Xi to the rescue

Sometimes it helps to have a narcissistic ignoramus in the White House. As we hover near the edge of a new Korean war this may one of those times.

China’s Xi Jinping has the measure of Donald Trump having spent a couple of days with him at his Mar a Lago beach palace last April. That would explain why, on Monday, he was happy to make unanimous the UN Security Council vote to tighten sanctions on North Korea. He knows a problem child he sees one. Pyongyang’s Kim Jong Un has company.

In fact, as the Korean crisis escalates, the other guy with odd hair may be the more alarming of the two. Kim may soon have the ability to land a nuclear warhead on a US city, but if anyone is going to fire the first shot, at this point it looks more likely to be Trump. That’s what would be keeping me awake if I were Xi.

We don’t know how his tete a tete with Trump really went, but thanks to the Washington Post’s sources, we now have verbatim Trump’s conversations with two other leaders, both US friends. Whoever leaked the transcripts clearly wanted to give the world a heads up.

Trump’s January 27 phone calls with Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Neto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirm that he is an obtuse, ill-informed and self-obsessed bully.

Candidate Trump, on the stump last year, preposterously insisted that Mexico would pay for the wall he promised to build on the southern border. Pena Neto has been adamant that Mexico will not pay. Trump now demanded that the Mexican stop contradicting him because “the press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that…If you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall then I do not want to meet with you guys any more.”

As infantile as that was, it was in the call with the Australian that the depth and purity of Trump’s crassness truly shone.

Turnbull cut a deal with President Obama last year under the which US would take in up to 1250 migrants Australia held in camps offshore. Try as he might, the PM could not make Trump understand that these people, ”economic refugees from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan”, had been interned not “because they are bad people” but to shut down “people smugglers” by discouraging their wouldbe clientele from buying passage on leaky boats. “We said if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if you are a Nobel prize-winning genius, we will not let you in.”

Trump would not listen. The “stupid” deal was “going to kill me” because “I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people in the country…I guarantee you they are bad…They are not going to be wonderful people who go on to work for the local milk people.” Turnbull must have wondered what the president was on about. He tried again. Trump finally heard the word “boats”. “What is the thing with boats?” he asked. “Why do you discriminate against boats?”

Turnbull gave it one more shot, earning this from Trump: “I have had it…This is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was pleasant. This is ridiculous.” Would Trump like to discuss North Korea, the prime minister asked, but Trump wasn’t interested. “This is crazy,” he said. The call was over.

Diehard Trump-splainers like Dilbert creator Scott Adams (who is starting to sound as clever as his strip’s pointy-haired boss ) want us to see in these exchanges a brilliant dealmaker whose unorthodox approach to statecraft will yield terrific victories while outraging the establishment. When it comes to dealing with North Korea, its ICBMs and nuclear warheads, I have a different theory.

The last thing Beijing wants is another hot round of the never officially ended Korean war. It would likely lead to the devastation of Koreas North and South, millions of casualties, a massive influx of refugees from the North, quite possibly the return of American forces all the way up to the Yalu river, and conceivably, an exchange of nuclear weapons.

The Kim dynasty, as deranged as it may seem to most outsiders, is not suicidal. It wants to survive. Hence its desire for nukes both as a deterrent and for bargaining purposes. Domestically, it needs to perpetuate the narrative, familiar to readers of 1984, of being constantly at war. That does not mean it seeks an actual fight.

The real danger comes from the White House being occupied by an ignorant, intemperate, insecure boob whose own party is starting to desert him as his polls tank and whose presidency is on the brink of historic failure. Look to China to save the day and give Trump something he can call a win. The US will pay a price in lost regional clout, but that was ebbing anyway with Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.


John Brown

Once a month I ride the Capitol Limited between Washington and Cumberland 140 miles to the west at the foot of the Allegheny mountains as a volunteer lecturer. The railroad follows the sinuous Potomac river and the remains of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal that run beside it. My job is to talk to passengers about the history of what they are seeing from the observation car.

Half way along the route we come to Harper’s Ferry where the Potomac is joined from the south by the Shenandoah and passes through the Blue Ridge. The view, wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1783, is “one of the most stupendous in nature”. The town itself, in its heydey, was less picturesque. “An abominable little village,” an English tourist called it in 1836. “Here is the Government Manufactory of Firearms; and the smell of coal smoke and the clanking of hammers…prevent one’s enjoyment from being unmixed.”

