Race baiting for hire plays in South Africa; US next?

BBC Newsnight broadcast a troubling report on how British public relations firm Bell Pottinger stoked racial tension in South Africa to deflect attention from its client, the Gupta family, under scrutiny for its relationship with President Jacob Zuma.

According to the BBC report, instead of dealing directly with the issue of the Guptas’ influence on Zuma’s government, Bell Pottinger created a bogus movement against “white monopoly capitalism.” The bogus movement was rolled out across South Africa, complete with phony grassroots advocacy groups sporting fiery (hired) spokespersons, social media memes fueled by bots and harassment campaigns against opponents of the Guptas and Zuma, with no mention of either, under the banner of opposing white monopoly capitalism.

This tale of race baiting to protect a president and a family close to him may be a preview of what to expect from the Trump administration as its woes deepen. Donald Trump made his political bones claiming an American president with a black father was born in Kenya, then called Mexicans “rapists” to kick off a campaign that combined racial buzz words with slurs, innuendo and outright falsehoods. The president’s chief strategist previously ran a website that proudly caters to white supremacists. Trump now presides over a White House (and Twitter account) that regularly creates and exploits wedge issues to divide Americans – just this week the administration promised action to protect white rights against affirmative action and proposes a “merit based” immigration policy favoring people who speak English (they speak English in Kenya, folks) – and where telling the truth ranks among the least favored options.

And there is Kellyanne Conway and her history of racial bomb tossing. During the 2008 primary campaign, after Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama each obligingly said they would welcome the other as a running mate, Conway vilely spun that to declare with a sneer, “Hillary Clinton says Barack Obama can ride in the back of her bus.”

As a Republican pollster, Conway had no direct interest in either Democratic candidate’s success, begging the question of why she crafted this despicable sound bite. Perhaps Conway aimed to create strife in the Democratic Party, but the Clinton-Obama contest was doing fine on that score without outside help. Perhaps Conway erroneously believed that Clinton presented a greater threat to win the election over any eventual Republican nominee, even though the former New York Senator daily demonstrated her inadequacy as a political candidate. Perhaps Conway’s worldview precluded her from imaging that a black man could be elected president. Or perhaps Conway believes that an America full of hate and fear serves Republican interests.

Personally, I believe in that shameful 2008 moment, Conway cynically chose to manufacture and inject gratuitous racism into the American political dialogue simply because she could. Imagine the lengths to which Conway might go if she really had some skin in the game, something to protect like a presidency giving her a big salary and even bigger prestige. In that context, given the track record of this White House, South Africa’s fake white monopoly capitalism seems mild.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone in the White House has Bell Pottinger’s number on speed dial.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is a blogger for Forbes, editor at large for Inside Asian Gaming and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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