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?


Donald Trump has a portrait of Andrew Jackson in his Oval Office and likes to photographed with it in the background. Someone seems to have told him he is the second coming of the seventh president. Today, though, Trump brings to mind another Andrew, also from Tennessee and also a raving white supremacist: Andrew Johnson, the 17th president and the first to be impeached. 

Trump got to the White House with the aid of Vladimir Putin, Johnson courtesy of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. Lincoln, a Republican, chose Johnson, a Democrat, to be his second term vice president.

The Republicans, lately self-slimed with Trumpian depravity, were the good guys then, especially radicals like Thaddeus Stevens who wanted not only to free the nation’s involuntary African immigrants but extend them full rights as citizens, including (if they were men) the vote.

The Democrats were the party of slavery. The southern ones seceded to preserve their “peculiar institution” unmolested by Republicans. Of the northern variety, some were pro-rebellion “copperheads”; Johnson and others stayed loyal to the Union.

Lincoln, worried in 1864 with both re-election and an unfinished war, thought Johnson would balance a unity ticket. Then, within weeks of his second inauguration and the South’s surrender, he was shot dead, leaving an accidental president to manage the peace.

“Andrew Johnson,” Barbara Wineapple writes in The Impeachers, her engrossing new account of his presidency, “was not a statesmen.” 

He was a resentful man “with a need to be recognised, with an obsession to be right, and, when seeking revenge on enemies — or perceived enemies — he had to humiliate, harass and hound them. Heedless of consequences, he baited Congress and bullied men, believing his enemies were enemies of the people.” Sound familiar?

Congress outlawed slavery shortly before Lincoln died. In his successor’s view, it simply remained to pardon the rebel states, readmit their representatives to Congress and let them make up their own minds about what rights, if any, to grant their former chattels.  “This is a white man’s government,” he said. He would have liked Trump’s cabinet meetings.

Unrepentant southerners picked up the signal. Atrocities against freedmen and northern sympathisers surged, with outright massacres in Memphis and New Orleans.  Johnson raged when a factfinder came back with facts. “One reason why the southern people are so slow in accommodating themselves to the new order of things,” General Carl Schurz reported after witnessing the killing, “is that they confidently expect soon to be permitted to regulate matters according to their own notions.”

Johnson repeatedly vetoed bills to protect and empower the emancipated in a rebuilt South. When his vetoes were overridden, he would insist that the resulting laws were unconstitutional.  Helping black people, he believed, would only make them a permanent drain on white wealth. As does Trump today, he fiercely opposed the fourteenth amendment’s grant of citizenship to any person born on American soil.

His efforts to purge the executive branch of perceived enemies (shades of Trump’s deep state paranoia)  led Congress to pass the Tenure of Office Act limiting his ability to sack Senate-approved appointees unilaterally. When, in a deliberate provocation, he axed a Lincoln holdover, the Republican-controlled Congress saw an opening.

Even though Johnson’s first term was nearly done and he had no chance of a second, and in spite of their having failed in three previous tries, the House impeachers persisted. What they had needed and thought they now had was a straightforward breach of the law amounting to whatever the founders meant by “high crimes and misdemeanours” — and from which to hang their broader, political, beef with Johnson: abuse of power. 

In the ensuing Senate trial, Johnson survived by a single vote. There is reason to believe it was bought.


If Donald Trump survives impeachment and wins a second term it will because, to many conservatives, he is something akin to the katechon referred to in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians traditionally, if wrongly, ascribed to Saint Paul.

Katechon is Greek for “one who restrains”. Restrains what? In the epistle, that would be “the lawless one” who is destined to sow misery and mayhem in history’s penultimate act before being overthrown himself with the second coming.

The meaning of this strange passage has long been debated. To early church fathers, the restrainer, oddly, was the Roman Empire in the person of its emperor. The latter, before Constantine, might be no friend of Christians, but so long as he could help postpone the arrival of the Antichrist, it was best to pray for him.

