Writers on the 2016 US Election: The Last Gasp of the Angry White Man
The monster of intolerance would like us to think we’re witnessing its renewal, but these are death throes.
On November 8th I was traveling in New Mexico, not paying much attention to the election news as I fully expected to wake up the following day to the news that America had elected its first woman president. That was before I happened to glance at a television over the bar after dinner, only to see how many states were showing red. I was horrified…though not entirely surprised. I had seen something like this before.
I grew up in South Africa in the ‘60s and ‘70s. My anti-apartheid family left the country out of political necessity, but I followed events in the country from afar and returned whenever I could (and when I would not be subject to the whites-only draft). In the mid-1980s, it was clear that South Africa was heading either for massive change or toward the apocalypse. When in August, 1985, State President P.W. Botha scheduled a national address, all expected he would announce major reforms, notably unbanning the African National Congress and releasing Nelson Mandela from prison. The speech was to be the moment when white South Africa crossed the Rubicon and instituted progressive change. Instead, P.W. Botha excoriated the reformists, reaffirmed a hard line approach to Apartheid South Africa’s perceived enemies including the ANC, and generally vowed to set the clock back. And for a while it seemed as if he’d succeeded, and the country descended into dark days of civil unrest with mass protests and increasingly violent police suppression of the opposition. The same president declared a National State of Emergency less than a year later (really a continuation of an earlier, less sweeping state of emergency declaration), and somewhere around 25,000 people were put in political detention.
But despite Botha’s backward turn, the country kept moving forward to an end to white rule…one that would either be violent or negotiated, but either way the finish line was inevitably approaching. One factor was economic: by the mid-1980s, black disposable income exceeded that of whites and so targeted boycotts hit their mark. International sanctions played their part as well. And Botha’s own constituency were defecting, most conspicuously when 52 Afrikaner intellectuals and politicians held an illegal meeting with exiled ANC leaders in Dakar, Senegal, in 1987. In February, 1990, Mandela was finally released from prison, Botha having been pushed from power following a stroke.
Botha’s hardline stance in 1985 emboldened a group of extreme right-wing whites, the AWB (Afrikaaner Weerstandsbeweging), whose uniforms included a sideways Swastika and who gave stiff-armed salutes to greet their charismatic leader, Eugene Terre’Blanche. The AWB sought to restore a Boer homeland, engaged in violence against black South Africans, and even plotted to murder both De Klerk and Nelson Mandela to halt the negotiations between the government and the ANC. Terre’Blanche was a violent man known as a gifted orator, and he liked to attend AWB meetings seated on horseback. He was also something of a drunken buffoon and was caught on film falling off his horse while leading a right-wing parade in Pretoria. His best-known quote has a familiar ring: “We have a wonderful culture, a wonderful, vibrant language. I want my people to be proud of who they are again.”
I was reporting in South Africa in 1992 when a newly resurgent rightwing party, the HNP (Herstigte Nasionale Party), led the charge for a “No!” vote in a whites-only referendum on ending apartheid. This group self-identified as the verkrampte (“cramped,” or “constipated”) vs. the more progressive National Party, (“verligte” or enlightened ones). Joining photographer friends at an HNP rally, I watched as their leader, Andries Treurnicht, demanded a halt to movement toward racial equality. His audience of beefy, florid-faced men in khaki safari suits shouted their agreement and drummed their boots on the wooden floor after every sentence he bellowed. They cast angry glances in our direction; Treurnicht’s constituency didn’t like the press any more than Trump supporters do. “Don’t you dare write nonsense about us,” one of them yelled.
The evening of the referendum found me having dinner at the home of some black African friends in an upscale development on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Their house was brand new, but the road to it had not yet been paved and as I drove, African nightjars flew to either side of me, their wings ghostly in the headlights. My friend, a former activist and Rhodes Scholar and now a prominent businessman, talked about stopping at a red light that morning when a man in an AWB uniform had waved a revolver in his face and yelled how he wouldn’t be “driving that nice car much longer.” When I asked if they were following the results of the referendum, my hosts replied: “Not really. We hope it goes the right way, but it doesn’t matter. Change is coming, however these folk vote.”
The monster of intolerance (of racism, misogyny, and homophobia) would like us to think we’re witnessing its renewal, as if Trump’s electoral college victory is a sign of the creature having been merely asleep and now woken once more to assert its rightful domination. But I am convinced that what we are seeing is something seen before: these angry flailings are dangerous and frightening, but they are death throes, not signs of rebirth. Certain kinds of change are inexorable—the minds and hearts of the people of the United States have been moving toward greater sympathy for gay people, for women’s equality, for a multi-ethnic society. But change brings fear and anger, and sometimes those visceral emotions flare up like a fit of madness. We have to push back hard at each and every manifestation of this intolerant fear—at the clock-reversing cabinet positions going to white supremacists and despotic generals—trying to mitigate the inevitable pain and damage they will cause to the innocent. But we can take heart at the fact that as with the last days of Apartheid South Africa, a doctrine of white supremacy and religious intolerance has no future in America.