On November 9,
2016, the United States woke up to Donald Trump’s unexpected
victory. The incumbent Democratic Party had been led by the
hand-picked successor of a charismatic, “cross-over”
leader. The Democratic candidate received more popular votes, but
Trump, darling of the Christian right, prevailed because of the
differential weighting of urban and rural votes.
administration implemented anti-immigrant, isolationist policies and
cracked down on dissent by labeling it “fake news.” The
Republican-led Congress passed laws to increase holdings of the
wealthiest Americans and bolstered corporate power. Meanwhile
Republican state legislatures worked to disenfranchise likely
Democratic voters while Congress gutted voting rights protections.
have launched a massive effort to increase fundraising, counter the
disenfranchisement efforts and appeal to voters of all persuasions.
Anger over Trump’s use of unconstitutional, illegal foreign
electoral assistance led to widespread Democratic gains in the 2018
elections. Buoyed, Congressional Democrats impeached Trump but were
unable to rouse enough national indignation to convict him in the
have chosen a close ally of charismatic, term-limited Barack Obama as
their standard-bearer. Joe Biden is an experienced politician and
party insider who is universally described as “decent.”
He is trying to ride the dual bucking broncos of a rambunctious left
wing and an elusive phalanx of conservative voters disgusted by
Republicans loudly portray themselves as the law-and-order saviors of
white America. Trump relentlessly belittles stutter-challenged Biden
as weak and paints the Democrats as in cahoots with black radicalism.
The Black Lives Matter movement has led multi-racial crowds by the
thousands in peaceful acts of protest and civil disobedience across
the country. The Republicans, absurdly, have thrown the specter of
socialism at the thoroughly capitalist Democrats, hoping to stoke the
white electorate’s deepest fears of getting stuck in the
backwaters with people of color.
Apartheid Wins Again
On May 29,
1948, South Africa woke up to the unexpected Parliamentary victory of
the National Party (NP), champion of apartheid and darling of the
Christian right. The losing, incumbent United Party (UP) was led by a
charismatic “cross-over” leader. The UP received more
votes, but lost because of the differential weighting of urban and
immediately implemented isolationist policies and cracked down on
dissent. It outlawed Communism, began racially registering the entire
population, forbade sexual relations “across the color line,”
segregated residential areas and education, and enforced identity
documents on all people of color. It also declared its intention to
change the Constitution to dispense with a few thousand so-called
“coloured” voters. The NP prioritized economic growth in
the white community and expanded corporate power.
The UP, now
the opposition, faced huge challenges in readying itself for the next
election in 1953. General Jan Smuts, the party’s charismatic
leader and his hand-picked successor had both died. The mantle fell
on Jacobus “Koosie” Strauss, an experienced politician
and party insider who was universally described as “decent.”
The UP mounted an unprecedented effort to address the
under-registration of likely UP voters, appeal to both fired-up
progressives and conservative-minded whites, and modernize a flabby
the NP loudly portrayed itself as the law-and-order savior of white
South Africa, relentlessly belittling short-statured Strauss as weak.
It claimed the UP was in cahoots with black radicalism like the 1952
Defiance Campaign in which the African National Congress staged
peaceful, multi-racial civil disobedience demonstrations across the
country. The NP, absurdly, accused the prim and proper UP of
sympathizing with the anti-colonial Mau-Mau Uprising in Kenya,
stoking the white electorate’s deepest fears of armed African
insurgents taking back their land.
The UP lost
again in 1953. Strauss could not paper over the cracks of his party’s
simultaneous appeals to left and right, opposition to policies which
it did not condemn, and inability to rouse sufficient indignation at
the abrogation of the Constitution. The Parliamentary opposition
shriveled to a few seats. The NP ruled for the next 45 years.
Trumpism Last 50 years?
To be sure,
almost seven decades, an ocean and significant
separate the US and South Africa. But they share common dynamics
following a surprise right-wing ideological electoral victory:
cynical appeals to racial supremacy, creative voter suppression
campaigns and relentless belittling of a “decent”
opponent heading up a hide-bound party laboring to straddle vast
ideological divides. Indignant requests for a return to civility can
be ignored by a minority of inflamed voters with disproportionate
electoral privilege. New social inequalities can then be bricked in
lessons and legacies of mid-20th century South African elections
should warn Americans against complacency now.
commentary was originally published by The History News Network