OPINION | Under-fire Trump in bid to deflect attention

IN EYE OF STORM: US President Donald Trump’s tweet about South Africa raised eyebrows.
IN EYE OF STORM: US President Donald Trump’s tweet about South Africa raised eyebrows.
Image: Leah Millis / Reuters

President Donald Trump of the US is a man on fire. The word “impeachment” is being thrown about rather loosely all over the capital, Washington DC. The name Richard Nixon, the man who resigned back in August 1974 to avoid almost certain impeachment because of the Watergate scandal, is on every television talk show host’s lips.

Trump’s Waterloo has been written about ad nauseam these past 500 days. He has confounded critics and survived. Yet on Tuesday afternoon his scandal-wracked administration found itself in real danger when Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer and fixer, pleaded guilty to eight crimes in a Manhattan federal court.

Cohen admitted that he had paid hush money, during the 2016 election, to keep a porn star and a former Playboy model quiet about alleged affairs with Trump years earlier.

Cohen did not just plead guilty. He drew a line straight to the man in the White House, saying he had broken the law “in co-ordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office”.

No need to be coy about who that candidate is: Donald Trump. At the same time that Cohen pleaded guilty, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of eight counts of bank and tax fraud.

Senior Democrats have been reluctant to speak of the possible impeachment of Trump in the past, but last week it was open season. Even Steve Bannon, Trump’s former Svengali, believes that impeachment will be the key issue in the mid-term elections in two months’ time.

“Today clarifies that November is a referendum on impeachment – an up or down vote,” Bannon, who many credit as being the brains behind Trump’s rise to the presidency, told Bloomberg.

It is in this context that one has to analyse Trump’s decision to suddenly think of Africa and tweet about land expropriation without compensation in South Africa.

As so many have pointed out, the man has not once in his tweet-heavy presidency mentioned Africa. He remains without any clear Africa policy. He is ignorant of the continent, once referring to a non-existent country called Nambia. Worst of all, Trump’s tweet about South Africa did not come from the voluminous intelligence available to him but from a right-wing, ill-informed talk show host on Fox News called Tucker Carlson.

Carlson has been consistently pushing a false narrative beloved of white supremacists that white SA farmers – and not their workers, for example – are being decimated in SA. That’s a bald lie: according to even AgriSA, farm murders are at their lowest in the last 19 years.

Expropriation without compensation does not threaten whites only. Ask Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini why he has been so angry of late.

So what’s going on here? Whenever Trump faces domestic problems he clutches at the nearest foreign issue he can find to deflect from his woes. In June 2017 The Atlantic magazine wrote that “distraction has been a staple of Trump’s political strategy since he declared his intention to run for president. When negative stories arise, his instinct is to seize the narrative with bold, even outlandish, claims – accusing Barack Obama of wiretapping the phones in Trump Tower, for example”.

This week news agency Bloomberg said in recent times “the White House has slapped sanctions on countries from Venezuela to Turkey, just as investigations into Russian election meddling and hush-money payments deepened.”

This time, after he was directly implicated in criminality by his former attorney, Trump bashed South Africa.

The damage is huge. This sensitive, important, complex and divisive debate will now be drenched with Trump’s ignorant, bigoted and short-sighted views. We do not need need yet another populist hack on this – we have enough already.

With Trump’s ignorant and bigoted tweet reason, temperance, facts and magnanimity flew out the window. In the global arena, where one African name matters as a bogeyman, Trump has painted South Africa a bright red colour called Zimbabwe.

The man fingered by his own lawyer last week as being involved in criminality will not care. Indeed, Trump’s style is not to walk away and apologise.

It is clear that former US president Barack Obama was referring to Trump in his Mandela lecture last month when he said: “We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and lie some more.”

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