As we approach Harper’s Ferry, I generally ask my audience what, if anything, the name John Brown means to them. I am referring to the radical abolitionist who, in October 1859, tried to seize the armoury and ignite a slave uprising that would blaze down the Shenandoah valley and into the deep South. Most of Brown’s 19-man raiding party were killed. Brown himself was captured, hastily tried and hanged that December.

A century and a half on, it is still best to have a sense of who you’re talking to when discussing Brown or the civil war between the slaveholding South and the free North it helped trigger. Donald Trump’s dog whistles have given a sense of license to diehard Confederate flag-flyers and other fans of the Lost Cause.

“John Brown’s effort was peculiar,” said Abraham Lincoln in early 1860, the year he would be elected president. “It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves in which slaves themselves refused to participate.” He saw Brown as “an enthusiast” who “broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt which ends in little else than his own execution.”

That was the carefully measured judgement of a statesman hoping save a deeply divided nation from fracture. It has lived on as the safe view up to the present day. When in doubt, it’s what I can confidently get away with on the train, placing Brown somewhere on the fruitcake spectrum between Don Quixote and Tad Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

But it’s also a distortion.

Yes, Brown committed acts of what many would classify as terrorism. As supporters of slavery fought with anti-slavery “free soilers” in the 1850’s for control of what would become Kansas, he and his men rousted two families out of their beds at the dead of night and slaughtered five of their menfolk with broadswords. The victims had all been involved in murderous attacks on free soilers. Brown openly intended his vengeance to terrorise.

And yes, you might even see parallels between Brown’s crusade and jihadism. Like the jihadis Graeme Wood interviewed for his masterful book, “The Way of Strangers — Encounters with the Islamic State”, Brown took his marching orders from an uncompromising reading of scripture. But is extremism in the name of God always wrong? As Evan Carton writes in “Patriotic Treason — John Brown and the Soul of America”, the best recent biography:

“The Christianity that is invoked in our national halls of power has nothing in common with the teachings that Brown understood to be at the heart of the faith: Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them. Do unto others that others should do unto you. Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and towering abolitionist orator of whom Trump recently said “(he’s) done an amazing job and is getting recognised more and more, I notice”, counselled his friend Brown against the Harper’s Ferry raid. He had to leave the country for a spell after it failed. But his admiration never waned.

“Like the great and good of all ages, the men whose bleeding footprints attest the immense cost of reform,” he would later say, “this our noblest American hero must wait the polishing wheels of after-coming centuries to make his glory more manifest, his worth more generally acknowledged.”

There are signs, Trumpism notwithstanding, that the polishing wheels are getting closer. Most obvious is the courageous decision by the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, to take down the city’s statues of Robert E Lee and two other Confederate generals. “These statues”, he said in a speech that has caused some to see him as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for.” And which Brown stood all but alone against.

Gridlock if Hillary wins

By this time next week, one can but hope, the 2016 US election will be over. Barring a black swan event — which is to say one as improbable as that creature — Hillary Clinton will be president-elect. Then what?

Much may depend on the decisiveness of her winning margin. The race appeared to be narrowing in the final furlong. This is not unusual. FBI director James Comey has helped, perhaps unintentionally. News that his agents had come across a fresh trove of emails that might contain some sent by Hillary via her private server while she was Secretary of State perked up Donald Trump’s flagging campaign like a line of cocaine.

With any luck, the lift will prove equally short-lived. If the polls are to be believed, Trump may come close in the national vote next Tuesday but still lose fairly decisively in the electoral college. He has refused to say whether he will accept the result, asserting that the system is rigged. As, indeed, it is. The Founding Fathers rigged it to reduce the risk of the teeming North electing a president who might try to outlaw slavery in the agrarian South.

What would be dangerous in the present instance would be a replay of the 2000 election in which the Democrat, Al Gore, won a popular majority while failing to assemble a majority of the electoral votes awarded by each state on a winner take all basis. He lost when the Supreme Court awarded Florida to the Republican, George Bush, on the basis of still disputed recount. Gore conceded gracefully. Trump has offered no grounds for believing he would behave in a like manner. There could be blood.

A result that is clean and clear will test Trump’s ability to brand defeat as triumph. Branding, an art that has quite a lot in common with lying, is his peculiar forte. A protean character, he should have no trouble finding a formula if he wants one and, as it happens, there is a claim he can legitimately make. He has performed a useful service. He has turned over the rock of American politics and exposed what lies beneath.

