The large vote for Donald Trump shocked and puzzled many people. How could such an obvious clown and narcissist have such huge support ? The answer, not often comprehended by non-Americans, is that Trump has put himself at the head of not one but two immensely powerful populist surges.
The first derives from the collapse of the well-paid hard hat jobs of yore. In the 1950s auto and steel workers (and many others) could earn well enough to live middle class lives and send their children to college, earning upward social mobility for the next generation. They exemplified the American Dream, knew it and gloried in it: they lived in God’s Own Country.
But from the 1970s on all this was taken from them and indeed many such people found their wages frozen at 1973 levels for the rest of their working lives, while many others found themselves flipping burgers for a third of their old wage. Hopes of upward mobility vanished as college fees escalated out of sight.
Globalization has robbed such people of the American Dream. They are angry and embittered. They still live the Protestant ethic, cling to family values and work hard but it doesn’t work any more. They feel that the politically correct elite – the Hillary Clintons – ignore and look down at them. They feel that God’s Own Country – their country – has been taken away from them, and they want it back.
Overlapping with this group is a larger group of Americans who grew up confident that America was a white, Protestant country. True, it had let in a large number of Irish and Italian Catholics and quite a few Jews but these groups had learnt to conform to American traditions. But in recent time the black population has become far more assertive and has forced its way to the centre of American life, while large numbers of Asians have poured in and far larger numbers still of Hispanics.
Suddenly people are told that whites will soon become merely the largest minority, that Catholics now outnumber Protestants and that Muslims will soon outnumber Jews. Many regard this process with dismay: the whole character of the country is changing. They never voted for this. Their country too is being taken away from them and they too want it back.
This is why so many Trump voters have supported Trump’s mad insistence that he won the election. They feel so passionate about their causes that they cannot really conceive of defeat and certainly they aren’t ready to give up.
The cry that “we want our country back” was also what drove the Brexit revolt and it lurks powerfully behind a host of populist movements in Europe, particularly among those displaced by globalization and those dismayed by the influx of Muslim immigrants. But it applies elsewhere too: Hindus in India use it against Muslims, just as Muslims have long used it against the few remaining Hindus in Pakistan.
Buddhists in Sr Lanka use it against Tamils and Buddhists in Myanmar use it against Muslims. Globalizers may say the nation state is obsolete but most people only feel comfortable in a nation state, their nation state.
This applies in South Africa too. People of all races are disgusted by the country’s decline under ANC rule – the ubiquitous corruption, the ruined municipalities, the electricity and railways that don’t work, the potholes, weeds and broken pavements even in Sandton.
Most whites won’t say the country was better under apartheid but it is easy to find people of colour who say so. But what everybody feels is that the New South Africa, the Rainbow Nation that they were promised – a land of high standards and racial amity – has indeed been taken from them.
One response, of course, is emigration and another is resignation and despair. But most people can’t or don’t want to emigrate. They want to semigrate to Cape Town or to kempt little towns on the coast or in the Cape winelands, places which still seem like the well-ordered South Africa they used to live in and like the New South Africa they wanted. But this merely means escaping from the country’s problems, it doesn’t solve them. For that people hunger, above all, for leadership which is, they feel, in short supply all round.
The fact has to be faced that the only people who have managed to provide South Africa with a cohesive ruling group are the Afrikaners. Plenty of white English-speakers served well enough as government ministers, provincial or civic leaders but they never provided a cohesive ruling group or even a single national leader between 1910 and 1994.
Similarly, there have been able Coloured, Indian and African ministers but apart from a brief period under Mandela the ANC has never looked like providing a competent national government. Indeed, it is difficult to come up with even a town which the ANC has ruled competently and not looted.
Moreover, ANC governments have got steadily weaker, more divided, less competent and more poorly led. The present government is virtually leaderless and so divided that on the crucial issue of public sector pay we actually have two ministers fighting one another in court – with the President backing neither one. This government will have to steer South Africa through an unprecedentedly fierce economic storm, a test it seems certain to fail. The government may well disintegrate, the state might fail.
By contrast Afrikaners have built Solidarity and AfriForum, indisputably the most powerful and impressive civic organizations in the country and their political wing, so to speak, the Freedom Front +, has also been putting on muscle,
One of the most important political developments of 2020, virtually unnoticed by the media, was the decision of the Freedom Front + to back the idea of an independent Western Cape. This idea has wide and cross-racial support in the Cape and support for this idea will doubtless grow further as the national government gets deeper and deeper into trouble.
The Freedom Front + will use this issue in the 2021 local elections in the Cape. This could gravely embarrass the ruling DA which has kept scrupulously silent on the issue of Cape autonomy, which it cannot support while it retains ambitions of national power – for, of course, many DA voters in the Western Cape are greatly attracted by the notion of an independent Cape. Thus far they have ignored the Cape party and other political amateurs who have raised the issue but the sight of an established party with sitting councillors and MPs taking up the issue could well prove rather different.
Moreover the DA is at an awkward juncture. Its new leader is trying to play himself in against the difficult background of a previous leader looking over his shoulder. The party has lost momentum and there is also much local dissatisfaction with the DA administration of Cape Town. And the DA will have to face destructive opposition from Patricia de Lille’s party which the ANC will try to use as a battering ram.
The DA will look back in fury at its decision to rescue de Lille in 2010 when her party was disintegrating, let alone its decision to hand her the Cape Town mayoralty the very next year. With de Lille now a national minister and the DA still in travail there is little doubt who got the best of that mistaken bargain.
Many different outcomes are possible but one of them is a weakened DA having to depend on a revitalized Freedom Front + as a coalition partner in Cape Town, driving a fired-up campaign for Cape independence. With that the genie would be out of the bottle and there would be no chance of putting it back in there.
This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.