Trump’s secret Rhodesian connection

By Lovemore Ranga Mataire

A casual reader of history may find it very remote to connect the historical dots between US President Donald Trump’s “America First” mantra with a similar slogan popularised in the then Rhodesia.

While Trump’s “America First” maxim plays into the fears of ordinary US citizens particularly on the impact of migrants, no one doubts it’s never his invention.

For those aware of American history, the snappy slogan bears serious racist grounding not only encapsulated in the 1940 America First Committee (AFC) but found widespread expression and adoption in the then southern Rhodesia of the late 1950s.

The AFC, which was founded in 1940 opposed any US involvement in the World War II.

At its peak, it had about 800 000 members and had in its ranks future President Ford, Sargent Shriver and Potter Stewart, the future US Supreme Court justice.

Last April, US historian Susan Dan wrote that the committee “had to remove from its executive committee not only the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford but also Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the US Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from the American track team in Berlin in 1936 from running the finals of 4 x 100 relay.”

It was Charles Lindbergh, one of AFC’s infamous leaders who popularised the America First phrase and contaminated it with anti-Semetic nuances.

In a speech delivered on September 11, 1941, Lindbergh expressed sympathy for the persecution of Jews in Germany but suggested the same Jews were advocating for the US to enter a war that was not in the national interest.

“Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences,” Lindbergh.  Lindbergh, however, was not the only 20th century politician to use such a white supremacist phrase couched as isolationist foreign policy mantra.

In Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), a clique of racist whites introduced their own version premised on their avowed against decolonisation and the spread of black majority rule across the African continent.   One character that stands out as the begetter of the similar not-so-isolationist buzz phrase was William John Harper, a southern Rhodesian truculent politician with an Anglo-Indian heritage.

Harper, who was educated in India and England, joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1937. He served as an officer in the Second World War and was one of the few in Battle of Britain during which he was wounded in action.

Reviled by Britain’s granting of independence to India in 1947, Harper migrated to Rhodesia after retiring from the air force.

He believed that British rule in the subcontinent should never have ended, and took a similar stance regarding his adopted homeland -Rhodesia.

He publicly declared that South Africa and the neighbouring Portuguese territories of Angola and Mozambique would “be under white rule forever”.

Unlike Trump, Harper’s appropriation of the catchphrase was more elaborate.

His slogan was “Rhodesia First, Last and Always’ which was later shortened to just Rhodesia First.

History records that Harper as a signatory to Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence and also served as the Minister of Internal Affairs in the first Ian Smith Cabinet.

The buzz phrase became more popular when Harper formed his own opposition Dominion Party, which pushed for full independence from British rule.  Generally, the party symbolised the unflinching resistance against any reforms or genuine integration of colonial settlers and the natives.

Harper made it clear that he was not only opposed to black majority rule but also to the federation to which Southern Rhodesia was constitutionally bound.

Together with his unrepentant far-right allies, Harper sought to ingratiate themselves with Rhodesian whites by taking a stand against African liberation and what then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called “Wind of Change” that was sweeping across continent.

So glaringly similar is the attempt by Trump to appeal to the American electorate’s fears of immigration and other vagaries of globalisation to what Harper was proposing in Rhodesia with his Rhodesia First mantra.  Trump seems to be reading from the same template with Harper in his skeptical approach to aid in Africa and his abrasive attitude towards China.

Harper opposed social services for Africans and heightened white fears of the onslaught of communism in newly independent African countries.   

As illustrated by Brooks Marmon, a PhD student at the Centre of African Studies at Edinburgh University, “much as Trump promised to his followers the security of a wall on the Mexican border, whites in southern Africa saw the Zambezi river on Zimbabwe’s northern border as a fortress to protect what they called “responsible government and “civilised standards.”

After Dominion Party’s merged with other conservative parties to form the Rhodesia Front (RF) in 1962, the new party sought to increase its firm grip on the government and pitched itself as the “lone guarantor of white security in the same manner that Trump is selling himself as the sole super-patriot.

Harper, Ian Smith and other 10 white men were to go against the winds of change and general world opinion by declaring UDI.

Trump is clearly defying a world order that is embracing globalisation and one that sees more value in banding together as regional blocks in favour of isolation. It may be interesting to note that US’s Declaration of Independence and the Rhodesia’s UDI share similarities in the opening words as they both referred to “an entitlement of separate and equal” rights that also in both cases excluded other races.

Although Trump’s inspiration may not have emanated from Rhodesia, one can not discount the effect of its pervading policies on Americans in general.

A case in point is that of Dylann Storm Roof, a young white supremacist convicted of mass murder after gunning down nine African-Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Three days after the shooting, a website titled The Last Rhodesian was discovered and later confirmed as belonging to Roof by officials.

The website had photos of Roof posing with symbols of white supremacy and neo-Nazism, which included a manifesto in which he outlined his views towards blacks, among other peoples.

Students of history may be aware that thousands of American mercenaries were very much involved in the Rhodesian military in the 1970s and bonds of whiteness were cemented during that time.

It is also interesting to note that just like Harper; Trump was also embroiled in some sexual misconduct and while the later managed to deflect the allegations, it cost the scalp of the former who was forced to leave Cabinet in 1968 over claims of an affair with his secretary who was exposed as a British spy.

Given his limited worldview, Trump may not be conscious of Rhodesian precedent yet the linkages of his campaign tone and that of Harper are apparent.

Luckily for Trump, it appears as though very few people in America and Zimbabwe associate the America First phrase with its dark past which he has salvaged from the dustbin of history.

February 2017
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