American civil society has turned on Donald Trump just as South Africans turned on Jacob Zuma, and for the same reason, writes John Matisonn.

American civil society has turned on Donald Trump just as South Africans turned on Jacob Zuma. It was for the same reason: people concluded the president endangers a constitution that means nothing to him, and uses the presidency purely for self-interest. It happened over a walk across the park.
From the White House to St John’s Church on the other side of Lafayette Park is perhaps as short a walk as 100m. Lafayette is a postage stamp of a park, nothing like New York’s Central Park or Hyde Park in London. It was three blocks from my Washington office and for six years I crossed it regularly.
The incident happened because Trump was angry his brief sequestration for safety to a bunker underneath the White House during the demonstrations made him look weak. He later said the bunker sojourn was “much more for an inspection”. Much more.
He promised to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 so he could use the army to quell demonstrations. He built tall, sturdy fences around the park and in front of the White House.
To make the walk free of pesky protesting citizens, he had Attorney General William Barr use different policing agencies not subject to the control of the mayor of a staunchly Democratic Party supporting capital. The troops wore no identification or identity numbers, and declined to respond to journalists’ questions about which agencies they served. They tear-gassed peaceful demonstrators who Barr claimed, without evidence, were bearing “projectiles”.
Trump took Barr, Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and a combat uniformed chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, with him. When the president got there he held up a Bible for a silent photo opportunity then left without comment.
Chilling effect
The use of soldiers or unidentified officers against American citizens, while the heads of the military appeared to be co-opted into a stunt to aid one politician against his rivals, had a widely chilling effect.
Retired four-star generals took the unprecedented step of criticising a sitting president, and the leader of the National Football League (NFL) backed the protesters. The American military is the country’s most popular institution, and American football is America’s favourite sport. It’s safe to assume many Republicans support both.
Demonstrations have now spread to at least 430 cities. The protesters are demographically diverse. At least one city’s protest consisted entirely of white people. Many occurred in predominantly white towns. They included Republican Trump voters who said the video of George Floyd being killed by a police officer required a show of solidarity. Continuing cellphone footage of police abuses at numerous demonstrations fuelled the protests.
Two generals Trump handpicked for his own Cabinet rained down excoriating verbal fire. Former defence secretary General James “Mad Dog” Mattis condemned “the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution”, he said.
General John Kelly, who served first as Trump’s Homeland Security secretary and then as White House chief of staff, urged Americans to think more carefully about who they elect president, at both his character and his ethics. 
‘End of the American experiment’
The former commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, went even further. “June 1, 2020. Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment,” he said.
Keeping the military above politics is a cardinal rule at the Pentagon. The generals wanted to send a powerful signal this principle was under threat.   
Esper was embarrassed. He said he did not know in advance the purpose of the trip to the church, and he opposed Trump’s suggestion to use troops against protesters. Insiders are betting he’ll be fired soon.
The military is trusted by 74% of Americans.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he and the NFL had been changed by recent events, and apologised for their decision in 2017 to censure a black quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, for kneeling in protest at the exact thing – police mistreatment of African-Americans – that sparked the current protest.
Trump was a vocal critic of Kaepernick, and at least 10 of the owners of teams that make up the NFL funded Trump’s election.
Police reform and Trump’s re-election are now firmly intertwined.
Unwilling or unable to show empathy as a large portion of the nation mourned, Trump made another claim that angered demonstrators.
After unemployment figures showed a fall, he said: “Hopefully, George [Floyd] is looking down right now and saying this is a great thing that is happening for our country. It’s a great day for him, it’s a great day for everybody, this is a great, great day in terms of equality … this is the greatest thing that can happen for race relations, for the African-American community, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, for women, for everyone. Our country is so strong, and that’s what my plan is.”
Fool’s errand
Predicting Trump’s political defeat has been a fool’s errand ever since he descended that golden escalator in June 2015 to announce his run for president. His core support never fell below about 38%, a strong base for a high-powered campaign when the time comes, since he does not need 51% tow-in under America’s electoral college election system.
Though he has been criticised for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and accompanying economic collapse, with 43 million newly jobless and 111 000 dead from the virus, his polling held up surprisingly well. But the last few weeks have seen his support slipping significantly.
The five months left of this campaign could produce almost anything in a year that has already combined the pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression of the 1930s and the civil disobedience uprisings of 1968.
Former vice-president Joe Biden, who this week clinched the number of votes he needs to win the Democratic presidential nomination, is showing strong support despite signs of ageing.
Biden is well-known and well-liked. Most Americans are aware he lost a wife and child in a car crash in his twenties, that he was a single father for years, and that his son, Beau, died in 2016. That appears to give him some immunity from Trump’s effective tactic of belittling and abusing opponents.
Biden is building a wider coalition that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton managed in 2016. Republicans like him and he has Republican friends.
A slew of influential conservative public intellectuals and columnists prefer him to Trump, who they do not believe reflects their values. At the same time, Biden has quietly moved some policies to the left to consolidate the support of Senator Bernie Sanders.
‘Law and order’ platform
Trump admires former president Richard Nixon, and hopes to repeat his 1968 victory on a “law and order” platform. Biden is counting on the fact that the country has changed since then. In 1968, close to 80% of voters were white. Now less than 60% are. What is more, they have grown up in more diverse classrooms and their changed racial attitudes are reflected in this week’s protests.
Trump’s prospects look more shaky than they have ever looked, but 2020 is likely to remain a roller coaster ride. I think the last fortnight is different, but we’ve all been wrong before. Tighten your seatbelts. The ride will stay bumpy.
John Matisonn is the author of Cyril’s Choices, Lessons from 25 Years of Freedom in South Africa.