Trump stays on message for midterms. Right-wing gains in Brazil and Germany. Constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka. Independence vote for New Caledonia. The debate over refusing China in our 5G network. By Hamish McDonald.

The human cost of Trump’s rhetoric

Boys outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, following the shooting on October 27.
Boys outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, following the shooting on October 27.
Credit: REUTERS / Cathal McNaughton

It did not take long, after the worst instance of anti-Jewish violence in United States history, for Donald Trump to return to the xenophobic theme he sees as a winner for Tuesday’s midterm congressional elections.

Robert Bowers, a white supremacist, allegedly stormed into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue with a military-style assault rifle last Saturday and shot dead 11 people attending a baby-naming ceremony, while shouting “All Jews must die”.

There is a direct line between his thinking and Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Bowers was a regular on Gab, a social media platform favoured by right-wing extremists. Two hours ahead of the synagogue attack, he posted against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a 130-year-old group that has switched from its original role helping settle Jewish migrants to one assisting all refugees. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” Bowers posted. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Trump has been forgiving of such acts. After all, when white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August last year against removal of a Confederate general’s statue, some flaunting Nazi emblems and shouting “Jews will not replace us!”, he said they and counter-protesters included “many fine people”. The Anti-Defamation League reported a 57 per cent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the US in 2017, Trump’s first year in office.

The Jewish financier-philanthropist George Soros has been a frequent target. During the past month, Trump has accused Soros of paying people to give hostile media interviews about him and paying women to protest about sexual harassment at confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Soros was the first to receive a pipe bomb mailed to Trump critics last month by another hater. House of Representatives majority leader Kevin McCarthy then tweeted: “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican Nov. 6.” Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg are also liberal Jewish billionaires.

Trump said the Pittsburgh shooting was “pure evil” and that the “vile, hate-filled poison of anti-Semitism” and all other forms of prejudice had to be rejected. By the afternoon he was joking about a “bad hair day” because he’d been rained on. By Monday he was echoing Bowers by tweeting about “very bad people” among the 3500 impoverished Hondurans walking through Mexico towards the US border. “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” Trump said. He says he is sending up to 15,000 troops to the border. Fox News host Lou Dobbs blames Soros for financing this refugee caravan as well. In another dog whistle, Trump is also suggesting removal of the constitutional right of anyone born in the US to US citizenship.

When Trump visited Pittsburgh on Tuesday, accompanied by his Jewish-convert daughter Ivanka, more than 30,000 locals including the city mayor had signed a petition telling him not to bother until he changed his message. The midterms will tell us which side of America prevails.

Boy from Brazil

It’s not been a good week for left-wingers and moderates in elections this week, with right-wing nationalists making gains in Brazil and Germany.

Former paratrooper Jair Bolsonaro, noted for racist and misogynistic views, won the second round of Brazil’s presidential election on Sunday. He’s described as a mixture of Trump and Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president, promising privatisation, tax cuts and deregulation of environmental controls on one hand, and a free hand for police and soldiers to execute criminal suspects on the other.

In Germany, Angela Merkel kept paying the price for letting in a million Syrian refugees in 2015, and for a reviving Eurozone crisis caused by Italy’s disregard for fiscal restraint under its populist new government. Her Christian Democrats and Social Democrat coalition partners each lost about 11 per cent of their votes in Hesse state this week, most to the anti-immigrant and anti-European Union Alternative für Deutschland. Merkel announced she was stepping down as party leader in December and would retire from politics at the end of her term in 2021. Analysts think she could be finished as chancellor by next year, removing a pillar of the EU as it copes with an increasingly likely crash-Brexit on March 29.

Sri Lanka captaincy

Australians will mostly remember Arjuna Ranatunga as the batsman who faced down Shane Warne to clinch the World Cup for Sri Lanka in 1996. This week Sri Lanka’s police felt it their duty to arrest the cricketing hero turned politician amid a spiralling constitutional crisis.

It started on Friday last week, when President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly dismissed the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and swore in Mahinda Rajapaksa as his replacement. Sirisena claims he had “no choice” because an unnamed minister was plotting to kill him.

Rajapaksa was the previous president, tossed out by voters in 2015 for war crimes during the final conflict with the Tamil Tigers in 2009, the “white van” disappearance of critics, corruption, nepotism and racking up billions in debt to China for white-elephant projects in his own electorate.

Wickremesinghe stood his ground, staying in the prime ministerial residence and demanding parliament be recalled to show his majority. Ranatunga, his petroleum minister, was besieged by Rajapaksa supporters when he tried to enter his office on Sunday. One of his bodyguards opened fire, killing a man and injuring two others. The guard and Ranatunga have been charged.

Sirisena stood down parliament until November 16, presumably to give Rajapaksa more time to convince its members to switch sides. Sirisena was recently given $US300 million by China for any projects of his choosing. This may help the persuasion. Rajapaksa’s return to power would be a geopolitical win for China, and possibly see a revival of the refugee flow to Australia.

Kanak of dawn

On Sunday the 280,000 people of New Caledonia vote on whether to stay as distant citizens of France, or launch themselves as a new independent nation, probably to be called Kanaky.

Given the fine balance between indigenous Kanaks and assorted migrants imported under colonial rule, the “no” vote seems likely to prevail, despite hints from Paris that even with independence the transition could be gradual, French passports could be retained by many, and aid replace budgetary support.

But feelings are running high. One Kanak movement has condemned the referendum and blockaded two nickel mines. Authorities have called in extra security and banned the sale of alcohol and the carrying of weapons this weekend. A narrow loss could see the independence choice put again in coming years.

Hung up on China

The “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing pact linking us with the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand is divided on whether Chinese telecom companies Huawei and ZTE should be allowed to supply equipment for 5G mobile telephone and data systems.

This week, Mike Burgess, chief of the Australian Signals Directorate, defended Canberra’s exclusion of the Chinese suppliers. The 5G network would be used to operate everything from electronic power to self-driving cars and remote surgery, he said, suggesting backdoors could allow hostile powers to disrupt all these things.

In Canada, the Trudeau government decided against joining Australia and the US in banning Huawei. Its ASD counterpart, the Communications Security Establishment, had advised through its Canadian Centre for Cyber Security that “robust” systems were in place to prevent compromises of security.


[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 3, 2018 as "The human cost of Trump’s rhetoric".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.