Valkyrie moment?

Polls have Bernie Sanders winning the early heats for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination which kick off in Iowa next week. If he’s to be the nominee, we had better hope the Senate removes Donald Trump from office ahead of the general election. There’s little chance America’s voters will do the job if the alternative is a hectoring old lefty.

Sure, the Democratic candidate will get the most votes, as she did last time, but with the Trump lies-fear-and-hate machine at full throttle it is hard to see a self-declared socialist putting together a majority where it counts, in the electoral college. 

The Democrat Trump fears most is former vice president Joe Biden. But Biden could yet become the Democratic version of the Republicans’ Jeb Bush in 2016 — the establishment favourite blown out of the water when MAGA-hatted primary voters staged a revolt. Sanders would be the Democrats’ Trump, the outsider who eats the party. And even if doesn’t win the nomination, there are enough fanatics in his camp to spoil things for whoever does.

Trump may have got himself impeached for demanding help against Biden from Ukraine’s Wolodymyr Zelensky, but assuming he survives his Senate trial he will still have achieved his objective: terminally slime Biden as a veteran Washington swamp creature who, at minimum, turned a blind eye while his son raked in fifty grand a month from a dodgy Ukrainian gas company.

Beyond the coastal metropoles and the Twittersphere, America has not been paying much attention to the trial. Minds are as much made up outside the Senate chamber as they are inside. For the Democratic tribe, Trump is an existential threat to the constitution. For the Republican tribe, the president is the target of a coup attempt.

Trump’s defense strategy has been less about refuting the charges than about getting a rise out of his enemies, helped by a legal team of you-couldn’t-make-this-up awfulness. 

There’s Ken Starr, the prurient Inspector Javert set on by Republicans to destroy Bill Clinton. There’s Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer and TV talking head you call if you’re rich, famous and guilty as sin. His clients have included OJ Simpson, Eurotrash inheritance-hunter Claus von Bulow and Jeffrey Epstein. There’s Jay Sekulow, founder of a non-profit which pays him and his family millions raised in grotesquely cynical appeals to working class evangelicals. 

And let’s not forget Pam Bondi, who, as Florida attorney general, turned a blind eye to Trump’s fraudulent university after receiving an illegal donation from his fraudulent foundation. She’s now on  a $115 000-month retainer lobbying for Qatar.

Of course, good help is increasingly hard to find if you’re Trump. Who of any quality, having seen him axe and humiliate grown-up after grown-up, would want to work for him? Only, it would seem, shameless sycophants like Rex Tillerson’s Foggy Bottom successor Mike Pompeo, a thug no other president of either party would ever have dreamt of naming the country’s top diplomat.

Which brings us to John Bolton, a weird choice to replace HR McMaster as national security adviser in 2018 given the gulf between his ultrahawkish neoconservative views and Trump’s autocrat-infatuated isolationism. Naturally, he didn’t last either. 

Bolton has a reputation as a ninja inside knife fighter. Guessing how a draft of his smoking gun memoir, The Room Where it Happened, found its way from White House reviewers to the New York Times, is the Washington parlour game du jour. If someone was trying to blow a hole through the claim of executive privilege behind which Trump has been cowering, this was a clever way to do it

Have we reached a Valkyrie moment for the Trump regime, with Bolton as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg planting a book in the bunker instead of a bomb? Pray that this attempt is more successful.

Bad dream

Seeing as how Eskom can no longer meet SA’s electricity needs, it must be some consolation that days are longer at Christmastime in the southern hemisphere. Up here, it is the darkest season. Darkening it further is the thought that this time next year we could be getting ready for Donald Trump’s second inauguration.

Here’s how it happened:

The impeachment fizzled. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saw to it that the trial was quick.  Following Trump’s acquittal, Republicans stuck resolutely to their talking points. It was the Democrats, not Trump, who had abused power. They had plotted coup against a president whose legitimacy they never accepted. 

This message was amplified by Fox, Breitbart and the rest of Trump’s propaganda network and would be his mantra throughout the campaign. He bragged that the failed impeachment was proof  not only of his innocence but of his courage. The deep state had come at him when he tried to break its grip, and he had faced it down. 

By the time the president’s personal lawyer Rudolf Giuliani was indicted on charges related to his quest for dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden in Ukraine, America had moved on. Trump disowned Giuliani and said he had been freelancing.

Biden stayed smeared and it soon became apparent that his path to the Democratic nomination would not be as easy as the polls had suggested. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar came out of nowhere to take second place in Iowa, putting the sensible centre in play. Bernie Sanders established himself over Elizabeth Warren as the standard bearer of the left with a win in New Hampshire. 