“We know that the great force which threatens the whole world, the end of the age itself with its menace of hideous suffering, is delayed by the respite which the Roman Empire means for us,” wrote the second century theologian Tertullian.

In like manner, American conservatives and not just the evangelical ones, may harbour severe reservations about Trump on both moral and ideological grounds, but they are sticking by him as their best shield against the Democrats — the Antichrist incarnate.

It’s not just Democratic policies they fear. It’s the Democrats themselves. As conservative pundit Rod Dreher put it in a recent interview with Vox, “At least Trump doesn’t actively hate people like me.”

Were Trump to be convicted by the Senate, Vice President Mike Pence would take his place. A seamless package of orthodox conservative Republican and evangelical Christian, Pence ought to make it easier for the Republican right to let Trump go. Trouble is, he is not the stuff of which great katechons are made.

To hold the forces of darkness at bay, you want a fighter, someone who really knows how to get in the face of the enemy and through sheer brazenness reduce it to helpless, self-defeating rage. And if that’s all you want, Trump’s your man.

Pence, or Dense as they used to call him when he was governor of Indiana, has the charisma and oratorical powers of a used kleenex. Also, he’s a true believer, and that might dampen his enthusiasm for holding off the Antichrist if it meant delaying the Rapture. He’s confident of being among those sucked into the sky on that occasion.

The thing about a katechon, of course (at least per the usage in Thessalonians) is that he or she can only delay the inevitable, not put it off indefinitely. At some point, Tertullian’s moment of “hideous suffering” has to arrive.

The Republican party has been dying for some time. It is hard to remember when the GOP last had a new idea that did not entail exacerbating inequality. To remain competitive, it has had to cheat, relying on gerrymandering and voter suppression. The proof of its diseased state was its capture by a race-baiting nationalist whom most Americans would vote against and whose razor thin margin of victory was helped — as even the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee officially concluded this week — by Russian active measures.

He will be impeached.  Polls show the public warming to the idea now that he has convicted himself out of his own mouth of seeking campaign assistance from Ukraine and China.  It is almost inconceivable that having launched an impeachment inquiry, the Democrats will balk at drawing up the necessary articles and bringing them to a successful vote in the House.

Will 20 Republican votes then be found in the Senate to remove Trump? Quite possibly if they can look beyond the coming of the Democratic Antichrist to the possibility of rebirth thereafter. Sticking with this katechon is a shortcut to the deadest of dead ends.

Last one?

If one could get a candid read-out from the delegates who had to sit through Donald Trump’s address to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, many of those who, unlike his Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, managed to stay awake would surely say they had wondered whether the president was well. 

His eyes were narrow, white-rimmed slits as he moved his head mechanically between teleprompter screens. It was as if he was straining to decipher the nationalist screed written for him by his pet Goebbels, Stephen Miller. His delivery was numbing — emotionless, slow, almost robotic. He sniffed a lot, as is his wont. By the end he was sweating visibly. Whenever the camera cut away to them, Melania, Donald Jr, Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner looked tense.

The highly litigious Trump has yet to sue Noel Casler, a comedian who worked with him on Celebrity Apprentice and says it was common knowledge on set that he habitually snorted Adderall, an amphetamine prescribed for attention deficit disorder and the dyslexia that often accompanies it.

Might this have been Trump’s last UNGA?

In the afternoon the Senate did something that hinted the president might at last be vulnerable not just to impeachment by the Democratic House, but to conviction and removal by the Republican-controlled upper chamber. Without Republican objection, the Senate resolved that the White House should comply with the law and hand over a whistleblower’s report, deemed of “urgent concern” by an independent inspector general, which said that Trump had made improper undertakings in a phone call with a foreign leader.

Then came a bigger bombshell. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced what she had long been resisting, an official impeachment inquiry. The trigger was an allegation, partially confirmed from both his own and his lawyer’s oddly loose lips, that he had pressured the new president of Ukraine, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, to dig up — fabricate might be more accurate — dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic frontrunner for his job.

