Political bullies thrive on mudslinging

S'thembiso Msomi Without the Gang
US congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, right, speaks as she, together with colleagues Ilhan Abdullahi Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, hold a press conference to address remarks made by President Donald Trump, which they viewed as xenophobic and racist. / AFP/ Brendan Smialowski
US congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, right, speaks as she, together with colleagues Ilhan Abdullahi Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, hold a press conference to address remarks made by President Donald Trump, which they viewed as xenophobic and racist. / AFP/ Brendan Smialowski

There are some commonalities between US president Donald Trump's attack on four Democratic Party congresswomen, who all happen not to be white, and what has been happening here at home.

Without boring you with details of what is merely one episode in a long-running series of attacks between the Trump administration and those who oppose it in the US, let's look at the fresh controversy arising from the US president's statement.

Trump launched a ferocious attack on congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. All four are new members of the congress; members of the Democratic Party and are quite vocal on issues of social justice and are unapologetic in their opposition to Trump's xenophobia.

Trump sparked controversy earlier this week when he said at a rally that if the four women "don't like it" being in the US, "let them leave".

He also said on Twitter that they must go back to the "totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came". This is despite the fact that three of the women were born and raised in the US.

The fourth, Omar, was born in Somalia but moved to America with her parents when she was 12 as a refugee. Trump's remarks have been rightly condemned as racist, even though his supporters are backing him - as was demonstrated at the rally when they chanted, "send her back! send her back!"

"Omar looks down with contempt on the hard-working Americans, saying that ignorance is pervasive in many parts of this country," Trump complained before accusing Omar of "vicious anti-Semitic" comments because of her opposition to Israel's occupation of Palestine.

"These congresswomen are helping the rise of a militant, hard left," continued Trump, who has accused some of these politicians of wanting to turn the US into a socialist country.

The backlash against the comments would have forced any other president, or any politician for that matter, to backtrack. But not Trump. He enjoyed it, even saying "I am enjoying it because I have to get the word out to the American people".

Of course, he enjoys the controversy because that is exactly the intention - diversion from the real issues facing his administration.

The next presidential elections may still be far away, but Trump is already in election mode. He seems convinced that the only way he can secure a second term is to be as divisive as possible, hoping that this would bring out his core white and conservative base to the polls in large numbers.

To do so, he is throwing mud at anyone his core constituency views as "the enemy". - be it China, Venezuela, Iran or any of the internal "enemies" such as the four congresswomen.

This kind of approach seems to be gaining traction with some political players here at home too. We may not have our own Trump, but there are a number of political tendencies that appear to be adopting some of his tactics.

Like the US president, they thrive on divisions, trying to turn one racial group against the other. Political opponents, commentators are attacked on the basis of their ethnic group, rather than their views and actions.

Mud is thrown at them without any effort to provide evidence of their alleged wrongdoing. All it takes, often, is a Twitter campaign, an inflamatory press statement or a speech at a political rally.

Accuse Omar of being sympathetic to "Islamic fundamentalists" just because she is Muslim and then hope it would stick. Paint Ocasio-Cortez as unpatriotic because she does not fit in with your racist perception of what an American is supposed to look like.

Locally, manipulate the fact that very little is recorded in public about the struggle, and accuse those who disagree with you of having been apartheid spies.

All in the hope that this will win you support and also silence your opponents.

The question is how should the rest react to this form of populist bullying. Some respond by engaging in mud

slinging of their own - hurling counter-accusations that are not backed by evidence. That is tantamount to mud-wrestling with a pig, and we all know why that is never a good idea. Getting opponents to resort to such tactics is exactly what bullies like Trump want because soon the public is unable to tell the truth from propaganda, to distinguish between those working for greater public good and those using power for selfish ends.

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