Biden regained his footing in South Carolina but with Klobuchar catching fire and splitting the centrist vote, Sanders started racking up delegates as the primaries ground on. Biden survived, but it was anything but a happy and united convention that gave him the nomination. The left went off to its tent in a huff. For many others, there was bitter disappointment that a woman was not at the top of the ticket. 

It is unclear what role if any Russian active measures played but they were probably superfluous as Representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandra Occasio-Cortez, among others, generated a steady flow of soundbites for the Trumpist outrage machine.

Trump was in his element, thrilling MAGA-hatted crowds with his preposterous braggadocio and whipping up 40-minutes hates — not just the two-minute variety of 1984 fame — against the Democrats and the “faceless bureaucrats who conspire with them to deny the people’s will.”

Off the campaign trail Trump seemed at unusual pains to play the statesman, racking up what looked like legitimate accomplishments. Inspired by the success of Britain’s Boris Johnson, he stole the Democrats’ clothes and unveiled a serious effort to replace Obamacare with something better, as he’d promised in 2016.  

Then there was the trade deal with China. He was given credit for brokering a peace between Russia and Ukraine. Victory was declared in Afghanistan. The Taliban complied with the terms of a ceasefire, and US troops came home. North Korea launched no missiles. Some suspected this was all good to be true. It was as if America’s adversaries were eager to help Trump win a second term.

Biden, meanwhile, floundered. He never escaped the question of why, as President Obama’s point man on Ukraine, he had not objected to his son serving on the board of a dodgy Ukrainian energy company. As the campaign wore on, his 77 years told. He grew increasingly testy and gaffe prone. Having served in the Senate since 1973, he was an easy target for Trump to brand as a swamp creature. And so on election night, we watched a replay of 2016 and wondered whether we should emigrate to Canada.

Please let this be nothing more than a bad dream.

Fatter margins, thinner AGOA

US clothing brands and retailers are lobbying Congress to rip the heart out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act next year.  African beneficiaries need to push back more aggressively than they have heretofore.

Of course, the lobbyists don’t describe what they are trying to achieve quite so bluntly. All they are proposing, they say, is “modernisation” of the US Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). They concede that Africa might get hurt in the process which is why they have thoughtfully included safeguards to mitigate the risk of that happening. Their solicitousness begs skepticism.

GSP has lately been drawn to SA’s attention  by the International Intellectual Property Alliance.   The Washington-based trade association has prevailed on President Trump to threaten SA’s AGOA privileges as a means of extracting concessions on copyright policy. 

A number of advanced economies have GSP programmes that offer the less developed duty-free market access on a non-reciprocal basis to help them become more developed. The US variant sets a range of eligibility conditions such as the one the IIPA is using to squeeze SA.

AGOA is simply US GSP on steroids, created as an extra boost for qualified GSP recipients in sub-Saharan Africa. It offers duty-free treatment for a much larger range of products, in particular, and most valuably,  clothing and textiles excluded by statute from ordinary GSP. The idea is to support Africa’s industrialisation by encouraging apparel companies to invest in and source from the continent.

Congress must renew the GSP programme by the end of 2020. As part of the renewal US importers want to extend AGOA’s textile and clothing benefits to any GSP country that wants them. That would include countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Cambodia that already have a significant share of the American market.

Those three countries alone accounted for $8.5 billion worth of US apparel imports last year without preferential treatment. AGOA countries, with preferences, managed $1.2 billion, led by Kenya ($391 million) and Lesotho ($320 million). All told, non-African GSP countries supplied 21 percent of US imports in 2018, AGOA countries 1.4 per cent.

AGOA apparel benefits for everyone mean AGOA apparel benefits for noone and Africa would be back to square one. The comparative advantage that has been driving increased investment in and sourcing from East Africa, in particular, evaporates.  Sewing machines and the jobs that go with them are easily moved.

The proponents of GSP “modernisation” say it will help them diversify their supply chains away from China, by far the largest US import source at $28 billion last year, but now facing punitive duties as Trump wages his trade war.

That’s a lot of production looking for a new home.  But why do countries that are already major exporters at normal rates of duty need extra incentives to attract it? Why not let Africa reap the benefit as the act intended? And not just Africa, but US neighbours and free trade agreement partners in Central America and the Caribbean whose textiles and clothing also receive preferential access in part to stem illegal migration.

