I thought Pete Buttigieg was the perfect candidate to counter Donald Trump … and then he abandoned principle in pursuit of the ‘black vote’.

The US is back in election season and for the next year and a half you can expect to hear a lot of opinionating, domestic and global, about the race to replace Donald Trump. I had my mind made up pretty early. Before he announced his candidacy, I already thought Pete Buttigieg would be the best person to challenge the incumbent.

This is partly because I think Buttigieg would make the ultimate contest between the Democrat and Republican parties more substantial than any of his alternatives would manage. Buttigieg’s debating style is earnest and tactful. He led the charge among Democrats to appear on Fox News, reaching out to a new audience.

Mayor Pete, as he is known to fans, does the best job of not insulting blue collar workers and conservatives. In short, I thought it would be good for US politics to have two people vying for the highest office on the premise that it is worth appealing to the better angels in the US citizenry’s nature rather than go back to the ‘basket of deplorables’ Hillary Clinton approach of damnation, alienation and condescension.

But that was not my primary reason for favouring Mayor Pete. It is worth looking at US politics through an explicitly South African lens. That means figuring out primarily what would be best for us.

It has gone entirely uncommented, but the current state of US politics makes it extremely difficult for that country to have a positive influence on ours. Trump is so widely considered to be a racist in this country that anything critical he says or does is easily converted by magical thinking into a compliment. If he says expropriation without compensation (EWC) is bad, then it must be good. This is what my charismatic colleague Sihle Ngobese, aka Big Daddy Liberty, calls the ‘Trump derangement syndrome’.

This derangement manifested when Trump tweeted about SA last year. Many, not just Malema, saw this as an opportunity to damn the US and ‘whiteness’ with it, while taking confirmation that we are on the right EWC path after all.

The simplest means to punish SA for crushing the free market by eroding property rights would be to withdraw us from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade agreement by which we and other African states get access to the US market, the largest in the world. That Trump might do this was said to be ‘racist’. And yet, what was brazenly ignored was that Obama’s administration had threatened to kick us out of AGOA too, over a much more technical dispute about the chicken trade. The ‘new dawn’ threat to basic property rights is a truly profound abrogation of the AGOA treaty’s rules, as signed by Obama, and if these rules are properly followed SA cannot expect to benefit from the treaty as long as we stay on our current trajectory.

But the present derangement unfortunately means that if the US criticizes us, it risks pushing us further into the abyss of national socialism, because when they say something is bad too many of us think it must be good. And if the US doesn’t criticize us publicly (the approach it has mostly taken), then it damns us with what can so easily be interpreted as silent assent.

If Obama was still president, this risk would be significantly mitigated. It would be harder to call him a white supremacist than the current US president. Obama came here last year, but in his private capacity. He blessed Ramaphosa and had not a word to say about EWC. This too would be unimaginable if he were still president and accountable to his people rather than to a publishing house signing book deals.

In this difficult time, Mayor Pete seemed to me to possess a different quality. Courage. As mayor of the multiracial working class city of South Bend, he has had to deal with racial strife and has proved himself willing to go against the grain of ultra-left identity politics. Back in 2012, Mayor Pete fired Darryl Boykins. Boykins had been the first black Chief of Police in South Bend. But he illegally tapped phone calls of other police. Despite the unpopularity of firing Boykins, Mayor Pete said rules were rules regardless of the colour of your skin.

This is the kind of attitude needed in a US president. Buttigieg has the advantage over Trump of credibility in many elite circles. He is an ex-soldier. He is not rich. He is a Rhodes scholar. He is polite. He is also queer. He is, most importantly, a profoundly mature thinker. I have cast around my rolodex of local and US election nerds to see if anyone shared my enthusiasm for Mayor Pete and could find only one other fan: Rian Malan. I rate Malan’s opinion highly and so felt pretty good about Mayor Pete being the ‘rising star’ in the Democratic primary process.

Until. It. Happened. Low national poll numbers for Mayor Pete came out among black voters. Then Mayor Pete did an interview with Don Lemon (who expressed some solidarity because he is queer, too) which you can see here.

‘Do you think this is the right time for the Democratic Party to be having that conversation [about race]?’ Lemon asked to open the interview.

‘Absolutely,’ said Mayor Pete, which is correct. But he went on: ‘I think there was a sense at some point, maybe a naive sense, that if we just did away with racist policies and replaced them with neutral policies then everything would get better on its own. I think what we’re finding is that systemic racism is a lot more intractable than that.’ This was the opening frame to Mayor Pete’s call for the US to ramp up affirmative action in that country.

Whoosh goes the Voting Rights Act that was law for 50 years. Whoosh goes the de facto interpretation of JFK and LBJ’s executive orders on Affirmative Action. Whoosh go college admissions quotas by all-and-every other name. Whoosh, Thomas Sowell’s entire career of analyzing how the systemic (policy) equation of black skin with special needs has crushed character, free enterprise and prosperity – all just went down the toilet. Mayor Pete lied laws, universities and inconvenient lives out of existence because he was trying to whip up the ‘black vote’.

In fact, Mayor Pete’s subsequent policy platform release includes the proposal to enact a 21st Century Voting Rights Act. Now maybe this is a good idea. But it is an impossible contradiction to his claim that the US has not had race-preferencing laws in the first place, the 20th century version.

Rather than deny the existence of thinkers like Sowell and denigrate historical giants like Booker T. Washington as ‘naïve’ perhaps we would all do well to consider reality. In reality the view has dominated here and in the US that only by state intervention can people with black skin excel. This patronising belief is used as a way to buy votes, but it might not be a cure. It might be the new manifestation of a centuries-old disease called racism. If it wins again I worry about the consequences in the US. I worry about the consequences at home, too.

Gabriel Crouse is the George F D Palmer Financial Journalist Trust Fellow at the IRR.

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Gabriel Crouse is a writer and analyst at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). His journalism is based on fieldwork and quantitative analysis, with a focus on land reform. Gabriel holds a degree in Philosophy from Princeton University.