Provocateur

Anger at the status quo and loathing for his opponent, far more than his own attractiveness, drove the fluke that landed Donald Trump in the White House. If he is to survive and have a chance at a second term, he evidently reckons his best hope is to keep bating his adversaries to act in ways that trigger the ire and hate of his base.

That is what his “on many sides” blame allocation for last month’s violence in Charlottesville was all about. He’s a provocateur, not a closet neo-Nazi or Ku-Kluxer. He regards such fringe ethno-nationalists as “losers”, than which there is nothing lower in his hierarchy of bad. But if his enemies want to accuse him of being a racist, he’s fine with that. In fact, he courts it. Witness his repellent quest to prove Barack Obama was not born in the US.

“The longer they (Democrats) talk about identity politics, I got ‘em,” Trump’s Rasputin, Stephen Bannon, explained. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” Bannon may since be gone, but he left behind his playbook.

It must have made Trump’s day when Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader in the House of Representatives, suddenly discovered, after a quarter century walking past them, that “the Confederate statues in the halls of Congress have always been reprehensible.” To Trumpies, who had voted to “take our country back” from Pelosi’s kind, it was just one more example of political correctness run amok. Besides, call Trump racist and you’re implying they’re racist too and that makes them even angrier.

Not that it isn’t high time America stopped airbrushing its past. If and when I am ever called for my citizenship interview, I may be asked what caused the South, in 1861, to commit the equivalent of Rhodesian UDI. According to the cheat sheet, there are three answers the immigration examiner may accept: slavery, state’s rights or “economic factors”. The second and third choices are prevarications but they still get equal billing in the official story. That needs changing.

Will removing Confederate iconography — statues, flags, plaques — from public spaces help? Much of it was erected long after the war itself as part of a concerted project to re-render the South’s cause as a noble if tragically doomed crusade to vindicate the founding fathers’ conception of liberty. This humbuggery is critical to understanding America. Might it therefore make sense to leave its artefacts in place to be reflected on rather than give demagogues like Trump a wedge issue?

Andrew Young, the former UN ambassador, congressman, Atlanta mayor and aide to Dr Martin Luther King, thinks it would. He has seen the politics work out badly. A battle over the Georgia state flag cost Democrats the governorship, he says, and with it, “$14.9 billion and 70 000 jobs that would have gone with the Affordable Care Act.”

In 2009, a newly inaugurated President Obama was asked to continue the annual tradition of placing a wreath on the Confederate memorial in Arlington cemetery, official burying ground of America’s war dead. The elaborate 10 metre tall bronze sculpture, consecrated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914, features inter alia a female slave tearfully holding up a baby so that its father, her owner, may bid it farewell as he heads to war to keep her in bondage. Also depicted is an African-American soldier marching to defend the Confederacy. It is a stunning example of Southern cant.

Obama had a wreath sent over in the usual way, but insisted that one simultaneously be laid on a memorial for black soldiers who died fighting for freedom on the Union side.

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Not Truman

Donald Trump, hyper-nationalist, loves the word “sovereignty”. With and without the -ty he deployed it 21 times in his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday. Andrew Jackson, his favourite president (other than himself), was also a fan, relying on it to justify all manner of unconscionable behaviour.

Jackson, first elected in 1828, held that in America “the people” were sovereign (not exactly what the founders had in mind). He saw himself as the people’s instrument, entitled to act on their behalf in disregard of Congress and the courts whenever the need arose.

Here was Trump on Tuesday: “In America…the people are sovereign. I was elected not to take power, but to give power to the American people, where it belongs.”

Jackson’s “people” — the “we” endowed with inalienable rights by their Creator and the Declaration of Independence — did not include the millions of involuntary immigrants from Africa then resident in the US, free or unfree, or the native population, or women of any colour or provenance.

If white men wanted land that belonged Indian tribes under treaties signed with the federal government and ratified by the Senate, then, by God, white men must have it, the law be damned. If white men wanted to extend slavery into every state added to the growing Union, that was their decision to make, not Washington’s. The people ruled. Not the law. Beastliness ensued.

A fitting icon, this Jackson, for his latest successor.

As for the foreign policy Trump enunciated at the UN on the American people’s behalf, no one could accuse his speechwriter — principally Goebbels re-enactor Stephen Miller — of being elite. To be fair, this was not quite the “some weird s..t” George W Bush was quoted calling Trump’s inaugural address. But it came close.

It will chiefly be remembered for the bit where Trump went verbally Valley Girl and threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” if “Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un didn’t “denuclearize”.

Asked whether wiping out an entire nation might perhaps be construed as a crime against humanity, Trump’s hapless press secretary Sarah Sanders just managed to get some racquet on the ball. Barack Obama, she tried, had said the same thing. Out. His actual words: “We could obviously destroy North Korea with our arsenal, but aside from the humanitarian costs of that, they are right next door to our vital ally (South Korea)”.

What really raised the bile, though, was Trump’s call for all right-thinking countries join in a great “reawakening” of “patriotically” reasserted sovereignty as the path to global peace and prosperity.

Trump tried to portray himself as a new Harry Truman, on whose watch the post-World War II order was founded, multilateral institutions like the UN, IMF and World Bank created, and the Marshall Plan launched — all to resuscitate a world ravaged by nationalisms cynically inflamed by demagogues like Trump who saw themselves as incarnations of national will. Truman was the anti-Trump.

Trump, of course, is an identity freak as we learnt from his crusade to prove that Obama was not an American but a Kenyan. Were he a man of logic and conviction as well, one could see him having been an avid apologist for the bantustan policy, advocating for free what the Nationalists paid his mentor, the McCarthyite lizard Roy Cohn, millions of rands to defend.

How seriously to take this boob? There was tight-jawed stoicism on the faces of his secretary of state and UN ambassador, and face-palming by his chief of staff, as they contemplated the size of the shovels they would need when he was done. The General Assembly applauded politely. Politeness is what the UN is all about. The whole point of the institution is to render, through process and protocol, dangerous fools harmless and murderous passions inert.