The lobbyists say GSP countries won’t receive the new preferences automatically. They’ll have to petition and satisfy the programme’s conditions, including intellectual property protection and labour standards. One can be fairly certain their applications will be rubber stamped as soon as the lobbyists have collected their fees.

As for those safeguards mentioned earlier, it is proposed that product lines only be made eligible for expanded duty free treatment if AGOA countries are the source of 10 percent or more of US imports. In other words, importers will have every reason to structure purchases so as to cap imports from Africa. Potential investors will know that.

As much as they try to pretty it up, the interests pushing for textiles and apparel to be included in GSP have only one object in mind and that is fatter margins.

Played by Putin

Scheduled to testify at today’s impeachment hearing before the House Intelligence Committee is Fiona Hill, a coal miner’s daughter from northern England and now one of America’s leading Kremlinologists, a field that has regained importance in the age of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

Avowedly non-partisan, she served as an NIO — national intelligence officer — in the younger Bush and Obama administrations before going to work for Trump as Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on Trump’s National Security Council. She stuck it out  from April 2017 to July this year when she left the White House, in part, she says, to speak more openly about how America’s corrupt and broken politics are playing straight into Putin’s poisonous hands.

She had left before Trump’s infamous July 25  phone chat with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, the one where he openly shakes down the comic actor-turned-president for “a favour” — Joe Biden’s head on an investigator’s plate. But if she can add nothing directly about the “perfect” call or the subsequent attempt to cover it up, she still has much of interest to proffer about its context. This we know from day-long deposition she gave the committee behind closed  doors.

What caught the most attention when the 446-page transcript was first released were anecdotes about her then boss, choleric national security adviser John Bolton.

He went ballistic as he caught wind of the parallel Ukraine policy Trump’s creatures — acting chief of staff Rick Mulvaney and Gordon Sondland who bought the job of ambassador to the European Union by funding Trump’s inauguration — were running behind his back with human “hand grenade” Rudolph Giuliani, once “America’s mayor”, now Fox News fixture and the president’s private lawyer.

More interesting, though, was what Hill had to say about Putin as a Moscow centre hood, to borrow a phrase from John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. “I am not a Russia hawk,” she said. “What I am is a critic of…this government led by a former KGB case officer who specialises in manipulating people’s vulnerabilities and exploiting corruption.”

“Why do you believe that Putin was targeting Donald Trump from his days as a businessman,” she was asked before it had been firmly established she did believe it. Not missing a beat, she replied: “Because that’s exactly was Putin and others were doing…He was part of a directorate in the KGB in Leningrad. That’s what they did exclusively — targeting businessmen…And that was filthy.”

The techniques Hill described could be more subtle than honey traps and blackmail. She gave an example from her own experience. She was hacked while working on her 2014 book, Mr Putin, Operative in the Kremlin, at the Brookings Institution, then all of a sudden she started receiving unsolicited help on questions only someone familiar with her manuscript could have known she was asking. It turned out she was being played. Putin’s people were working to shape her narrative to his liking.

She believes Christopher Steele, the former MI5 man responsible for the celebrated dossier suggesting Putin had kompromat on Trump, was similarly played. The Russians used him to sow the seeds of political chaos on what, given Trump’s known depravity, was obviously fertile soil.

Now they are playing Giuliani. They know his weaknesses. He is looking for deals in Ukraine on his own account.  He’s desperate to become a hero to the Trumpsters by helping them slime Biden and sink his bid for the Democratic nomination. So Moscow is feeding him what he and his client wants to be fed.

“The only way we can keep the Russians out of our politics is to clean up our own act,” Hill said. Might the same advice apply to a country like SA?


“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen…Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

So wrote the thoroughly inconsistent Ralph Waldo Emerson in an essay entitled “Self-Reliance”. Donald Trump appears to have been channeling the 19th century American transcendentalist.

As he approaches the symbolic 100 day mark of his presidency, his pirouettes have both dazzled and baffled. CNN’s political staff reported, “Hazarding a guess at the mercurial president’s plans is roughly as fruitful as predicting an earthquake, a person in close touch with the White House said… “Who the hell knows?” another senior Republican source in frequent contact with the White House said. “It’s Donald Trump”.”

On the campaign trail and since, Trump has spoken and tweeted many hard words. Lately he has been eating them.

He threatened trade war with “world champion currency manipulator” China, called NATO “obsolete” and threatened not to honour US commitments to the alliance unless its members pulled their fiscal weight. He was ready to shutter the US Export-Import Bank (Exim) and cashier Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen after a single term. Having failed to muster the votes to “repeal and replace” his predecessor’s signature health care initiative, Obamacare, he announced that, to hell with it, he was moving on to tax reform.