It was suggested that Trump had suspended arms sales to Ukraine to assist its fight against Russian-backed revanchanists, then insinuated to Zelensky, Mafia-style , that the arms would flow again if Kiev would do him a small favour:  say that, as vice president, Biden had intervened on behalf of a corrupt Ukrainian gas company of which his son was a board member.

Pelosi is a shrewd operator and her earlier caution had merit. She could see House Democrats adopting articles of impeachment on a straight partisan vote, Senate Republicans refusing to convict, and Trump then eking out re-election, boasting to his base that he had yet again thwarted an attempted coup. 

Does Pelosi think the risk of that happening has now receded? Or was she bowing the demands of a growing majority of her caucus? One hopes the former because, one way or another, the fight is going to get very ugly.

Trump, as of late Tuesday, had agreed to hand over a transcript of his conversation with Zelensky and the White House was reportedly negotiating a deal that would let the whistleblower talk to congressional investigators. Look for the transcript to be spun preemptively, or tampered with, and the whistleblower to be viciously smeared.

Trump told us how he is going to play this in his UN speech: dark anti-democratic forces are out to get him.

“Even in free nations we see alarming challenges to liberty. The small number of social media platforms  are acquiring immense power over what we can see and what we are allowed to say. A permanent political class is openly disdainful, dismissive and defiant of the will of the people. A faceless bureaucracy operates in secret and weakens democratic rule. Media and academic institutions push flat out assaults on our histories, traditions and values.”

Morbid Phenomena

If you’re a regular reader of opinion columns, you have probably encountered this chestnut, or some variant of it, from the Italian Neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid phenomena.”

Gramsci wrote these words in jail where he’d been put by Mussolini. They were not part of a fully fleshed out work and there has been a good deal of debate over precisely what he meant.

“Morbid phenomena” was probably not a reference to fascism, the rise of which after World War I Gramsci saw as part of the old order’s death throes. He had in mind instead what Lenin, likewise using a medical metaphor, called the “infantile disorder” of “ultraleftists” bent on seizing power before the proletariat was ready to rule (or be ruled).

President Mbeki called his critics on the left “infantile” in much the same sense, seeing them as enemies of the National Democratic Revolution in their fractious impatience to bring it on before conditions were ripe.

However one interprets Gramsci’s dictum, over here in the US one has a powerful sense of being in an interregnum between old and new. It is easy to think of Trump and Trumpism as a “morbid phenomenon”, but are they really the obstacle to the birth of something new? Or will the blockage be an American version of “infantile leftism”? Bernie Sanders, for example.

Stanley Greenberg, the political consultant who helped Bill Clinton to victory in 1992 and Nelson Mandela in 1994 (he persuaded the ANC to adopt “A Better Life for All” as its slogan rather than its first choice, the faintly threatening “Now is the Time”) has a new book out. Its encouraging title: “RIP GOP”. 

Greenberg’s thesis is that the Democratic blue wave which battered the Republicans in 2018’s congressional elections is going to be followed by a veritable blue tsunami  next year as “the New America” — his term — rises up to oust Trump’s reactionary white minority regime.

Overwhelmingly Democratic, New Americans were born in the 80’s or more recently, often in another country. Increasingly secular, they are open-minded on matters such as gay marriage and abortion and think climate change is a real threat. They live in and around cities, are offended by inequality and discrimination, and believe that openness to the world and its people is the foundation of the country’s vitality. They look to government as a force for positive change.  

These Americans elected Barack Obama, a man of mixed race with an activist agenda and a name that made him sound like a Muslim. 

In response, the Old America mounted a counterrevolution and picked Trump to lead it on a platform of backward-looking nationalism. Now, energised by Trump’s utter hatefulness, the New is going to come storming back and deal the GOP such a crushing defeat that it will have to reinvent itself or die.

