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

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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.

TALK TO US Do you think Trump’s race-bait­ing cam­paign was sim­i­lar to Leon’s in SA?

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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’

Joel Pol­lak

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