On all these things, and more, the president has changed his mind. A couple of days with Xi Jinping and his “lovely wife” at Mar a Lago, the Palm Beach White House, has improved Trump’s understanding of reality. For now, at least, he accepts that, one, without China there is no solution to the problem of the nutty nuclear-armed Kim dynasty in North Korea and, two. the only currency manipulation Beijing is currently engaged in involves propping the yuan up against the dollar, not pushing it down.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg came to the White House. Trump, reminded that the alliance was fighting terrorism shoulder to shoulder with the US, and had been since 9/11, decided that it was “no longer obsolete”. Boeing CEO Jim McNerney stopped by and explained how Exim helped him sell aircraft to foreign customers who might otherwise shop elsewhere. Another Damascus moment for the president. Exim, he told the Wall Street Journal, was “useful”. In the same interview, he endorsed Yellen for a second term, having earlier said she should be “ashamed” for holding interest rates down under the Obama administration to create a “false” impression of recovery.

Unendorsed, on other hand, was Steve Bannon, propagandist for the America First Trumpism of the election campaign which, for now at least, seems to be going the way of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, though with more of a scowl than a smile.

Trump, as confidence man, has alway seen strategic value in being misunderstood. One can see why, in his current predicament, he would reckon consistency foolish. As vain as he is, he has to know his presidency is off to a terrible start. He’s in danger of being lumped with real duds like Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover.

The Republicans he nominally leads have majorities in both chambers of the national legislature. Thus far, they have proved unable to govern together.

To get things rolling, all he wanted them to do was get rid of Obamacare and put something, anything, in its place. Just let him have a bill to sign for the cameras which would, on paper at least, free up funds for the other things he promised — the Mexico wall, a trillion dollar infrastructure spend and tax reform to broaden the revenue base while cutting rates. No, said the true believers who believe that no one who cannot afford it has a right to life saving medicine any more than they have a right to own a car or an iPhone.

Now Trump is discovering that next to reforming the tax code, so many and so well-organised and financed are the entrenched interests that replacing Obamacare should have been child’s play. He wants to go back and try again.

Polls show that most Americans, working class Trumpsters included, would like to see Obamacare replaced, not with the unrestricted market Darwinism favoured in varying degrees by Republicans, but by making available to all the socialized medical benefits that already exist for retirees, children and military veterans

A mind that wanted to be though big and unfettered by hobgoblins might be willing to work with Democrats for such a solution, especially if the alternative was to go down as a loser, fired after one term.

A cancer on the presidency?

Is Kremlin-gate a lethal cancer on the Trump presidency, the way the Watergate cover-up was for Richard Nixon? Or is it more akin to Whitewater, the pseudo-scandal named after a failed property development that blighted, but did not destroy, Bill and Hillary Clinton’s tenancy of White House.

Just as many Democrats question Donald Trump’s legitimacy today, so many Republicans rejected Clinton’s in 1992. They went hunting for skeletons Billary left behind when they came to Washington from Little Rock, Arkansas, where Bill had been governor and which was by no means the ethics capital of America.

Smelling smoke from the Whitewater deal and other Clintons schemes to improve their then scant net worth, the haters blew as hard as they could to coax up a flame. Vince Foster, a friend and law partner the Clintons brought with them from Little Rock, committed suicide under circumstances readily construable as mysterious, and, voila, you had the makings of an inferno.

Then, as now, there were plenty of fake news artists at the ready with phony inflammables. Before long, journals like the American Spectator with funding from well-heeled right-wingers were spinning ripping yarns. One set had Governor Clinton running drugs and guns from a clandestine airbase called Mena.

Special prosecutor, Senate hearings and all the other trappings of a really good Washington -Gate followed. But the Clinton funeral pyre refused to light, at least while built on Whitewater. Then the Big Dog torched himself by “not having sex with that woman”, the intern Monica Lewinski, which got him impeached for lying under oath. He survived, nonetheless, and would be remembered as one of the better ones.

I am beginning to think that Kremlin-gate may turn out to be a squib as damp as Whitewater would have been without the stained blue dress to keep Republican hopes alive.

For the FBI to be officially investigating whether a sitting president and/or members of his entourage colluded with an unfriendly foreign power to secure his election is without precedent. Only Nixon’s intrigues to derail Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Vietnam peace efforts comes close, and that involved collusion with friend rather than foe.

However, as much of a first as the present investigation may be, there is as yet nothing that points to any kind of active or conscious conspiracy between Trump himself and the Russian government to nobble the election.

