Donald Trump, who generally admires dictators and ignores their victims, has finally found a human-rights issue he cares about: the plight of white South Africans. On Wednesday, he tweeted a demand that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “closely study” the South African government’s “seizing [of] land from white farmers.”
Despite the many graver human-rights problems plaguing Africa, Trump has somehow seized upon one affecting white people. Yes, there are legitimate critiques of the ruling African National Congress’s (ANC) recent decision to support the expropriation of white-owned farmland without compensation. But claiming that Trump’s concern for white South Africans supposedly menaced by black people has nothing to do with his well-documented history of racism is like saying his focus on the murder of Mollie Tibbetts has nothing to do with the fact that she is white and her alleged killer is Latino. It long ago ceased being an argument that can be made in good faith.
In identifying America’s interests with those of white South Africans, Trump is not breaking new ground. He’s reviving a tradition on the American right. He’s speaking about South Africa in the way many prominent Republicans did in those prelapsarian, pre-Obama decades when America was “great.”
For most of the cold war, the United States and apartheid South Africa were de facto allies. In 1962, the CIA even tipped off Pretoria to Nelson Mandela’s whereabouts, leading to his arrest. But in the 1980s, as the anti-apartheid movement challenged this cozy arrangement, the American debate over South Africa split along ideological lines. It was Trump’s predecessors in the conservative movement and the Republican Party who insisted most vociferously that America should prefer the apartheid government to its most prominent black foes.