From Fight Back to #MAGA
Trump’s Make America Great Again rhetoric carries echoes of SA’s then Democratic Party’s Fight Back in 1999, and we
Former DA leader Tony Leon seems surprised that his former speechwriter, South African-born Joel Pollak, is a prominent President Donald Trumploving mover and shaker in the US. Pollak, the senior editor at large of the alt-right website Breitbart and failed Tea Party candidate, is also said to be in the running for US ambassador to South Africa.
Leon and company need not be surprised by Pollak’s politics because there was something scarily familiar about Trump’s race-baiting campaign that so effectively targeted the fears of the historically privileged.
If you listen closely, you can hear ghosts speaking to us from the 1990s. No, not Tupac or Biggie.
Trump’s Make America Great Again spiel carries echoes of the then Democratic Party’s Fight Back campaign of 1999. #MAGA (Make America Great Again) is the vulgar, uncouth heir to South Africa’s Democrats’ Fight Back.
Both campaigns sought swift repudiation of all that the first black president of each nation stood for.
In the US, the “whitelash”, as Van Jones dubbed the Trump win, came from a real sense of panic among white, conservative voters who could never quite get used to someone named Barack Hussein Obama in the White House.
Hoovering up an information diet of alt-journalism from the likes of Breitbart and Fox News, Trump and his supporters went on to punt “birther” conspiracy theories that Obama was not born in the US and that he “founded the Islamic State” fundamentalist group.
The simple proclamation that #BlackLivesMatter was met with cries of reverse racism and the ahistorical argument that blacks enjoy more advantages than whites because of affirmative action. Likewise, Leon’s Fight Back offered whites absolution and permission to be angry.
As Chris McGreal reported for The Guardian on the campaign trail in 1999, Leon told an 80-strong audience at Curry’s Post, KwaZulu-Natal: “You weren’t part of a conspiracy of apartheid just because you happen to be white. You have got to go out there and assert yourself as an equal. That’s what you are.”
There’s no problem with the last part of his statement – it’s the first part that is hugely problematic.
Leon waved his magic wand and absolved his supporters of a crime against humanity. He told them an evil, dehumanising and destructive system – set up with the sole aim of elevating whites above all other inhabitants of this beautiful land – had absolutely nothing to do with them. Finish and klaar.
Not only did he absolve them of any complicity, he also told them that they – who were newly bereft of their positions as overlords – were right to be angry about it. It was time for them to fight back.
McGreal wrote that Leon “tapped into the vein of [white] discontent by portraying affirmative action as another form of apartheid. His Thatcherite attacks on the minimum wage for domestic servants and ‘job crushing’ labour legislation protecting millions of poorly paid black workers are applauded by many whites.” This sounds like a report from a Trump rally.
That vein of discontent, fed by fear that the protection of someone else’s rights will come at the cost of your own, was ruthlessly exploited by Trump. None can deny the efficacy of either of these campaigns. Leon became leader of the official opposition in Parliament after the 1999 election, having grown his party significantly. And an angry orange toddler is now president of the US.
On Pollak, Leon told the Daily Maverick: “When he worked for us, he was probably in transition from a social to a liberal democrat. He appears to have moved somewhat ideologically since.”
Former DA colleague Gareth van Onselen noted: “Suffice to say that he has found a home in the Tea Party and Breitbart, and, with them, a series of values and ideals that appear to differ fundamentally from those he held while at the DA.”
But do his “new” values and ideals differ fundamentally? DA MP Gavin Davis noted in a rebuke of Van Onselen’s reporting on current DA leader Mmusi Maimane that “the notion of past DA purity is more fiction than fact”. In a piece titled The Anatomy of a Hollow Liberal Mythology, Davis recalls the days of the Fight Back campaign, “an aggressive election strategy to lure conservative voters away from the New National Party by stoking minority fears”, and he describes the later merger with the National Party, “whose ethos informed apartheid”, as a “betrayal of the Democratic Party’s values”. So that’s values dealt with, let’s move on to ideals. Here’s Pollak warning of the dangers inherent in Obama’s admiration of the South African Constitution: “It is worth noting that socioeconomic rights were not the necessary outcome of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. South Africa’s liberal – in the classical sense – opposition, then known as the Democratic Party, opposed apartheid but also opposed the inclusion of socioeconomic rights [in the Constitution] ... That history of criticism and the predicted failures of socioeconomic rights have been largely overlooked by American admirers. “President Obama’s call to give ‘meaning’ to the rights in our founding documents, and for ‘collective action’ as a means for ‘preserving our individual freedoms’, and providing ‘every citizen’ with ‘a basic measure of security and dignity’, clearly points towards the eventual creation of socioeconomic rights on something like the South African model. Senator [Rand] Paul deserves credit for recognising that – and the dangers that poses to our [US] republic.” It’s an ideological red line for both the DA-Democratic Party of Leon and Trumpists. It’s where an oppressed people’s demand for socioeconomic rights meets the wall of their privilege. And it should not be a surprise.
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CONFIDENT Tony Leon during the Fight Back campaign in 1999
THE WIN Donald Trump has vowed to ‘make America great again’