So, at least, argues Greenberg, and he does have his finger on the electorate’s pulse more firmly than most. He has conducted the surveys and focus groups that back his case. Hillary Clinton has herself admitted that she ignored his advice in 2016 — pay more attention to the white working class — to her cost.

“The pessimism of the intellect, the optimism of the will” is another Gramsci-ismthat fits nicely with these times. There are moments in “RIP GOP”, with its signs of hasty editing, when one worries that will may be getting the better of intellect. And while I would never call my choice to replace Trump “infantile”, I do worry that Elizabeth Warren, though no Sanders,  may be a little further to the left than even the New America is ready to accept.


Just before Christmas 2008, after Wall Street’s Ponzi artists drove the global economy off a cliff, General Motors shuttered its Moraine assembly plant outside Dayton, Ohio, throwing a thousand out of work and the middle class.

Today the facility is humming again courtesy of Cao Dewang. The billionaire Chinese industrialist, who also goes by Cho Tak Wong, barely survived as a labourer during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Then he founded what has become one of the world’s largest makers of glass for cars and trucks, the Fuyao Group.

The company anthem touts a fierce belief in transparency. “For the sake of transparency we’ve gone through difficulties…we’ve struggled every bit,” employees dutifully  sing. In light of a new documentary, American Factory, this seems to be more than just a bad pun on Fuyao’s product.

Cao gave filmmakers Stephen Bognar and Julia Reichert surprisingly fetterless access to himself and his employees, both Chinese and American, as they launched Fuyao Glass America. The result, now streaming on Netflix, is the first offering from Barack and Michele Obama’s new company, Higher Ground Productions.

What inspired Cao to invest half a billion dollars in the US rust belt is never made quite clear. There is no commentary in this fly-on-the-wall film. But to judge from his pep talks to Chinese staff seconded to get the new factory up and running, his love for what he calls “the motherland”  was a factor.

“The most important thing,” he says, ”is not how much money we earn but how this will change Americans’ views of Chinese and towards China. Every Chinese person should do things for our country and our people.” Profit looms larger as a motive the longer it takes Fuyao America to start making one.

There is a defeated quality to the locals who find work at the plant. They look out of shape physically, especially next to the trim Chinese who talk about the “fat fingers” of their American co-workers. Many are no longer young. They have struggled since GM went away. They’re grateful for the job Fuyao is offering, even though they’re taking home less than half of what they used to make. 

Quite quickly, the strangers they welcomed as economic liberators start to feel like occupiers, especially after Cao cans the Americans he’d hired to run the plant and replaces them with executives from headquarters back in Fuqin.  “We hired Americans to work as our managers and supervisors”, he tells his team. “Our expectation was, we could trust them and pay them a high salary and they would serve the company. Why didn’t they? I think that are hostile to the Chinese.”

At various points in the film, Cao seems to despair of his investment. “American workers are not efficient and output is low. I can’t manage them. When we try to manage them, they threaten to get help from a union.”  The new Fuyao America president urges managers in an all-Chinese meeting to “use our wisdom to guide them and help them, because we are better than them.”

Things get really ugly when the union drive picks up. “I know there are some union activists here because I have people who spy for me,” says a Chinese supervisor. He holds up a photo on his cell phone. It’s of him and an African-African co-worker, looking like good buddies. “Here is one…Look, we get along pretty well. You won’t see him here in two week’s time.”

The film ends with Cao touring the plant with one of his senior people who proudly points to all the robots he’s having installed and give a running tally of the workers they’ll be replacing. Output will improve dramatically, he promises. “We can’t get the work done now. They’re too slow.”

Still Crazy

“Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland
But I think it’s all overdone.
Exaggerating this, exaggerating that,
They don’t have no fun.”

That’s a verse from “Have a Good Time” on Paul Simon’s 1975 album “Still Crazy After All These Years”. Simon may have had in mind a famous essay by Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, published eleven years earlier in Harper’s magazine but ringing no less true today.