Trump may be the Republican candidate, but by no stretch of the imagination has he been running as a Republican. Previously of no fixed political address, he putsched the Grand Old Party with rhetorical techniques that will sound uncannily familiar to readers of Volker Ullrich’s excellent new biography of Adolph Hitler.

He has come within sight of the winning the White House because a significant percentage of American voters, predominantly white working and middle class men, feel betrayed by the GOP of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, not to mention the lengthy menu of presidential alternatives initially on offer.

Where will the okes go if and when Trump goes back to being a property developer and reality TV star?

Clinton is convinced that, for the sake of the country, she must make a play for their allegiance as profoundly as many seem to hate her. “If we don’t get this right,” she told the New Yorker’s George Packer in a recent interview, “what we’re seeing with Trump now will just be the beginning. Because when people feel that their government has failed them and the economy isn’t working for them, they are ripe for the kind of populist nationalist appeals that we’re hearing from Trump.”

“Getting it right” will be easier said than done unless the Republicans chose to draw similar conclusions from the Trump phenomenon and see their way to cooperating with the new administration. That seems unlikely unless Congress also changes hands next week. The best Hillary can hope for is a tenuous majority in the Senate while the GOP retains a lock on the House.

Things could get ugly. Doug Schoen, who worked for Bill Clinton as a pollster but has taken Rupert Murdoch’s shilling to be a Fox News talking head, drew attention to himself on Monday by announcing he had made “one of the most difficult decision of my life”: while he could not vote for Trump, he would not be voting for Hillary either. His reason: fear that the Republicans would try to turn the email affair into a new Watergate to bring down her administration or at least limit her to a single term.

“I am now convinced that we will be facing the very real possibility of a constitutional crisis should Secretary Clinton win the election…There will be no goodwill or honeymoon period for Clinton. Her…agenda will take a back seat to partisan division…with little chance on constructive legislative action.”

It is hard to see how withholding his vote from Clinton might rescue the country from Republicans bent on her political destruction through the criminalisation of political difference. But Schoen’s prediction of gridlock worse that anything Washington has yet experienced is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

MARs attack

Donald Trump, billionaire property developer, casino owner and carnival barker – America’s answer to Julius Malema — has been the clear front runner for the Republican presidential nomination since mid-July. Not only is he well ahead of the pack nationally, polling consistently at around 30% of likely Republican primary voters, he is currently the clear favourite to collect the most nominating delegates in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida when the real voting begins.


The best short answer is supplied by Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal: “The blue-collar wing of the Republican primary electorate consolidated around one candidate. The party’s white collar wing remains fragmented.”

John Judis, another astute analyst, unpacks the Trump fan base as Middle American Radicals, or MARs, a category first proposed by sociologist Donald Warren in a 1976 monograph, “The Radical Centre: Middle Americans and the Political of Alienation.” Continue reading “MARs attack”

Goading the US on AGOA

Here’s a question I have about the time the South African government is taking to remove barriers to US chicken, pork and beef exports. Is Pretoria acting in good faith? Or is Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies deliberately trying to provoke the Obama administration into suspending South Africa’s benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act? Publicly, he keeps insisting that SA is doing every it can to get things resolved. And yet one hears that every time there’s a meeting, the SA side raises some new complication.

Davies sits on the central committee of the SA Communist Party whose fingerprints are all over a draft ANC policy document which all but declares the US a hostile power. The chapter on international relations asserts that Washington has launched a new cold war against China and Russia and accuses the US of working to destabilise SA’s “progressive” friends the world over. The SACP might well consider it a propaganda coup if the US were to reimpose tariffs on key SA exports for what Davies would claim was no good reason. Look, the wicked imperialists are trying to destabilise us too! Continue reading “Goading the US on AGOA”

Buying in

If you’re desperate to emigrate to the US, have half a million dollars you’re willing to park with an American property developer without earning much of a return, and can’t qualify otherwise, you might want to take a look at the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Programme and then consider another plan.

In the decade ending September 30 last year, EB-5 visas were the ticket to a green card for just 166 South Africans, or 1,1 per cent of the 13 141 who received US immigrant visas because they, or someone in their immediate family, had what America considers to be the right stuff.

The programme is up for renewal by Congress at the end of this month. While it has not been without controversy, it is one of the few facets of US immigration policy which most politicians can agree to like, especially when it’s sending bacon to their constituents. Continue reading “Buying in”