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The almost eerie similarities between the playbooks of Julius Malema and Donald Trump


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Donald Trump and Julius Malema share a habit of insulting people and processes with whom they disagree, and generally being crude and vulgar, with open-ended sentences and veiled incitements to violence.

With conflicts destroying livelihoods and lives in western Asia and far eastern Europe, Donald Trump would be a sideshow were he not such a tragic figure, but no less a dangerous populist politician on the far right of a conventional spectrum. Never mind what he says, or how he is presented (do we not all speak favourably about ourselves?), Trump is not a very intelligent person.

Reminiscent of a cult, or the delirium of populist passions, much of Trump’s day-to-day conduct is remarkably similar to that of Julius Malema. There are times when Trump is a laughing stock, the butt of jokes, but his followers adore him and will stand by him “to the end”.

The similarities between Trump and Malema are startling. For anyone who has followed Malema’s politics and oration, claims, statements and public insults, the violence and threats implicit in his language will probably not come as a surprise. Malema and Trump, democratically elected to the leadership of their parties, over time, became — like high doses of mercury in the political system — a threat to the organs and nervous systems of the state.

On stable geniuses and superior intellect

We have to start somewhere with the comparisons… 

Trump has described himself as a “really smart” person, and a “stable genius”. Malema and his followers believe that they, and especially he, represent “the future” and “superior logic” through their belief in “scientific and sound ideas”. This self-image flows like sewage into the septic tank that is the EFF leaders, notably Floyd Shivambu and Dr Quintin Ndlozi.

Trump is obsessive about his intellect: “A major, major thing with Trump [is] that people might think he’s stupid … this was a guy that was obviously not interested in school and possibly never read a book in his life. For everyone that had known him then and years afterward, the assumption was that he had terrible grades, he was a lacklustre student at best,” according to Michael Wolff, who wrote an insider account of the Trump presidency.

In fact, Trump enrolled at Fordham University in New York in 1964, then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Economics in 1968.

Insults and vulgarity

Trump and Malema share a habit of insulting people with whom they disagree, and generally being crude and vulgar. The list of Trump’s insults is long — counting just his tweets. He has described people as “disgusting”, “crime loving”, “totally unqualified” a “threat to the state”, “losers” and “dumb”, and election systems as “rigged” and “totally rigged”. He described CNN as “a terrorist network” and Antifa as “gutless Radical Left Wack Jobs”. Trump has dismissed any and all accusations of corruption and unethical conduct against him as “fabricated”, “false” and “made up”. The list goes on, and on and on.

We may recall that Trump accused Fulton County, Georgia district attorney Fani Willis of being a “lackey” of US President Joe Biden, and called special counsel Jack Smith “deranged”. Willis and Smith, according to Trump, were part of a malicious conspiracy against the former president; he referred to them as “a fraud squad”. He called Biden “a reclamation project. Some things are just not salvageable”. He said Biden was “weak, both mentally and physically”.

Malema has dismissed political opponents and court officials (notably Chief Justice Raymond Zondo) as “factionalists” in the employ of President Cyril Ramaphosa. Recall that Trump accused former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of being “an incompetent judge” who had “embarrassed all by making very dumb political statements about me”. He said Ginsburg should resign because “her mind is shot”.

Malema demanded that Zondo be relieved of his duties, or resign. Trump has accused judges and lawyers of being placements in pursuit of factional politics. He said Willis and Smith were doing a political hack job on him. Malema has described the Zondo Commission as Mickey Mouse” and called the commission’s evidence leader Paul Pretorius a bastard.

He has said judges “must know their limits”. “Zondo,” he said, “sees it necessary to say that Ramaphosa’s election in the ANC rescued us from where we were. He effectively said if you do not elect Ramaphosa this December, we are going to be in trouble.”

Malema said Ramaphosa was the “worst president ever for black people”. He was, of course, channelling Trump, who said: “You could take the five worst presidents in American history, and put them together, and they would not have done the damage Joe Biden has done to our nation in just a few short years. Not even close.”

