Brothers from different mothers
They did not grow up in a similar way, but Trump and Zuma are both doing their best to destroy their parties’ traditions
The worlds that US presidential hopeful Donald Trump and President Jacob Zuma come from could not be more different. As the son of a New York property mogul, Trump was born with the proverbial silver spoon sticking out of his mouth. Raised to take over the familly business, Trump had all the opportunities the world could offer and, by the time he became an adult, he had millions of dollars and a nice business empire to inherit from loving Daddy.
Zuma, the son of peasants, had to juggle schooling with cattle-herding duties. This juggling eventually forced him to leave school before morning breaktime. His adulthood was one of trade union and political activism, jail time and exile.
The thing that unites these two men at this point in history is that they hold their parties – both historical institutions – hostage to their populist whims.
Many parallels have been drawn between Trump and Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, mainly because Malema has been prone to making promises as wild and outrageous as those of the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee. This is somewhat simplistic. The better parallel is between him and the leader of the ANC, as both men have little regard for their respective parties’ rich traditions, ideological orientation and policy positions. They even share the common thread of unconventional paths to the top of the political pile.
Zuma rose on the back of a populist rebellion against the stiff-necked Thabo Mbeki and the perceived conservative economic policies his government was following. He was the unlikely leader of a political that since its formation in 1912, the organisation that had been led by men of pedigree. Previous leaders had either been well-educated or generally had a good relationship with books. They grasped big concepts and were progressive in outlook. Zuma had a hostile relationship with the alphabet and was more comfortable grasping bosoms than grasping concepts.
The campaign that brought the dodgy Zuma to power was wild and raucous. His supporters railed against the establishment, projecting their man as an outsider like them who would usher them inside the tent. They were not big on decorum. Vulgar language and rude displays were the order of the day among his legion as he made his way to Luthuli House and the Union Buildings.
Since he took power, he has been erratic in making political pronouncements. From promising to exile pregnant schoolgirls to remote camps and endorsing apartheid era policing methods, to regularly contradicting the basis of the constitutional order, Zuma has flown against his party’s well-canvassed positions. He would simply utter whatever came to mind that was going to win applause.
During his tenure, Zuma has turned the culture of the ANC on its head to such an extent that party veterans and those who were involved in the internal mass democratic movement say they no longer recognise the party. It has, they say, been redesigned in Zuma’s image. On his watch the party has been wracked with factionalism and internal conflicts have sometimes descened into violence.
Trump has done pretty much the same damge to the 162-year-old Republican Party.
While the party prides itself for its commitment to conservative values and economic policies, it is not a rabid right-wing force.
However, since Barrack Obama became president, an extremist wing of the party has gained ascendancy by undermining the nation’s first black president among white voters. Trump, who has never had a political profile, has been at the forefront of this racist campaigning. He even led the charge that Obama needed to prove that he was born in the US, a prerequisite for anyone wanting to occupy the country’s highest office.
Without the restraint of Republican politicians who hold office and must therefore behave responsibly, Trump has pulled out all the stops to demonise Obama. Over the past eight years, he has become a favourite of conservative radio stations and the unhinged Fox TV, and a popular invitee to redneck political events.
Like Zuma, he fashioned himself as a political outsider and a champion of the masses who feel excluded by the professional politicians in Washington and the state capitals. This posh, stinking rich New Yorker was to be the common man’s man. Trump supporters have not shied away from vulgarity and crassness towards opponents in their own party and in the rival Democratic Party.
The owner of several beauty pageants has his own liking for bosoms – famously saying during a TV interview that his then one-year-old daughter, Tiffany, had a lot of her mother in her, but he didn’t yet know how her breasts would look – and is very backward in his thinking about women.
“The smart ones act very feminine and needy, but inside they are real killers ... The person who came up with the expression ‘the weaker sex’ was either very naive or had to be kidding. I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye – or perhaps another body part,” he wrote in his memoirs.
And just like across the Atlantic, the Grand Old Party’s mainstream leaders initially took Trump lightly and reasoned that he would burn out sooner or later.
By the time the GOP grandees woke up to the seriousness of Trump’s appeal during the primaries, he had rewritten the campaign book. His racist, xenophobic, misogynist ways – and all the things that a party of government does not want to be associated with – seemed to make him attractive to the base.
More scary for the party leadership was that the support base was buying into his crazy political messages, which strayed far from the party platform and ideology.
His “America first” foreign policy – a throwback to the early part of the 20th century – contradicts the party’s position of wanting the US to lead the world from the front, something that necessarily means being engaged with the international community. His appetite for trade wars and protectionism are also not in the party script. Neither are his lunatic positions on immigration, on which the party is quite pragmatic. On economic policy, he supports better taxation of the rich and has warmed to the idea of a higher national minimum wage, the bane of free-market conservatives. Even on social security, he has taken a stance to the left of the party.
Of great concern to the elected leadership is that while they run the party machinery and are in control of the national legislature, Trump has the people’s hearts. In essence, he has hijacked the party and reconfigured its message to match his bathtub musings.
It is a terrible position to be in when the party platform is supposed to be a sustainable one, which has been scientifically crafted with the help of think-tanks and based on years of experience on the part of those who have been in government or in Congress.
A brutal civil war is now raging inside the party, with Trump and those who support him effectively telling the top dogs that it is they and not him who should fall in line. Veterans such as the two Bush presidents and other Republican heavyweights who have criticised Trump have been rudely shouted down or ignored by his triumphalist camp. Sound familiar, fellow South Africans?
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who, like his senior colleagues, is reluctant to endorse Trump until he falls into the party’s ideological and policy line, met him this week to “discuss the core principles that tie us together”. “Going forward, we’re going to go a little deeper in the policy weeds to make sure we have a better understanding of one another,” said Ryan.
Whether or not Trump wins the White House in November, one thing is clear: he will have profoundly changed the character of the Republican Party. He will have caused the most damaging divisions in the party’s recent history, rifts that will take ages to heal.
Trump and Zuma may never get to sit down over tea to share notes on their legacies and, of course, bosoms, but, should this ever happen, they will have a lot to discuss about the art of destroying veritable institutions for the sake of one’s ego or personal interests.
SPOT THE DIFFERENCE President Jacob Zuma (right) and the US Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump