Why do so many South Africans (still) love Donald Trump?

South Africans love Donald Trump. Not all of us - not even most of us - but enough that you’d probably be shocked by the number. I estimate at least 1 million South Africans have a favourable or very favourable opinion of Trump, and at least 100,000 might be considered hardcore MAGA fans (more on those numbers later).

If, like me, you live mostly inside the comfortable, slightly-left-of-centre bubble of South Africa’s middle-class suburbs, then you might be puzzled or even skeptical of this claim. Who in their right mind could admire that monstrous human being? He’s the worst US president in living memory, if not ever, right?

As you might guess, Trump’s support comes mainly from conservative white people, particularly those who are devoutly religious, but there are also many black and brown South Africans who venerate the Cheeto Benito.

Spend some time on Facebook or Twitter and you’ll quickly find thousands of pro-Trump comments from South Africans of all ages and shades. Comment sections under Zapiro’s anti-Trump cartoons are a good place to start. The cognitive dissonance of people who venerate Zapiro’s skewering of Jacob Zuma grappling with his antipathy for Donnie is a joy to behold.

I’ve been watching the rise of this phenomenon for the entire Trump administration and I have been fascinated and horrified by it in equal parts. My personal animus against him is strong - I honestly believe he is a truly evil person, in the most banal sense of that word. A petty, vindictive little narcissist; a spoiled child with the nuclear codes, and deeply corrupt conman. But I’ve forced myself to look past this, as best I can, to see what appeals to my countrymen and women.

The strongest motivators I can find apply mainly to white South Africans - particularly culturally conservative Afrikaners - but they have broader applicability to young men in general, and to Evangelical Christians of all stripes.

Those motivators are:

I’m going to unpack each of these in turn. Given that these are enormously complex issues, my interpretations are best guesses based on my own observations. And I’m largely going to stick to analysing people with whom I share a heritage (i.e. white Afrikaans people).

I’m quite sure a lot of these motivators apply to people of other races and backgrounds, but I simply don’t know enough about them to do more than hand waving.

And of course these motivators all interact with and influence each other. My divisions are largely artificial - the movement they describe is much more amorphous and tightly coupled.

Shared grievances

It may seem improbable that South Africans would have much reason to make common cause with ordinary Americans. We might cheer on a sports hero or despise a villain on a TV show, but how many grievances could we really share with someone in Flint, Michigan?

A surprising number, it turns out. If you could pick the single most influential factor in Trump’s victory in 2016, it’s that he won over disaffected white working class voters in rust belt states like Michigan and Pennsylvania - particularly the men, but also many women. These voters had, for generations, voted Democrat. So, what changed?

Essentially Trump appealed to voters who felt increasingly marginalised and ignored, who felt left behind by technological progress and globalisation, and shut out of the modern labour market. He appealed to men stuck in low paying jobs in dying towns, men who felt an acute lack of purpose and pride, men who felt that they were being sneered at by the same progressive coastal elites who were also automating and exporting their jobs to China.

If you substitute automation and labour market closure for Black Economic Empowerment, and the coastal elites for our own largely left-leaning establishment (particularly in academia and the media), then you have two sets of white people who feel their diminished status quite keenly.

You might argue that their standard of living has actually been improved by globalisation, and that they are the victims of their own stubbornness and conservatism. You might argue that these people are really more upset about black and brown people being elevated, and that their own status has not actually changed much. You might observe that, after generations of being treated as superior, being treated equally feels unfair.

But those arguments don’t make these shared grievances any less pointed. The people affected feel deeply wronged - they feel that the social contract has been broken. They worked hard, but they did not get ahead. They are not better off than their parents.

Trump, for all his flaws, has a genius for understanding and identifying with these grievances. Although he grew up a rich kid in New York, he was from the down-at-heel borough of Queens. What he really wanted was to be one of the cool kids in Manhattan, but they sneered at and snubbed him.

Like the men and women of the rust belt, Trump was made to feel like a bumpkin - a crass rube. He has never forgotten or forgiven that rejection, and that sense of injustice binds him to his followers more deeply than any party political platform or slogan.

A deep longing for purpose and belonging

Like Americans, South Africans are naturally industrious and entrepreneurial. For several generations white people in both countries were able to climb the economic and social ladders. German and Dutch peasants arrived in the new world and became store keepers or farmers. Their children became artisans, and their grandchildren doctors and lawyers.

For many white people in both countries this upward mobility now seems entirely impossible. Locked out of markets and starved of capital by powerful vested interests (mega-corporations, tenderpreneurs, crony capitalists), they are forced to work in jobs that they hate, and burdened with debt they cannot pay off.

With no real political power, waning economic relevance and dwindling populations, they share a sense of the “good old days” being far in the past. The good jobs and upward mobility that gave their fathers and grandfathers purpose has been replaced by drudgery and a narrowing of opportunities.

When Trump promised the return of “good jobs” and to “make America great again” he was appealing directly to that longing. He was offering a route back to those good old days, when having a job meant you could provide for your family and retire at 55. That message resonates just as strongly with disaffected rural Afrikaners as it does with out-of-work steel workers in Pennsylvania.

Powerful American news machinery

There’s a scene in the film “Thank You for Smoking” in which the main character explains to his son that America may not have the best form of government in the world, but that it definitely has the most entertaining form of government.

While this has been true for decades, Trump has taken the blood sport of American politics to a whole new level. The reality TV star recognised that politics could be transformed from a formal duel at dawn to a professional wrestling match, with him as the hero (or villain, depending on your allegiance).

By framing every moment of his presidency as a fight to the death against his enemies, Trump has managed to permanently hijack the news cycle for his entire term. He has inserted himself into the centre of the narrative - a position that feeds both his narcissism and his rage.

Compared to our own political landscape - dominated almost entirely by the engorged and immovable tick on the body political that is the ANC - American politics is exciting and dynamic. There are good guys and bad guys. There are constant battles and skirmishes. And all of it televised and reported with consummate skill and style by the complicit American press (on both sides of the ideological divide).

And, unlike in South Africa, America has an entire ecosystem of media companies dedicated to pleasing conservative viewers. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart - these are some of the most brilliant and successful propaganda outfits in the world. Compared to the moderately progressive milquetoast of our local press, Fox News is like crack cocaine for conservative news consumers.

Given that this entire edifice has been focussed almost exclusively on defending and venerating Trump for the past four years, it’s really not surprising that conservative South Africans have absorbed and integrated that message. (You might also argue, quite persuasively, that the opposite is true for progressive South Africans - their natural antipathy for Trump has been supercharged by the “liberal” American media.)

Disdain for the “elites”

Since the start of this century, trust in institutions and in government has been in drastic and consistent decline. The financial crisis and Great Recession were significant contributors to this - particularly when feckless governments largely failed to punish those responsible.

For communities whose livelihoods were exported to China or automated away, this trust has been almost completely hollowed out. From Big Pharma to the banks to the federal government and the WTO, institutions have either exploited these people or failed to consider or protect them.

And while their upward mobility was being systematically crippled, the very people doing the damage were sneering at the “bumpkins” and their inability to keep up with the times. Of course conservatives are not blameless victims here. Plenty of their own policies - particularly around tax - have only made things worse. But their shared narrative is one of abandonment and scorn, and the grains of truth make this story both compelling and enduring.

Trump, ever the connoisseur of grudges, has harnessed this deeply felt rage. “How dare they spit on us and tell us that they’re better? We are good, honest, hard working people. We believe in God, and in the nuclear family. We will not apologise for being who we are, and for protecting our heritage and our culture!”

There are few things more unifying than a shared enemy, and the left-leaning establishment are an ideal target. Godless, gutless globalists who shipped the good jobs overseas and now want to import more brown people to take the few jobs that are left.

While South Africa’s elites may differ from America’s in many ways, they are exactly the same in the most important way: they do not treat the plight of previously advantaged white people with any seriousness. Arguably this is exactly as it should be - there are far more important problems in both countries. But if you happen to be one of the people affected then you are less sympathetic to that point of view.

Strong hereditary & cultural similarities

The pioneers who settled the vast American hinterland and South Africa’s hostile interior share a great deal of history and culture. The German, Scandinavian and English people who first settled the American continent did not leave their homelands because they were wealthy and comfortable. Many were fleeing religious persecution or economic exploitation. Almost all of them were simply seeking a better life, away from the suffocating power structures of the old world.

These were people willing to pack themselves and all their possessions onto a small wooden ship to cross an ocean, and then to travel thousands of kilometres of hostile terrain to start a new life. As a result they tended to be rugged individualists and isolationists. They tended to loathe central government, to be devoutly religious, and to disdain airs and graces.