The US intelligence community is on record as having a high level of confidence that the Kremlin was involved in hacking and leaking internal Democratic Party communications in a manner calculated to prejudice the chances of nominee Hillary Clinton. Beyond that, there are plenty dots but no firm connection between them. Trump’s publicly stated admiration for Vladimir Putin over the course of the campaign may tell us something about his character and instincts but is not proof of treason. When Trump invited Putin to share any emails he had hacked from Clinton’s personal server, he was clearly being flippant.

We know that Team Trump at one point included in the swamp creature of all Washington swamp creatures, Paul Manafort, and the weird one time Robin to Manafort’s Batman, Roger Stone. Manafort, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press, had a $10 million a year contract to influence US policy financed by an oligarch close to Putin. Stone, who cut his incisors as a political dirty trickster or “ratf..ker” for Nixon, bragged about knowing in advance what Russian-hacked documents were going to strike the Clinton campaign next.

But this also needs to be remembered: when Manafort’s work for Putin’s gauleiter in Ukraine became known last August, Trump dumped him as campaign chairman. As for Stone, best one can tell he’s a legend in his own, not Trump’s mind.

So where does that leave us? I’m inclined for now to go with the judgement of Mark Cuban, a real self-made billionaire who built a successful computer business, owns the Dallas Mavericks, a top tier pro basketball franchise, and stars in his own reality TV show, Shark Tank. Cuban knows Trump. They talk. There was even thought of him as Trump’s running mate. On Saturday, he delivered, in a stream of tweets, his verdict on Trump and Russia.

Trump’s abiding focus, he said, was his wallet which was under growing stress, “Businesses from Trump steaks to Trump U(niversity) were awful. His kids probably saved his net worth. What he did care about was his cash. He spent almost all of it in his campaign.” Russians were willing to buy his condos, invest in his branded buildings and host his Miss Universe beauty pageant. So “he spoke favourably about Putin to get $ out of Russia and into Trump deals”.

Putin “recognised Trump’s greed and took advantage by back channelling coordinated misinformation in an attempt to influence voters.” Trump didn’t care much, one way or the other. “I talked to him…(and) people close to him during the campaign. He never thought he would win.”

Trump and Africa

For a while now I have been itching to write something non-speculative about what South Africa and the rest of the continent can expect from President Trump, but the truth is, two months into the new administration, there is no way of knowing for sure what, or who, this strange crowd has in store for us.

Personnel-wise, things are still up in the air. As of Tuesday night, 495 of the 553 key positions requiring Senate confirmation had yet to be nominated by the White Houses, let alone confirmed.

Peter Pham, director of the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, was supposed have the inside track for Assistant Secretary of State for Africa but has apparently stumbled. Now the mentioners are mentioning James Dunlap of the Scowcroft Group, the international advisory firm founded by Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to the President Gerald Ford and then the first George Bush. Scowcroft endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump, but perhaps his sin — a mortal one for hopefuls thus far — will not be visited on his associates.

Dunlap would be an interesting choice. He knows southern Africa well, having lived in SA, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe. He has been involved in energy, mining and telecoms deals in Angola, DRC, Ethiopia and Tanzania. He did a spell in government as Special Advisor in State’s Africa Bureau, focused on energy.

Promoting his nomination, I’m told, is Walter Kansteiner, a founding member of the Scowcroft Group, who had the Assistant Secretary job for a couple of years in the second Bush administration. Currently, he’s based in London as ExxonMobil’s honcho for relations with Africans governments, so he has the ear of his former CEO, now Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.

As for the ambassadorship to SA, Breitbart editor-at-large Joel Pollak, once favoured, is off the pace. Rumour has it Pretoria was unenthusiastic about granting agrement to this former Tony Leon speechwriter turned hard-right Trumpian imbongi.

The son-in-law of Business Day guest columnist Rhoda Kadalie, he probably didn’t deserve the savaging he was given by the Daily Maverick, but as a protege of Steve Bannon, Trump’s alt-right Rasputin, he would still have been an odd choice. Should White House spokesman Sean Spicer fall or trip on his sword, Pollak would be a contender for the Goebbels Memorial Podium.

Alternatives for SA are said to include Anthony Carroll, a regular at the Mining Indaba who hangs his hat at Manchester Trade, a Washington advice and advocacy shop deeply involved with shaping and advocating for the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Carroll is highly regarded by Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of House International Relations Committee. Just as there were Good Germans, so these are both Good Republicans.

