that seems largely insensitive to blue collar interests, eager, rather, to smash what is left of the labour unions and to unleash the predatory squid that is Goldman Sachs.

So what does he do to keep his suckers hooked? Rev up the racism? It has worked well for him so far.

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Trump and AGOA

What do we know about President-elect Donald Trump thinking on Africa? Not much. The Trump Organisation’s website shows no evidence of commercial interest in the region. Maybe that will change. Sons Donald Jr. and Eric — Uday and Qusay, as some like to call them — get a kick out of slaughtering defenceless African wildlife, including big cats. Dad says that’s not his thing. He prefers golf, but he’s proud of their marksmanship.

Of course, if he had enunciated some sort of line on Africa while campaigning, we would still not be much the wiser. He treats truth the way he treats women. We are left to divine for ourselves what a Trump policy might look like were if it were to be broadly in line with his America First manifesto and with the views of those he appears to trust.

Were I the South African ambassador, the first Trumpster I would want to talk to would be Dan DiMicco, the retired steel executive who heads Trump’s “landing team” on trade and is a leading contender to take over as US Trade Representative. As chairman and CEO of Nucor, DiMicco kept his Washington lawyers busy driving allegedly dumped and subsidized foreign steel, including SA’s, out of the US market.

The new administration is unlikely to want to tamper with the African Growth and Opportunity Act whose renewal last year until 2025 had the unanimous support of both parties. The question is whether and to what degree a Trump White House will make use of the law’s eligibility conditions.

SA could find itself squarely in the cross-hairs, especially if the landing team pays heed to the Beyond AGOA report President Obama’s trade office put out in October. Its speaks repeatedly of the competitive disadvantage US companies face in SA vis-a-vis their European rivals because of the EU-SADC economic partnership agreement that just went into effect. Sales of “maybe a couple of hundred” products stand to be hurt according to one US diplomat. They include big-ticket times like mining trucks that go for close to half a million dollars apiece and are made by Trump voters.

All else being equal, my guess is that a Trump trade office will start leaning hard on SA to level the playing field — and perhaps even agree to relaunch negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement — or lose AGOA preferences on a much wider range of exports than were threatened in the late and unlamented chicken dispute.

More generally, one can expect the Trumpsters to take hard look at the costs and benefits of all non-reciprocal grants of market access like AGOA.

There’s no evidence AGOA has cost American jobs. US companies have not moved to Africa to make things for the US market they were previously making in Ohio (though it could be argued that the cars BMW and Mercedes have been making in SA for export to the US might have been built in South Carolina but for massive SA subsidies and AGOA).

There’s no evidence, either, that AGOA beneficiaries have been falling over themselves to make their more markets more accessible to US goods and services. Indeed, with the commodities slump, there has been a rising tide of economic nationalism in countries like Nigeria. It would not be surprising to see the Trump administration become more aggressive regarding non-tariff barriers and perceived bias towards other trading partners, China in particular.

Assuming Trump’s basic campaign pitch bears any relation to how he’ll govern, one should look for Team Trump to consider its priorities in Africa through two basic prisms: the creation and protection of blue collar jobs and the elimination of “radical Islamic terrorism” (to use the phrase Trumpublicans seem to think imparts magical powers to get the job done).

The Trumpsters, on this analysis, will likely care rather less about Ugandan President Museveni’s aversion to term limits and treatment of critics and the LGBT community than about his commitment to the extermination of ISIS and his willingness to see that US firms get their cut of infrastructure deals and supply contracts.

If there is anything that is potentially attractive about Trump it is that his mind is open to ideas. He’s protean. Like the shape-shifting Proteus of Greek myth, he is intuitively, and infinitely, adaptable, which is why he, and not Hillary Clinton, is president-elect.

There is not an ideological bone in his soft orange body. He is about himself and his insatiable desire to show them. Who are they? The elites that have sneered at him his entire life as the vulgar kid of a vulgar father who made the family millions as a slumlord on the non-Manhattan side on New York’s East River.

Show him that the elites he despises have made a dog’s breakfast of US Africa policy and that you have an idea that could make fools of them all by turning Africa from a playground for the development set into a driver of American growth and security, and he might just listen.