The propensity to believe that nothing is as it seems and that demonic forces are out there plotting to destroy or take control of “our” America is as old as the Republic. In the late 18th century, the hidden enemy was the Illuminati, a group of utopians founded in Bavaria, then it was the Masons’ turn, then Catholics’.

In 1835, no less a figure than Samuel Morse, inventor of the eponymous code, wrote: “A conspiracy exists…its plans are already in operation…we are attacked in a vulnerable quarter which cannot be defended by our ships, our forts or our armies.” The supposed mastermind? Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich,  said to be financing Jesuit missionaries to act as his agents. Such nativist nonsense was common throughout the 19th century.

By the 1950’s the politics of paranoia had become primarily a phenomenon of the right, typified by Senator Joseph McCarthy who wanted people to think  that figures as eminent Secretary of State George Marshall — he of the Plan — were part of a Communist fifth column. McCarthy died in disgrace, but his method survived him as did his evil gnome, Roy Cohn, who went on to become a consigliere to one Donald Trump.

Today, in Trump, we have a president who revels in conspiracy theories every bit as bizarre and poisonous as those peddled by John Welch, founder of the John Birch society and keeper of the McCarthy flame, who thought it possible that President Dwight Eishenhower was “a Communist assigned the specific job of being a political front”.

Of the right wing conspiracists of his day Hofstadter wrote, “they feel dispossessed” as if “America has been largely taken away from their kind…They are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.” They believed that “the old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots.”

Sound familiar? The historian could just as well have been describing the way Trump devotees see the world — a world they are are only too easily persuaded is run by people who are plotting against them and their country. People like Bill and Hillary Clinton, who Trump has repeatedly insinuated are murderers (most recently of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein), and Barack Obama, who Trump for years insisted had faked his birth certificate.

Trump and his media surrogates like the radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and the line-up of Tru-mbongi on Fox “News” routinely spout conspiracy theories to fuel loathing of Democrats, “cosmopolitans and intellectuals”, and whoever is running the “Deep State”.  Your America, they tell the base, is being “invaded” by Latin American gangs, murderers and rapists and by Muslim terrorists bent on imposing sharia law. And what does treasonous elite want? Open borders, of course. Why? To “replace” you with brown people who’ll work for lower pay — or live off your taxes in the form of public assistance — then vote for Democrats who “want to destroy America”.

Stoke the paranoia hard enough in a country where paranoiacs have ready access to the weapons of war, and it really will strike deep in the heartland — as we just saw in El Paso.

Can you forgive her?

Donald Trump is in the habit of telling citizens he doesn’t like to go back to the countries they or their antecedents came from. In the case of his Mar-a-Lago chum Lana Marks, he asked nicely. The Senate foreign relations committee has recommended that her appointment as ambassador to SA be confirmed. She should be headed over as soon as the full chamber agrees.

The daughter of a Lithuanian Jew who emigrated to SA in the 30’s, Marks is seen as an unusual choice. Perhaps she will be a good one. Good people have represented vile leaders. Herbert Beukes, Pretoria’s man in Washington in the late 80’s springs to mind. His heart was in the right place and he let you know what he thought of PW Botha.

Marks is a supremely talented entrepreneur and networker. The Marie Antoinettes of this Gilded Age may buy her handbags priced at four times the US median family income, but she is not one herself. She simply knows how to take advantage of her customers’ grotesque values. 

It is much to her credit that, as she told the Senate committee, she speaks three of SA’s four most-spoken languages. One has to wonder, though, what, in whichever tongue, she will say on behalf of a minority regime run by a short-fused bigot for whom Africa is a scatological epithet.

Trump and the claque of snarling lickspittles that is his Republican Party control the White House and the Senate against the wishes of most Americans as expressed at the ballot box.  Abetted by a constitution that gives disproportionate voice to the emptiest and least diverse parts of the country, they have imposed themselves on the majority through gerrymandering, lies, deliberate attempts to keep people of colour from the polls, campaign finance laws designed to facilitate state capture by their thieving croneys, and — let us not mince words — treason. 

