Mandela, Trump and the sins of the past

Donald Trump is on to something. As he marches on to his prize of the Republican nomination — and perhaps leader of the free world — he’s positioned himself as the one who will “make America great again.”  

The insurgent’s challenges are many. And his ascension comes as a diverse movement takes hold in many parts of the world. It might be called the “coming home to roost” movement, and it has great power. It takes its force from the naming and shaming of Western sins, drawn from the dark pools of 18th and 19th century imperialism, the defensive-aggressive manoeuvres of the Cold War in the 20th century and the increasingly aggressive anti-Americanism/Westernism of major states in the 21st.

Millions of Americans, with Trump as their bully pulpit, lay blame for this at the feet of Barack Obama for his floundering in Syria and his need for Russian support to achieve even much-broken ceasefires.

Yet this is not a symbol of general American withdrawal. The “coming home to roost” movement has had its own momentum for decades.

A present example comes from what Obama invoked as the United States’ closest, if sometimes errant, ally — Britain. A campaign to remove the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, the 19th century imperialist who made a vast fortune in Southern Africa, from its niche in Oriel College, Oxford recently threw up a vivid insight into a cast of mind.

makerhodeshistory_small Mandela, Trump and the sins of the past

Ntokozo Qwabe, a South African law student at Oxford University, a beneficiary of a Rhodes scholarship and a leader of the #RhodesMustFall campaign, revealed on social media that he had joyfully humiliated a white waitress in South Africa by refusing to tip her until “the whites give black land back.” As she broke down, Qwabe professed himself glad to see the “typical white tears.”

Qwabe, whom I assumed came from the narrow stratum of newly-entitled wealthy black families, is in fact a brilliant (summa cum laude in law) scholar from an impoverished rural background. Charged with hypocrisy for receiving money from a source he excoriates, he responds that the money was made by the labor of his ancestors, not by a white exploiter. He has a point.

Yet what the exchange showed was that he translated the historic wrong into present demand — a return of “black land” which, though vague, would seem to mean the eventual expulsion of whites, at least from the farms which they still, disproportionately, own, if not from the state itself. It is an explicit turning away from the legacy of Nelson Mandela — a legacy seeking to lay the basis for a democratic country with a secure place for whites.

Most of the “coming home to roost” movements in the world have a point. When Palestinians of various stripes mobilize — or use violence — against Israel, in their minds is the “nakba,” the disaster which happened to the Palestinians after the Arab armies lost the 1948 war and caused the flight of 700,000 from the new state (though many more remained, and their descendants are now Israeli citizens).

Ari Shavit, one of Israel’s most prominent journalists, wrote in a recent book that “Israel is the only country in the West that is occupying another people. On the other hand, Israel is the only country in the West that is existentially threatened.” The latter is used by the present Israeli government as an insistent prompt for occupation. The first is the moral case of the Palestinians — including those who would destroy Israel, like Hamas and Hezbollah — and held with various degrees of conviction by Arab states.

The United States has battled for decades to bring closure and agreement on the creation of two states. It is now shunned, as much by Israel as by the Palestinians. Linked to the Palestinian struggle, but with its own, violent momentum, is that of groups like Islamic State, al Qaeda and others, whose hostility to the West is — as Jason Burke wrote in a new book, unappeasable.

In China, which may soon become a larger economy than the United States, an uneasy relationship is getting more uneasy. President Xi Jinping, bearing down hard on expressions of dissent in the media and among human rights lawyers, is now banning many NGOs which work on a basis of western concepts of an independent civil society.

Xi has also publicly approved the work of a popular blogger, Zhou Xiaoping, who argued that the United States. is “eroding the moral foundation and self-confidence of the Chinese people.” Anti-Westernism is firmly grounded on the violence shown to China by Britain, France and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was weak — and remains a strong theme today.  

The master of anti-Western sentiment is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has built much of his third presidential term on anti-American polemics and who increases their volume and frequency as his economy sinks. He has less of a moral high ground than most: the sanctions which the United States and Europe exercise against him, and which increase economic woes, are the result of his land grab of the Ukrainian province of Crimea and his sponsorship of a civil conflict in the East of Ukraine.

Putin’s slightly better arguments are over the enthusiastic support from the West of the liberalizing (but destructive) policies of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev and of the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin. But these were policies developed by Russians — even if Western businesses tried hard to profit from them. Yet Putin strikes chords with the large majority — who still see the West through Soviet-cultured spectacles, as a hostile, greedy predator.

There’s even anti-Westernism (relatively) lite in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reached out to the West — but also bashes western, mainly British, imperialism and seeks to rid India of western NGOs like Greenpeace as well as several Christian organizations.

For Americans and Europeans, especially those maturing after the collapse of the Soviet Union and promises of a “peace dividend” it’s a troubling world. Trump, with his sketchy grasp of geopolitics, has a strong grip on the psychology of millions of Americans. Enough to carry him to the White House? It seems that we’ll see.