Malema was especially insulting about former president Jacob Zuma: “We can’t [have] a president who gets married every weekend, it can’t be [allowed].”

The EFF leader has been consistent. Commenting on Malema’s disparagement of Ramaphosa in February 2022, Professor Lesiba Teffo said, “Once upon a time it was former president Thabo Mbeki who was the worst, then followed another assertion that former president Jacob Zuma was the worst. Now it’s Ramaphosa who is the worst.”

Playing with words and playing with fire

Trump has popularised the idea of “fake news”. He has consistently dismissed news outlets, and called journalists names. He described the investigative journalist and writer Bob Woodward as “tired and washed up”, “a liar” who “uses every trick in the book to demean and belittle”. Malema’s accusations of the media start with spurious claims of “Stratcom” — which is mind-boggling and extremely dangerous.

Malema has persistently cast aspersions on news media and specific journalists. Thus wrote Max du Preez in October 2018: “The EFF is the only political party in South Africa that actively and blatantly intimidates and threatens journalists, often by name. Once one of the leaders mentions a journalist’s name, a barrage of abusive and aggressive army of followers descends on him or her on social media. I know about that.”

Malema and Trump are shrewd. They will not say things explicitly. When violence occurs, Malema insists that all they wanted to do was talk — a synonym for violence. Like Trump, he uses innuendo and euphemisms. For instance, Trump will not directly threaten small-business owners or corporations. He would say something like, “This is a good business, it would be a shame if anything happened to it…”

In Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s research on fascism and despots, she notes a pattern (in the oration of people like Trump) that is simultaneously transparent (we just want to talk, Malema would say), but leads their followers (in coded language) with open-ended statements, which allows them to fill in the blanks. For instance, when Trump suggested that gun owners should deal with Hillary Clinton themselves, or when he talked about needing to “watch” certain communities who were out to steal the vote on election day, his statements were more powerful for their ambiguity. “It’s all about letting listeners convince and mislead themselves.”

Drawing parallels with fascists like Mussolini, Ben-Ghiat explained, “In Mussolini’s case, it took the assassination of a Socialist opponent, in 1924, to shock the political scene into belated awareness of who, exactly, was in its midst. [A blind spot that has been written about over and again in this space.] When Il Duce claimed that he would further ‘clarify’ matters, his audience understood that ‘clarification’ was a synonym for violence.”

With his chants of “Kill the boer” or statements that he was not calling for genocide “yet”, to allegedly firing a gun in public, or allegations of corruption, Malema cleverly skirts the law. When his followers trashed a clothing store because of perceived racist marketing in January 2018, Malema, referring to himself in the third person (a bit like Trump), suggested that he never told his followers to use violence.

“Malema would never put a gun on anyone to go to H&M,” he said.

Trump, of course, did not directly tell protesters to attack the US legislature on 6 January 2020, but when the Associated Press fact-checked and analysed his statements that ultimately led to the violence and attempted coup, the exhortations were subtle but clear.

“I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol Building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” But throughout his remarks, Trump spoke of the need to “fight”, to be angry, to stop President-elect Joe Biden from taking office. “We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.”

The list of insults and scapegoating by Trump and the EFF leaders is long and ugly. Like Shivambu’s veiled insult that Helen Zille was “sleeping around” or Malema referring to Lindiwe Zulu as “a street meid”. We can pick any of Trump’s sexist, misogynist and awful references to women…

Writing in City Press in December 2018, Nomboniso Gasa, adjunct professor and activist detailed the way language (notably by the EFF) inspired aggression, violence and misogyny:

“Ranjeni Munusamy of the Sunday Times, Pauli van Wyk of the Daily Maverick and, of course, Anisha Gordhan, Pravin Gordhan’s daughter, accused of being corrupt. The army of trolls that followed Malema’s command ‘to take them on intellectually’ has interpreted this as an instruction to stoop to a level of misogyny and violent language that has not been seen for some time. Both Munusamy and Van Wyk have been directly threatened with rape. Someone tweeted that Munusamy should be f**ked in the arse to teach her a lesson. Van Wyk was said to need to be raped to teach her to shut up. Threats of sexual violence or references to women who are not getting ‘it’ — sex — have been common among supporters of the EFF.”