Also mentioned is investment banker Peter O’Malley, a dual US and Irish citizen who represented Credit Suisse in Johannesburg in the 90’s after serving as an election observer in 1994. His resume says he “help(ed) establish Black Economic Empowerment vehicles and investments”, “advised and structured $100 million in investments in SA” and that he “maintain(s) business and ministerial relationships”.

What’s going on over at the National Security Council remains a mystery. The top Africa slot was initially filled by a Marine intelligence officer, Robin Townly, a protege of Trump’s first NSC adviser, the whackjob Michael Flynn. The CIA reportedly vetoed Townly’s application for clearance to see “sensitive compartmentalised information”, the kind that includes the identities of sources. He had to go. Flynn was then forced to resign for being economical with the truth about his contacts the Russia’s ambassador. By all accounts, the agency was happy to see the backs of both.

On the trade front, Florie Liser, the Assistant US Trade Representative for Africa since 2003, has gone, taking her grace and immense institutional memory with her to the Corporate Council on Africa where she has replaced Steve Hayes as CEO. The job is more about organising meetings and raising money to survive, which Hayes was good at, than about contributing to the formulation of policy, where Liser would shine. If and by whom she is to be replaced must await Senate confirmation of Robert Lighthizer, the neanderthal protectionist Trump has named to put America First as US Trade Representative.

President Trump’s sole engagement with Africa, as far as can be told without straying in #FAKENEWS, has been telephone conversations with Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari and our own Jacob Zuma. It’s hard to read much into the pabular official readouts beyond noting that Buhari got an invite to DC (or Mar-a-Lago) and Zuma didn’t. That would seem to signify that Trump, a dolt on so much else, has grasped that Nigeria is the bigger and more influential power and likely to remain so as long as Zuma is in office. And, of course, Nigeria has real skin in the fight against jihadism, plus the capacity to project power regionally, both important ticks in Trumpian boxes.

The coming Trump regency

Washington opened its twitter feeds Saturday to find @realDonaldTrump on an early morning, evidence-free tear about his predecessor, Barack Obama, having done a Nixon and ordered a tap on his phones “just before the victory.”

This reinforced a growing sense across party lines that Trump should really not be president. The Republican party he crashed to get the job knew that all along, of course, but couldn’t bring itself to defy its mesmerised rank and file and deny him the nomination. Came the general election and most voters knew it too, even some who voted for him. But what’s done is done, and the nation and the world will have to put up with the character until January 2021. The constitution says so.

No need, though, to slit our wrists quite yet. The prospect may not be as terrifying as the alarums of the past few weeks portend. You have to remember that since failing in the casino and airline businesses and as a professional sports team owner, Trump has been more a simulated tycoon than the real thing. Now he is going to be a simulated president.

After his string of bankruptcies, Trump pretty much exited property development game as normally understood, aside from investing in a few golf courses. Instead he devoted himself to pumping up the value of his name — playing the highly playable media, having ghostwriters churn out books for him and, above all, starring in The Apprentice — in order to license it for display on other people’s projects (not a few of which tanked nonetheless).

In much the same way he is licensing his brand to the nation to put on its highest office. The fee may not net him as many millions as the Vito Corleone of Ajerbaijan paid to put TRUMP on luxury flats with Caspian views in Baku. But he has been able to double the initiation fee for membership of his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach to $200 000 and, among other perks, does have Air Force One at his round-the-clock disposal. Besides, whatever happens, his spot in history, if not on Mount Rushmore, is secure.

Other than that, I predict he will be little more than a flamboyant figurehead. Sure, he will carry on playing the part of President Trump, tweeting away furiously, declaring himself to be the greatest president there ever was (save perhaps Abraham Lincoln to whom he does occasionally defer), all the while taking credit for anything positive that happens, the weather even, and blaming others, especially foreigners, for everything else. But in reality, the management will be in different hands.

Whose? Not, I think, those of the odd bods he has taken into the White House with him.

These include the rumpled Steve Bannon, former Goldman Sachs-er and publisher of Breitbart, the Pravda of the alt-right, who has variously compared himself with Lenin and Henry the Eighth’s Thomas Cromwell, and who sees himself as the chief ideologist of the Trump revolution to “deconstruct the administrative state”.

Then there’s Sebastian Gorka PhD (he insists on using the handle), a beetle-browed Brit of Hungarian stock who has described himself as one of Trump’s “alpha males” and is convinced that to defeat ISIS, we must begin with the correct incantation: “radical Islamic terrorism”. When not yelling at journalists, he threatens to sue national security experts who have genuine experience and know whereof they speak. He likes to pack a Glock which got him into a spot of bother last year when it showed up on an X-ray machine as he tried to board a plane at Reagan National Airport.

