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Opinionista

Dark days in sunny USA

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Phillip van Niekerk is the editorial director of Scrolla Africa. In a previous life, he spent 20 years as a journalist in South Africa, working as an Africa correspondent for the London Observer and Editor of the Mail & Guardian from 1996 to 2000.

It may not be his intention, but US President Donald Trump’s actions are bringing America closer to a long-overdue reckoning with race and reform of the police that tackles the structure of law enforcement.

It is a reflection of how dark American politics has become that Donald Trump’s flailing re-election campaign is attempting to reboot itself through armed invasions of American cities.

Last week goons in camouflage uniforms without identification driving in unmarked rental vans began arresting and tear-gassing the small army of graffiti artists and Black Lives Matter activists still congregating nightly in the centre of Portland, Oregon.

Few had heard of the unit of Border Patrol agents that was dug out of the cellars of the Department of Homeland Security to commit these acts. The regular military refuses to be used against American citizens exercising their right to peaceful protest.

Like other centres, Portland witnessed massive demonstrations protesting against police thuggery and racial injustice in the wake of the suffocation death of George Floyd under the knee of a policeman in Minneapolis on 25 May. By last week, the crowds had dwindled, but not gone away.

There had been a few isolated incidents of violence — in one case a man attacked a policeman with a hammer — and a dozen protestors have been charged with federal crimes. But the offence that triggered the invasion was the spray-painting of graffiti on the federal courthouse.

Portland bore scant resemblance to Trump’s lurid portrayal of it and other cities as urban hellscapes of weak-kneed Democratic governments too scared to confront violent anarchists intent on mayhem and the abolition of the police.

Portland is a progressive post-industrial 21st-century city that is a global centre of semiconductor research, the headquarters of Nike and a world leader in cancer treatment and other hi-tech life sciences. Despite a history of problems with its own police department, Portland offers the sharpest of contrasts to Trump’s Gotham: the casinos of Atlantic City and the phallic glitz of Trump Tower.

But Trump is not one to be deterred by reality. To project himself as the defender of middle-class America from what he confusingly terms left-wing fascists he decided to send in the Antifa-busters. It would be all the more helpful if they could ignite the kind of violence they were supposedly sent in to stop.

Kate Brown, Governor of Oregon, called it political theatre that had nothing to do with public safety and officials in the city and the state called on the Feds to leave. The action brought the crowds back on to the streets, and for the past few nights thousands of women have been standing in solidarity with their hands up, singing: “Please don’t shoot me”.

The peaceful nature of the protests, indicating that the action has backfired, did not deter Trump from claiming victory or threatening to take the Portland operation “national”, with Chicago, where there has been an upsurge in violent crime, being next in line.

Perhaps Trump, hoping to project himself as the law and order candidate, was disappointed that instead of an orgy of looting and arson, Black Lives Matter has channelled its anger into a peaceful, thoughtful, morally just movement appealing to hundreds of thousands of young people of all races who took to the streets, and winning the sympathy of the majority of Americans. Thanks to this activity, America is closer to a long-overdue reckoning with race, and reform of the police that tackles the structure of law enforcement.

The rightness of the cause was emphasised at the weekend by the death of Congressman John Lewis, the last surviving speaker from the march on Washington in 1963, who was beaten almost to death during the civil rights protests and whose story of rising from humble origins to a lifetime of selfless service is the very antithesis of the man in the Oval office.

At this moment, of all moments, Trump has decided to go full white supremacist. And though Portland, which is 77% white, is one of the least diverse big cities in the country, there can be no mistaking who he imagines the looters and arsonists to be.

Trump is appealing to middle-class fears by warning that his presumptive Democratic opponent Joe Biden wants to “abolish the suburbs” by, yes, allowing black people from inner cities to move into their neighbourhoods. Racial segregation is one of the oldest racial tropes as Trump well knows. He and his father Fred Trump were sued by the Justice Department in 1973 for refusing to rent to black people at their housing developments in New York.

Trump has made a point of opposing the toppling of statues and the renaming of military bases named after Confederate Generals who fought the Civil War in defence of slavery, even though the military leadership has indicated that it is beyond time for such a change.

None of this is helping Trump. A Washington Post/ABC poll on Sunday showed Biden 15 points ahead in the race for November, a deep hole for Trump to climb out of. Biden, who is gradually unveiling one of the most progressive policy platforms in US history, is well ahead in the battleground states that will determine the electoral college.

A landslide of this dimension would comfortably deliver the Senate to the Democrats and potentially drive Republicans from power for a generation.