Former special counsel Robert Mueller may have sounded his age in congressional hearings last week, but his report stands: Trump knowingly, and happily, accepted Vladimir Putin’s help to get elected and then tried to impede the ensuing investigation.

When its id is under control, this is a wonderful country, which is why I became a citizen. But the id — a seething incubus of flag-wrapped bigotry, paranoia, resentment and cross-burning fundamentalism — is always lurking, gun in hand, ready to be triggered like Marvel’s The Hulk. This Hulk is a hero to none save the Trumpistas. They are counting on it to return them to power for another four years.

Any other president riding an economy as hot as the present one would be looking at almost certain reelection, especially given the opposition Democrats’ unerring aim for their own feet. But Trump isn’t any other president. He’s a demonstrable sociopath. Most Americans know he’s unift. He has never broken 50 per cent in respectable opinion polls and never will when the votes count.

His only hope is to unleash the beast in hopes of eking out  another win in an electoral college that magnifies the clout of the Trump rump at the majority’s expense. 

In Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother revs up his version of Trump’s  MAGA hat people with two-minute hates targeted at someone called Goldstein. Trump’s Goldsteins have names like Ilhan Omar,  Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley — the so-called “squad” of progressive first term House members. They hate America, they want to destroy it, they should go back to the countries they came from, Trump brays to his infatuated mob, then looks on obscenely as it takes up the chant “Send her back, send her back”.  

Ambassador Beukes had to contend with daily protests against apartheid.  Maybe Ambassador Marks should have to endure the same, protesting the moral squalor of the regime she serves.

Not coming home

“Tariffs are…most importantly a powerful way to get companies to come to the USA and to get companies that have left us for other lands to COME BACK HOME,” President Trump tweeted last Friday (his caps). The facts have yet to bear him out, but if they ever do, it is unlikely to be in ways that reopen the shuttered mills of the rust belt or provide much succour for his base.

As of now, reports the business consultancy AT Kearney, Trump’s trade war with China is indeed causing US companies to diversify their supply chains. But not home. They are turning to  other Asian countries, many of which enjoy preferential access to the US market as developing nations (at least for the time being). Mexico is also getting extra business.

But let us say that over time Trump’s vision pans out, US manufacturers reshore and foreign firms locate factories in the US to avoid tariffs . It is still hard to see how his approach promotes the return of well-paid manufacturing jobs he promised on the campaign trail.

One sector that does stand to benefit from Trumponomics is robotics, Brian Gahsman, portfolio manager of the Alphacentric Global Innovations Fund, tells CNBC. His contention: to remain competitive if Trump’s tariffs persuade them to relocate production to the US, firms will replace cheap foreign workers not with expensive American ones but with machines. Firms looking to export to the US will face the same imperative to automate.

The authors of a paper, “Robots, Reshoring and the Lot of Low-Skill Workers”, presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference earlier this year, report that reshoring has been on the rise since 2000, well before the new protectionism was a factor, driven by a combination of rising labour costs in China and advances in automation. 

They cite the example of Adidas which relocated production back to the US and Germany from China and India, with robots taking over all phases of production other than the lacing of shoes (which is apparently still too difficult for a robot). Work performed by more than 1000 in Asia is now done by 160. The latter are much better paid, obviously, but they are much more skilled — engineers rather than production line workers.

“Reshoring,” the paper concludes, “is positively associated with labor market conditions for high-skilled labour but not for low-skilled labor, which means it is associated with increasing inequality…Renegotiating trade deals will not be a highly effective tool if the goal is to raise wages and employment of industrial workers at home.”

Reshoring may not be such a wonderful thing for Africa, either, if Trump gets his way, not that that would bother him in the least.

Ian Goldin, former CEO of the Development Bank of South Africa, warned in an arresting documentary broadcast by the BBC World Service in April that the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence in advanced economies “could mean that the age of outsourcing production to developing countries is coming to an end” — short-circuiting Africa’s hopes of Asian-style export-driven industrialisation that initiatives like America’s African Growth and Opportunity Act were intended to promote.