Change a few place names and some countries of origin, and the story above might as well be about South Africa. These similarities run deep - right down to the bones. The pioneer spirit of America and South Africa is alive today in those people’s descendants.

It’s no wonder then, that you’ll find thousands of Afrikaners driving trucks, running farms and building churches all over the American interior. They have far more in common with American pioneer stock than with the godless elites back in the Old World.

The values and practices that bind these people - religion, cultural conservatism, temperament - are much deeper than any political party or nation. And Trump, with his uncanny knack for tapping into our lizard brains, knows exactly how to pull these levers. He has appointed himself the defender of these much-maligned traditions - a bulwark against the liberal onslaught perhaps best summarised by the parody phrase “Fully-automated luxury gay space communism

As such Trump’s so-called “nationalism” is largely accidental. It comes from a much more elemental view of the world: us vs them. Although Trump is, without doubt, a racist, his ideology is not particularly race oriented. He cares only about two things: are you American, and are you a Trump fan? If the answer to both of those is yes, then you are one of us. If the answer is no, then you are one of them.

The exceptions that prove the rule

Quite apart from the true believers with strong emotional ties to Donnie, there is a small but significant group of young, intelligent and digitally savvy fans who have made being pro-Trump part of their personal brand.

These gleeful contrarians view Trump as an excellent tool for revealing what they see as the hypocrisy of the Left - both here and in the USA. They will happily spend hours defending Trump online and accusing any of his detractors of TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome).

These contrarians aren’t driven by the same motivations as their more emotionally committed brethren. They also tend to be more diverse and better educated. What unites them is a delight in publicly exhibiting their heterodox views. They want you to notice that they love Trump and they want to prove how much smarter they are as a result.

This is political affiliation as performance art. They will gush that Trump is, in fact, the best president in the history of the USA. If you cannot see that, you are merely blinded by hate. If you would only come over to the Trump side, you could join them in mocking the blind sheep who cling to the hypocritical orthodoxy of the leftist media.

100,000 Trump fans? Really?

That estimate is less of a thumb suck than it sounds. I looked at all of the most popular members of the emerging right-wing media in South Africa. They prefer to call themselves “independent” media and play up their scepticism and heterodox rationality, but a turd by any other name will smell as rank.

The web is full of handy tools that let you roughly deduplicate followers or audience members. After running a few of those against the Twitter, YouTube and other accounts of these brocasters, I came to the conclusion that 100,000 Trump fans was an extremely conservative estimate.

What about the non-Trump fans who follow these guys? Anyone who can endure entire hour-long episodes dedicated to lionising Trump, with hosts sporting red MAGA hats and grinning smugly to themselves, must be at least Trump-curious. These grifters are mostly concerned with strutting and posturing - they generally lack any ideology. They “love” Trump because it triggers the “libtards” and makes them advertising revenue.

Where to from here?

I’ve come to accept that I’m not going to convince any local Trump fans to change their minds about the Mango Mussolini, even after he has been turfed out of The White House. Arguing rationally about what amount to religious beliefs is not going to have any effect. If you see someone as the defender of your entire way of life, some sneering crypto-communist on Twitter or Facebook is not going to dissuade you from that belief.

I’ve also tried to develop some compassion for their position - as much as I may disagree with it to the core of my being. As a whining white person, there are few things I detest more than other whining white people. But their experience of suffering and dislocation is real and valid. And there’s no way we’re ever going to bridge the divide if our opening proposal amounts to “If you’ll just stop being an ignorant bigot for a minute then you’ll see how much better my ideas are.”

If you have Trump fans in your life, try to understand that this is a deeply emotional, irrational and elemental attachment. Trying to argue them out of it is like trying to argue someone into falling in love with you - you’re pulling the wrong levers.

The best we can do is to try to meet them halfway on topics where we might share some common ground. For example I’ve found that combatting corruption - both governmental and corporate - is an area where both sides share a lot of ground.

Or we could just leave them be. Trump’s star is waning and his influence and prominence will be severely curtailed after the 20th of January. But given that Trump is really a symptom rather than a cause, we should be aware that the rage he has tapped into is not going away any time soon.

If we care about reducing polarisation and healing the divides, we will probably need to be the ones to reach out. I’m going to keep trying, however imperfectly and however much I might backslide in Trump bashing. Because, as Sam Harris frequently says, the only thing really separating us from a vortex of violence and anarchy is our ability to have conversations.