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.
Conservative Republicans often said they opposed apartheid. But, like Trump, they expressed a concern for white interests, and an inclination to see the best in white behavior. In 1981, Ronald Reagan called South Africa “a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve ever fought, a country that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals.” In 1985, the National Review founder William F. Buckley wrote, “We need to understand that white South Africans see their society as one that would not survive one-man-one-vote.” That same year, Jerry Falwell returned from a trip to South Africa urging Americans to invest in the country and buy its gold coins.
And, like Trump, Reagan-era conservatives depicted black political behavior in the harshest and most alarmist of terms. Today, a sympathetic observer might see in the ANC’s desire to speed up land reform an understandable, if potentially dangerous, effort at alleviating the profound racial disparities inherited from apartheid. Trump, by contrast, sees only white oppression. Similarly, a sympathetic observer in the 1980s might have seen the ANC’s turn to violence as an understandable, if potentially dangerous, response to the far greater violence inflicted on black South Africans. Instead, Dick Cheney, who voted against a 1985 House resolution urging his release, called Mandela a “terrorist.” Reagan denounced the ANC as a “terrorist organization,” and put Mandela on America’s terrorist watch list, a designation that George W. Bush did not lift until his final year in office. A sympathetic observer might have seen the ANC’s decision to accept support from the Soviet Union as an understandable, if potentially dangerous, response to the fact that no such support was forthcoming from Washington. Instead, National Review, as late as 2004, even after Mandela had retired as president of a democratic and non-Communist South Africa, wrote that given his “long-standing dedication to Communism,” Americans should “discard the Old Media’s fantasy version of Nelson Mandela.”
Racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates has noted, creates hierarchies of compassion: “Broad sympathy for some; broader skepticism for others.” The ANC was, and is, fallible. It should not be above criticism. And white fears are not per se illegitimate. But in the 1980s, conservative Republicans expressed unwarranted sympathy for South Africa’s white government and unwarranted skepticism of its black opponents. Today, Trump is expressing unwarranted skepticism of its black government and unwarranted sympathy for its white opponents. As in so much of his racist rhetoric, Trump is not innovating; he’s excavating. He’s reviving traditions that America never fully buried or renounced, and repackaging them for a new age.