“The politics of protectionism will promote this”, Goldin cites the head of the UN’s International Labour Organisation as saying. “The demand to repatriate manufacturing to advanced countries has never been higher, although it is not jobs but AI and robotic processes that are coming home.”

Goldin’s colleague at the Oxford Martin School, Carl Benedikt Frey, has a different take in his new book, The Technology Trap: Capital, Labour and Power in the Age of Automation. He does not rule out that the industrial West may be headed for a Luddite backlash against labour-replacing technology — hard on the heels of the heels of the populist backlash against globalisation that gave us Trump. 


Let us now praise some un-famous men: the several hundred African conscripts killed or wounded fighting on the orders of their French overlords to liberate the Italian island of  Elba from the Nazis 75 years ago last Monday.

The big news in Marina di Campo this week was that the beach had been re-sanded in time for the tan-seeking summer crowds. That it had once been littered with dead and dying Senegalese tirailleurs (riflemen) — grandfathers, perhaps, of the immigrants now pushing Europe to the xenophobic right  — went unremarked.

I would not have known about Operation Brassard either had not my father covered it for the Associated Press. He landed with the first wave. In the cable he dictated from a hospital bed next day, he reported: “Senegalese never faltered even though many fell”. They had carried him to shelter after shrapnel put him down.

Victory was hard earned. The first troops ashore were stranded as German mortars, machine guns, artillery and phosphorus forced those still at sea to turn back and seek a less defended bay. Of 48 British commandos who went in to deal with a German flak barge whose 88’s flanked the primary landing beach, 38 did not come back.

Between the outbreak of the war in September 1939 and the fall of France in June 1940, the French mobilised some 100 000 troops from their West African possessions, writes Myron Eichenberg in Colonial Conscripts. In the face of blitzkrieg, “Africans fought tenaciously and retreated in orderly fashion before overwhelmingly superior forces”.

10 000 died between May and June 1940, Eichenberg estimates.  Another 15 000, including Leopold Senghor who would lead Senegal to independence, were taken prisoner.  As many as half did not survive. Captured Africans, read an order from the German high command, were “to be treated with the greatest rigour”.

While it still controlled French West Africa, Vichy France conscripted Africans to defend against British invasion. After November 1942, these and subsequent recruits found themselves serving De Gaulle’s Free French.  Many, according to the Italian writer Francesca Camminoli in her deeply researched — and very moving — novel, La Guerra di Boubacar (Boubacar’s War), were more or less press-ganged from rural villages. Men like these would form the core of the Free French Army’s rank and file until France’s liberation.

Did it make sense to sacrifice them against a well-dug-in but ultimately beleaguered German garrison on Elba? By June 1944, the allies had won back the mainland across from the island that had briefly housed Napoleon as well as the surrounding Ligurian sea. Some French authors like to paint Elba as the inspiration for the Guns of Navarone — threatening vital sea lanes with its mighty guns — but that is a reach.

This was more about restoring French amour propre after the humiliation of 1940 and the shame of Vichy. As my father wrote, “the action provided a definite lift for General (Jean) de Lattre Tassigny’s forces. They had hoped to invade France (on D-Day, 11 days earlier) but failing in this, they were willing to settle for any operation in which they stood a chance of killing Germans.” They actually did invade France — from the south — the following August in Operation Dragoon.

The Senegalese veterans were not to taste the fruits of final victory or share in the accolades. Before there was no more war left for newly freed Frenchmen to fight and reclaim some honour in, De Gaulle ordered the “blanchissement” — whitening — of the French army. The fact that France’s contribution to the allied cause had relied so heavily on its African subjects was not compatible with De Gaulle’s conception of French greatness or national morale.

So the Africans were abruptly ordered home before 1944 was out.  My father next saw them in 1954, defending France’s collapsing empire in Indochina, a job Frenchmen themselves no longer wanted.