In the group also belongs Peter Navarro, an economist in charge of Trump’s newly minted National Trade Council, perhaps the only one who could do real damage if allowed out of the asylum. Navarro has written books warning that China is the new evil empire out to eat America’s lunch. Like a number of Trump’s courtiers, he does not enjoy unqualified respect in his field. Peers note that he has published little serious research in support of his crude mercantilism. Nevertheless, he feels qualified to tell his boss, and the Financial Times, that the US must repatriate its manufacturers’ global value chains. Were that to happen, SA could kiss much of is catalytic converter business goodbye.

But, as I say, I think this pack of eccentrics will sooner or later be sidelined as we move into what might be called the Trump Regency. The Donald may not be quite as mad as George III, but grown ups will move to take charge nonetheless. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and senior economic adviser Gary Cohn, with help for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the permanent civil service, will quietly make sure that, beneath the Trumpian bluster, we will get a pretty standard Republican administration. They might even find a way to get the US back into the Trans-Pacific Partnership.


Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, was among the few who predicted Donald Trump’s election. Now, for many, he’s become the go-to Trump explainer.

More aficianado than fanboy, he’s a lot more plausible than the insiders like campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, White House spokesman Sean Spicer and Goebbels re-enactor Stephen Miller who are, for now, getting paid do the explaining. So let’s give him a listen.

Adams, in a February 16 blog post, places Trump in the same category as Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Virgin’s Richard Branson. Not company in which I would have instinctively placed The Donald, none seeming to contend with him for the title of world’s greatest flimflam artist.

What they and Trump do have in common, says the corporate organization man turned cartoonist, is that they are “systems” people rather than “goals” people. By that he means that none of them set out to be precisely where they are now but got there by systematically doing the things that made the journey and destination possible.

“Trump seems to be a systems thinker,” writes Adams. “I doubt he knew he would jump from real estate developer, to author, to reality TV star, to president. At least not in that order. Instead he systematically accumulated money, persuasion skills and personal connections until he had lots of options. Being president was one of them.”

Adams may be trying too hard to fit Trump into the template of his own how-to-succeed book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. But that would not have been a bad title for Trump’s Art of the Deal — or his many other ghosted works on the same theme. One of the things Trump is not is a writer. Nor is he a reader. But he has failed repeatedly and, to use his adverb, bigly. Airlines, casinos, professional sports teams all have gone belly up in his care, often because he did not know what he was doing. That doesn’t mean he didn’t learn anything in the process. Now he’s President.

Or, as Adams puts it, “now the world watches as as entrepreneurial systems-thinker with no government experience takes over the White House and tries to learn on the job. How did you expect that to go?”

Not well, to be honest. And Trump is living up, or down, to expectations. He claims to have achieved more in his first three weeks than any president before him. But more what? If the quantum is chaos, it would be hard to take issue with him.

To my eye, then untutored by Adams, the Trump who took questions from the press for 77 most unusual minutes last Thursday was no happy camper, as much as he seemed to enjoy the give and take even when caught in yet another misstatement of his margin of victory.

Braggadocio and confidence are not synonymous. The former often signals a serious deficit of the latter. Trump had the manic look a man who feared the wheels were coming off his presidency almost before it had begun

Permanent Washington was spewing leaks that depicted his White House in pandemonium and himself as wandering its halls wifeless and bewildered in a bathrobe, picking up the phone at 3 am to ask his national security adviser, General Mike Flynn, whether the dollar should be strong or weak.

An ill-conceived executive order to show he was serious about protecting the “homeland” from “radical Islamic terror” had blown up his face, blocked at least temporarily by the courts, at which he had reflexively lashed out, earning an open rebuke from his Supreme Count nominee Neil Gorsuch.

He had then had to give Flynn the heave-ho, nominally for lying to his vice president about conversations with Putin’s Washington ambassador. These touched on the sanctions President Obama had imposed to chastise the Kremlin for what US intelligence community had concluded was an effort to compromise Hillary Clinton’s chances of election. Would another shoe drop, proving collusion between Putin and the Trump campaign?

Be cool, says Adams. “If you are comparing the incoming Trump administration with the transfer of power that defines our modern history, that’s an irrational comparison. If the country wanted a smooth ride, it would have elected Hillary Clinton. Instead voters opted to “drain the swamp”. And you can’t drain the swamp without angering the alligators and getting some swamp water on your pants. That’s what we’re watching now.”