The law, the state and almost every politician seem useless or have been outsmarted by Malema. Trump does similar things.

It was revealed recently that Trump had shared sensitive information with the Australian businessman Anthony Pratt. In an ABC 60 Minutes report, Pratt summed up the genius of Trump (and Malema): “He [Trump] knows exactly what to say and what not to say that it avoids jail, but gets so close to it.”

Trump will probably be found guilty of something — and deservedly so. He may, for legal, social, political and sentimental reasons avoid actually going to prison. Julius Malema will probably be President of South Africa someday. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Unfortunately there are a lot of sheep out there who buy into the spoilt brat meets angry bird anti-hero shtick.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    What is this “Western Asia” thing. Is it a new “correct” name for the Middle East, so called for some reason unknown.

  • Denise Smit says:

    Where are the ‘anti abuse of woman” groups in all of this. At least they should be banging on doors. Denise Smit

  • Con Tester says:

    The EFF is little more than a personality cult. Without Pope Malema at the helm, it’s merely a ragtag collection of disgruntled, directionless, antediluvian Marxists whose grasp of logic, science, empiricism, and fact-based reasoning is at best very fragile.

    There’s near-comprehensive list of Donald Rump’s many deceits to be found at Wikipedia. An enterprising SAn with a lot of free time should compile a similar list concerning Pope Julius.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    Ismail forgets conveniently the role that the EFF played in the years of state capture that actually saved the country from an abyss of the ANC corruption and industrial scale looting that Cyril Ramaphosa was part of. The EFF rescued this country with its politics even you may disagree with them and Ismael is able to spew the bile but he fails to say thank you to the EFF! Cyril never lifted a finger against state capture as it was happening and the DA was engaged in sterile politics. The arrival of the EFF on the political landscape of the country completely changed the dynamics of the South African politics. The public took interests in the politics of the country and it became once more engaged. The ANC had turned parliament into the institution of overlooking executive malfeasance and MPs to mere voting cattle. Lagardien as part of the ANC was silent throughout the criminal conduct of the ANC that even continues today but he decides that the focus must be a side show of a disorderly magistrate. The EFF has thrown wide open the political space of the country that was cramped between the ultra right wing DA and the centre right ANC. It opened doors for new players to enter the political space and the right wing DA to be able to campaign in the townships. The insults by right wing elements and thieves against the EFF we take note of, but the country has a lot to be grateful for in the EFF because 2024 is different because of them. Lagardied can take his drivel elsewhere.

    • Con Tester says:

      In an utterly delectable slice of irony, Cunningham neglects to mention the abyss of EFF corruption and industrial-scale looting of VBS money, and that party’s abject failure to rescue the poor investors who were thus defrauded. Pope Julius and Cardinal Floyd were handsomely rewarded for their larcenous conduct while still brashly insisting that they are on the side of the very people they had a significant hand in robbing blind. Nor did they suffer any adverse consequence for their contemptible behaviour.

      And so, the fact is that the arrival of the EFF on the political landscape of the country completely changed the dynamics of South African politics, but, as any rational appraisal must conclude, far for the worse in the form of a rival criminal personality cult.

      Cunningham should perhaps follow his own advice by taking his fact-free drivel elsewhere.

      • Kanu Sukha says:

        It should be obvious that Cunningham takes himself very seriously (sadly) as part of the ‘completely changed dynamics’ of this country’s politics … hence he does not do or understand ‘irony’ ! Maybe a dose of Malibongwe will help his constitution … please help Tyilo !

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    I have been ruminating on your article for several days now and find the similarities between Trump and Juju fascinating. What it does do is bring into focus that famous MLK saying about “not judging people by the colour of their skins, but the content of their character.” It is obvious that both are psychopaths who are cut from the same cloth. Far more interesting and challenging would be an analysis of how the ‘colour of their skin’ e.g. supreme court justice Clarence Thomas (and his ilk) have become ‘white supremacists’ ( he is certainly married to one). Or vice versa ?

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