Why, then, is Trump behaving as if he is standing for Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan rather than President of the United States? Maybe his gut tells him to go for a repeat of 2016 when he won on the back of white grievance and resentment by promising to build a wall to keep out Mexicans and ban all Muslims from coming to the US.

Trump will also be relying on voter suppression and foreign interference with Russian intelligence agencies now laundering disinformation about Biden directly into a Senate probe being conducted by Ron Johnson (R, Wisconsin) instead of having to rely on WikiLeaks. Who knows what else is being cooked up.

There is a historical precedent that Trump supporters are pointing to. In 1988, the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, Governor of Massachusetts, was up 18 points in July, but lost convincingly to George HW Bush in November of that year. 

This was indeed largely thanks to a racist campaign and an attack ad about a felon, Willie Horton, who was released on a weekend furlough in Dukakis’s state and raped a woman in Maryland. The ad was produced by Roger Ailes, who eight years later founded Fox News with the backing of Rupert Murdoch.

But the US is much more polarised today and voting preferences are baked in. It is doubtful that there are many Americans who do not have opinions of Trump one way or another. It is only a tiny sliver in the middle that can still be swayed in the three months until election day.

In 1988, people of colour, the base of the Democratic Party, were 15% of the electorate. By 2016 they were a quarter and they will soon be a third of all voters. Trump has to win the white vote by margins that would have been blowout victories in the 20th century.

Given how focused Trump is on winning at all costs, one can expect that he will do everything in his power, literally by hook or by crook, to get re-elected — and he does have a few options left.

Despite the assertion of CNN journalist Jim Acosta that the president’s only remaining aides are “Kool-aid drinkers or next of kin”, some members of his team are tethered to reality and aware of how endangered the administration has become. Expect a huge push in the next few weeks to revive the drowning campaign. The invasions of the cities are but one facet. Trump will be looking to use the new stimulus and aid package that Congress is now debating to indulge in old-fashioned pork-barrel politics.

He will also be relying on voter suppression and foreign interference with Russian intelligence agencies now laundering disinformation about Biden directly into a Senate probe being conducted by Ron Johnson (R, Wisconsin) instead of having to rely on WikiLeaks. Who knows what else is being cooked up.

There is no doubt that the smear campaign against Biden will intensify, though attempts to portray him as senile have not stuck and more Americans think Trump is mentally incapacitated than they do his challenger. But the one defining truth of this campaign — and the reason why it is probably too late to save the president — is Trump’s catastrophic mishandling of the worst public health crisis in a century.

Under questioning from Wallace, Trump refused to publicly commit to accepting the results of the election if he lost. The truth is that he would probably be too incompetent to get away with a coup.

The numbers of dead from Covid has passed 140,000 and continue to reach record numbers in Republican-run states like Texas, Florida and Arizona that opened up too early. There is still no national plan to deal with the even greater numbers that are expected in the fall and Trump is attempting to phase out funding for testing and tracing the virus.

Trump’s failure to get his head around even the most basic concepts of the pandemic was on embarrassing display in an interview on Fox News with Chris Wallace on Sunday when he found himself fact-checked in real-time. He continues to insist that the number of cases in the US is so high because the US is testing more than anyone else and made a number of other moronic and easily disprovable claims.

In an exhaustive investigation on the same day, The New York Times showed how the US’s inability to control the pandemic was a massive failure of leadership. It flowed from a rush by Trump and his team to “embrace overly rosy predictions to proclaim victory”, prematurely open up the economy and just move on.

Trump’s handling of the pandemic has politicised the wearing of masks, the prudent lockdowns by even Republican governors and the return to school. He has mobilised crazies to rise up against governors implementing the recommendations of his own government, set his attack dogs to savage the character of Dr Anthony Fauci, the most respected infectious health expert in the country, and sowed division at every turn. Amid so much suffering and death, he has painted himself as the victim.

If all else fails, there are fears that the invasion of Portland is a dress rehearsal for something even more sinister — if Trump loses the election in November and refuses to vacate the Oval Office. That might sound like crazy talk, but a lot of people would not put anything past Trump or his oily tongued Attorney-General William Barr, the maestro of cover-ups.

Under questioning from Wallace, Trump refused to publicly commit to accepting the results of the election if he lost. The truth is that he would probably be too incompetent to get away with a coup.

Trump, who calls himself a very stable genius and is regarded by his cult followers as having almost mystical powers for having pulled off an unthinkable win in 2016, is seriously out of touch with America.

People are just sick to death of the pathological lying, the grandiose narcissism, the incomparable ignorance and the unending chaos. It will be hard to win when that’s what the majority of the country thinks about you. DM

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