Trump has consistently surprised his detractors, the biggest surprise of all coming last November 8. Perhaps there will be another next Tuesday when he speaks to a joint session of Congress.

If the practice of his three most recent predecessors is any indicator, this should be the moment he transits from the theatre of being president to engaging with Congress on his specific priorities, how he wants to fund them and whether he is willing to fight his own party to get them. From his choices we should learn if and how he means to govern.

Historical Parallels

To judge from Amazon sales, America’s coastal chattering classes are running to George Orwell and Hannah Arendt for guidance and titivation in these disconcerting times.

There is also renewed interest in Huey Long, the demagogic Louisiana governor who, had he not been assassinated, might have unseated President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936; and in President Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh chief executive, who ran on a distinctly populist, America First-ish platform and was roundly reviled by the establishment he defeated in 1828 as uncouth and illegitimate.

So a seemingly dyslexic President Trump is getting people thinking and reading. Who can complain about him on that score? But to see parallels with 1984 is unnecessarily alarmist. Trump’s America is not Oceania. Indeed, his supporters would exercise their Second Amendment rights to shoot Thought Police on sight.

Besides, to the extent Trump has any truly totalitarian tendencies, he will quickly find himself checked and balanced. Indeed the courts have already stymied his cack handed executive order to close the border to various, mainly Muslim, immigrants.

With Jackson and Long the echoes are stronger. Long campaigned as champion of the “forgotten man”, put his name on a lot of new infrastructure and rode rough shod over anyone who got in his way. Unlike child-of-privilege Trump, he clawed his way up from hardscrabble poverty and had a genuine affection for his base.

Willie Stark, the protagonist of Robert Penn Warren’s novel “All the King’s Men”, is an extreme version of Long. In the 1949 film, there is an exchange that resonates today. It is between Jack Burden, a character analogous to SA-born Joel Pollak, the Breitbart editor mentioned as Trump’s pick for ambassador to Pretoria, and Adam Stanton, a doctor Stark wants to run his shiny new state hospital but who is appalled by Stark’s thuggery.

Burden: I really believe that Stark wants to do good. You do too. It’s a matter of method. Many times out of evil comes good. Pain is evil. As a doctor you should know that.

Stanton: Pain is an evil. It is not evil in itself. Stark is evil.

Burden: The people of this state don’t think so.

Stanton: How would they know? The first thing Stark did was to take over the newspapers and the radio stations. Why be so afraid of criticism? If Stark is interested in doing good he should also be interested in the truth. I don’t see how you can separate the two.

Trump’s people don’t think their man is evil either, even though he has a relationship with the truth as strained as Stark’s and no less acute a fear of criticism. Would Trump like to take over the media? He often tweets as if he’d love to see new owners at the New York Times. But that is bluster and he knows it. He’s throwing red meat to his base which loathes, but does not consume, “elite” media.

Trump’s own preference is to be set alongside Jackson whose portrait he has had hung in the Oval Office.

Both extremely colourful in their own way, the two men are hard to compare as individuals. Jackson grew up poor and anything but pampered. He lost both parents early and, as a teenager, experienced the full brutality of British arms in the War of Independence. By the time he reached the White House, he had served in both the House if Representatives and Senate, won acclaim for his generalship in slaughtering Indians and British redcoats, and had killed a man (and taken a bullet) in a duel to defend the honour of his wife. Though fallists would denounce him as genocidal, he was as much man of substance in his time as Trump is not in ours.

Still, both won by appealing to a similar nexus of beliefs and fears. Trump voters, argues scholar Walter Russell Mead in the current Foreign Affairs, pulled off a “Jacksonian Revolt”.

“For Jacksonians — who formed the core of Trump’s passionately supportive base — the United States…is the nation-state of the American people…The role of the US government, (they) believe, is to fulfill the country’s destiny by looking after the physical security and economic well-being of the American people in their national home…while interfering as little as possible with the individual freedom that makes the country unique…

“As for immigration…most non-Jacksonians misread the source and nature of Jacksonian concern. There has been much discussion about the impact of immigration on the wages of low-skilled workers and some talk about xenophobia and Islamophobia. But Jacksonians in 2016 saw immigration as part of a deliberate and conscious attempt to marginalize them in their own country…They see an elite out to banish them from power — politically, culturally, demographically.”

This rings true. What does it mean for where America is headed over the next four years? Very hard to say. But it would make more sense to engage with the discontents who gave us Trump than to sit around swapping quotes from Orwell and Arendt.