Opinion: The President’s ‘Black Panther’ Suit — Lessons From ‘Wakanda’ to the U.S.

Trump may not think much of African nations, but he could learn something from what just happened in South Africa

Donald Trump should pay attention to recent developments in South Africa, where an unpopular leader was forced to resign amid allegations of incompetence, Curtis writes. (George LeVines/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Donald Trump should pay attention to recent developments in South Africa, where an unpopular leader was forced to resign amid allegations of incompetence, Curtis writes. (George LeVines/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 1, 2018 at 5:03am

Was Donald Trump among the movie fans pushing the latest entry in the Marvel universe to box office records this past weekend? Where else would the president have gotten the idea to play superhero, rushing to meet an active shooter — as he said he would have at a Florida high school — with only his bravery and, one imagines, a fantasy “Black Panther” suit to shield him?

On second thought, given his low opinion of the African continent, it’s hard to imagine him getting inspiration from any country there, even the fictional Wakanda.

In the real world, though, Trump and his congressional supporters might want to pay attention to recent developments in South Africa, where an unpopular leader was forced to resign by fellow party members when allegations of corruption and incompetent governance made him a liability for said party’s future.

Jacob Zuma resisted until his ouster was inevitable, and he still may face legal consequences. But he is no longer president after his African National Congress, pressed by an opposition ready to pounce in the next election, pushed him out the door.

Watch: Trump to Lawmakers: “I’ll Love You” If Action Is Taken on Gun Legislation

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The new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has huge challenges as he tries to restore faith in the party and resolve the country’s economic problems, despite his onetime close association with the late Nelson Mandela, the honored icon who transcended division. At present, though, members of the ANC are breathing a sigh of relief now that Zuma is gone. They no longer have to defend him. 

I happened to be in South Africa during this recent news-making time, working with thought leaders who were not that concerned with Trump’s opinion of the worth of certain countries. Their reaction was slight offense mixed with indifference; it’s not as though they expected a more elevated opinion than the one Trump reportedly shared with senators in January.

These Aspen New Voices Fellows were much too committed to their work on global health policy, civil and equal rights and other critical issues in their countries across the globe to concern themselves with the Trump outburst of the day.

However, the daily headlines and the political parallels developing in real time were hard to ignore — the story of a stubborn leader, convinced of his righteousness, asserting his power and determined to remain the man in charge, no matter what. It was all too similar to a closer-to-home leader who perhaps has more in common with South African politicians than he’d like to admit, one surrounded by party members tied to him but getting nervous as scandals — and tweets — pile up.

Keeping close

When it comes to the part about colleagues stepping away, fearful of being punished in the next election, the comparison does slightly diverge. We are not quite there in America, where the Republican Party is still sticking close to Donald Trump, despite special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III’s ever-growing list of charges and the drumbeat of daily scandals, from a son-in-law with questionable security access to a #MeToo moment that the president can’t quite shake.

The Conservative Political Action Conference saw the GOP out on a far-right Trumpian limb. With the adept though not particularly nimble Devin Nunes in charge of the House Intelligence Committee (wasn’t he supposed to recuse himself from the Russia investigation?), and others providing political and legal cover, the president seems fine — for now.

With midterm elections looming, some Republicans incumbents have begun to opt out of a November run or re-run. For them, the close Trump allegiance necessary for a primary victory might turn off general election voters, and the fight just isn’t worth it. Others don’t recognize the party they thought they belonged to.

Who knows if a strong economy will be enough to carry the GOP, despite White House controversy, through the midterms all the way to 2020? Will Russia intervene, as every intelligence agency predicts, and throw more chaos into the mix?

The butterfly effect

And then there’s the unexpected event, a tragedy such as the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which shook up the NRA and the gun debate. It also created a chance for Trump to show up as someone who reliably puts himself in the middle of something that is not really about him.

In South Africa, other branches of government and civic life stepped in to force changes at the top, according to The Economist: “Investigative reporters doggedly chronicled corruption allegations over the years. Civil-society groups, as well as opposition parties, took the accusations to police and to the courts to force action. And the country’s courts delivered fearless, fair decisions that repeatedly held Mr. Zuma to account.”

All that sounds familiar now, as U.S. courts throw roadblocks into White House policy on DACA or judge gerrymandered election maps more partisan than fair, crucially in the battleground commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and as a school shooting awakens student activists who are not going anywhere.

In South Africa, the contentious battle between the party and the man, which at first seemed ready to end in a tense standoff, instead resolved itself with statements through clenched teeth.

From the ANC: “The National Executive Committee firmly believes that this situation requires us to act with urgency in order to steer our country towards greater levels of unity, renewal and hope.”

From Zuma: “As we fight our own battles in the corridors of political power, and sometimes serving the very interests of the oppressors of yesteryear, who joyfully celebrate as we lynch one another, we often forget the citizens on whose behalf we create a better life.”

On my way to the airport, the South African driver observed that while Trump believes he is “an island” — with America, family and loyal supporters standing with him — it’s a big world, and we are all connected, in some way.

This time, that connection may be embedded in a narrative about power and politics that should not be so cavalierly dismissed, even when it comes from the other side of the globe.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.